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Medically Reviewed by Annie Schlecht, MOTR/L, CIMI
Events in parenthood seem to follow a similar cycle: just about the time you get into a predictable routine with your child, something changes. Infant and toddler sleep is no exception. Maybe your four-month-old has been sleeping through the night for weeks, and you’re finally catching up on the sleep you lost during the newborn days. All of a sudden, she’s up two, three, ten times a night, and you wonder, groggily, what happened to your good, little sleeper or if you’ll ever get a good night’s sleep again.
Rest assured that most babies experience sleep regressions like these, and while they’re difficult, they’re completely normal. In this guide, we’ll arm you with everything you need to make it through your child’s sleep regression, including information on what sleep regressions are, when they tend to happen and what you can do to minimize the difficulties associated with them.
A sleep regression is any time when a baby or toddler who was previously sleeping well suddenly has trouble sleeping. Your child might have trouble falling or staying asleep, and sleep regressions can affect both nighttime sleep and naps. While all children are different, sleep regressions tend to last anywhere from two to six weeks. The key point to remember is that sleep regressions are temporary. Whatever is interrupting your child’s sleep will pass, and sleep usually returns to normal, assuming you don’t introduce any additional sleep associations during this time (which we’ll explore more later).
One sign that your child might be experiencing a sleep regression is that it seems to come out of nowhere. Maybe your eight-month-old has been sleeping through the night for months, when suddenly, he’s back to waking multiple times per night. Or your one-year-old champion napper is suddenly refusing to nap.
Many parents would rather label a bad night of sleep as a fluke rather than admit their child is in the midst of a sleep regression that might last a few weeks. And one night of bad sleep may indeed be a fluke, but if your child has a hard time sleeping for about three days, you’re probably at the beginning of a regression. Young children tend to be hungrier during a sleep regression, especially if it coincides with a growth spurt, and may also seem clingier and demand more attention than usual.
Sleep regressions tend to occur around developmental or physical milestones. Below we’ll go into specific milestone associated with different ages, but in general, big leaps like learning to roll, crawl, walk or talk often lead to sleep interruptions. Your child might have trouble settling down during one of these changes or may even want to stay up and practice his or her new skill. He or she might also feel anxious during these developments, which makes it harder to fall asleep.
Your child’s sleep needs and patterns also change over time. Newborns spend a lot of time in deep REM sleep, which older children have regular sleep cycles more similar to adults. Your child’s need for daytime sleep will also shift with age, so many children experience regressions when they’re ready to drop from three naps to two or from two to one.
In addition to what causes sleep regressions, it’s important to understand what a sleep regression is not. If your child is sick or teething, disruptions in sleep are likely due to these reasons. Be sure to give your child the attention and treatment he or she needs if that’s the case. Travel can also lead to sleep interruptions that may continue even after you’re home, but these are usually quickly remedied by a return to the usual routine.
Not all children experience sleep regressions or experience them to the same degree. Even among children who do experience them, the timing can vary, but the most common sleep regressions occur around four months, six months, eight months, twelve months and eighteen months. The most common sleep regression is the four-month-regression. Children may experience one or several regressions during their early years.
Sleep regressions are completely normal, and most children experience at least one. Still, if it seems like your child, and by extension you, is getting no sleep, it may be difficult not to worry.
There’s little consensus in the medical world about what constitutes a “sleep problem.” Many believe that frequent wakings are simply part of the deal when it comes to young children, while others note that bad sleep habits can form at an early age and continue through childhood. Generally, however, there’s a wide range when it comes to what’s considered normal.
What’s important to remember is that sleep regressions tend to be temporary. Your job as a parent is simply to try to minimize the adverse effects associated with a sleep regression while avoiding the inclination to instill any new sleep associations, like rocking your child to sleep every night. Something like this could lead to issues down the road if your child can’t fall asleep on his or her own.
While a lack of sleep can have health impacts, like cognitive functioning and mood regulation, these will be mild and temporary during a sleep regression. Just be sure to give your child plenty of downtime if he or she is irritable, even if he or she refuses to nap. Overtired kids tend to be especially clingy, so offer plenty of cuddles and alone time. Sleep regressions can be tough on the family, but they always pass.
Finally, be sure to keep an eye on your own mental health if you’re lacking sleep, and ask for help if need be. If your child’s sleep issues last more than about six weeks, talk to your pediatrician for guidance.
While every child is different, the most common sleep regressions take place around the following ages:
4-Month Sleep Regression
The four-month sleep regression is the most common because every child goes through major changes around this age. Circadian rhythms begin to form when babies are about six weeks old, and by three to four months, babies have a normal sleep-wake cycle similar to adults. Babies at this age begin to shift between REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM (non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, like adults. That means they wake up during the night, just like we do, but may not have developed the skills to fall back to sleep on their own. While it may feel like a setback, the four-month sleep regression is actually a big developmental milestone.
In addition to this large shift in sleep patterns, there are often other changes that take place around this age. Many babies go through a growth spurt and are hungry more often, which might mean they wake up at night for an extra feeding. Some start rolling and want to practice this new skill during the night. They might even roll onto their stomachs, get “stuck” and cry out for help. With rolling comes the time to transition out of the swaddle, which can lead to temporary sleep issues for some babies. The bottom line is that four months is a time of big changes, but the associated sleep regression should pass in a few weeks.
6-Month Sleep Regression
Not every baby goes through a sleep regression at six months, but some do. Some babies crawl and/or pull up as early as five or six months, and this huge milestone can wreak havoc on established sleep routines. After cruising around all day, your baby might have trouble settling down to go to sleep. It may also be difficult to convince your baby to lay down if he or she is eager to practice the newfound skill of standing. Growth spurts are also common around this age, so your baby might want an extra feeding during the night for a few weeks.
Parents who decide to sleep train often begin when their babies are between four and six months old, and a sleep regression like this might be a prompt to do so. While sleep training isn’t for everyone and we would not recommend one technique over another, it can be an effective way to help your child develop self-soothing skills necessary to fall asleep on his or her own.
8-Month Sleep Regression
The eight-month sleep regression is another common one, but it tends to happen anywhere between eight and ten months. Again, this is a time for substantial developmental milestones. Most babies start crawling around this age, and it can be difficult to settle down for a nap or for the night after so much activity. Pulling up to stand is another new skill that’s typically developed by this age. Your baby might pull up on the sides of her crib and then not know how to sit down again, so practicing this skill during the day is a great idea.
Separation anxiety is also common around this age. Your baby has now developed object permanence and is aware of your existence even if you’re not in sight. He might object to you leaving the room. Be sure to stick with a bedtime routine, so your child can find comfort in knowing what comes next, and fill the time with lots of snuggles and affection. Consider having your child spend time in his crib during the day so he develops a positive association with it and is comfortable there.
12-Month Sleep Regression
This regression is another less common one, but tends to coincide with when babies drop from two naps to one around 14-15 months. You may notice that your child fights one or both naps or only naps for thirty minutes or so. You can try experimenting with putting your child down for one nap around midday, but if she still isn’t napping well or seems overly tired, you may need to stick with two naps for a while longer.
Many children also start walking around this age. Similar to crawling, some children will refuse to go to sleep because they want to keep practicing their fun, new skill. Just be sure to give you child plenty of time to practice walking during the day so she’s ready for sleep when the time comes.
18-Month Sleep Regression
Not every child goes through the 18-month sleep regression, but it’s a difficult one. That’s because parents now have a toddler on their hands who has opinions, can probably say a few words and has the ability to throw tantrums. Children’s communication skills are growing steadily at this age, which means very active brains that may have trouble settling down. Your 18-month-old has learned some independence and is now equipped to tell you if he or she doesn’t want to go to sleep. Children also experience a lot of separation anxiety at this age, so may very vocally object to you leaving the room at nap or bedtime.
Toddlers benefit greatly from routine and gain comfort from knowing what to expect, so sticking with a comforting bedtime routine can help a great deal.
Sleep-deprived parents who have been battling a sleep regression for a few days, or a few weeks, are desperate for solutions. It’s important to remember that sleep regressions are a very normal part of development, even if they’re challenging. While you can’t necessarily stop a sleep regression, below are some tips for getting through one as gracefully as possible and minimizing any long-term effects:
Establish an Earlier Bedtime: Sleep begets sleep, so a child who has a sleep debt because of a regression will actually have a harder time falling asleep. For that reason, sleep regressions can often become a vicious cycle with overtired children unable to settle down and get the sleep they need. It might be necessary to temporarily move bedtime up a bit to give your child more chances to catch up on sleep. Starting the bedtime routine a little earlier might also help you avoid some of the bedtime protests that stem from your little one being overtired.
Sleep regressions can be a challenge for everyone involved, but they’re a normal—and sometimes necessary—part of childhood development. They tend to occur around specific ages, but every child is unique, and they impact all children a little differently.
It’s important to stick with established routines and try to avoid instilling new sleep associations during sleep regressions. At the same time, do what you need to do to ensure everyone gets some sleep. After all, a good night’s sleep is vital for a child’s development and is just as important for the wellbeing of parents and caregivers. Employ some of the tips outlined above and remember that just like most parenting milestones, sleep regressions are only temporary.
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