Baby sleep regressions explained

How to navigate baby sleep regressions from four to 24 months.

sleep regression
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Just when you think you’ve cracked your baby’s routine and they’re finally sleeping for longer chunks of time, along comes sleep regression. If you experience a period of a few weeks when your baby is hard to settle and wakes frequently it can leave you feeling demoralised not to mention exhausted. But knowing why sleep regression happens and what you can do about it can soften the blow.

Former GP and mother of three Dr Juliet McGrattan gives us the lowdown on sleep regression:

How much sleep do babies need?

Sleep patterns vary from baby to baby and from month to month too. A newborn baby will spend around 17 hours of a 24 hour period asleep while a one year old will probably sleep for around 13 hours of it. Babies usually sleep for a longer time at night and top up with shorter naps during the day but many will have longer daytime naps and a shorter night time sleep. It’s also normal for a 12 month old not to sleep through the night. Sleep patterns are very individual. There is definitely no one size fits all here!

sleep regression
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What is sleep regression?

When a baby who has previously been sleeping well suddenly starts waking up frequently, fighting sleep and resisting naps then this is known as sleep regression. It’s normal for your baby’s sleep to regress several times during the first two years of their life.

What causes sleep regression?

Anything that disrupts a baby’s system in some way can cause them to stir and wake up. Think about the things that disturb you at night – pain, stress, maybe even hunger. It’s the same for little people but they have so much more new learning and development going on. Sleep disruption may be due to a combination of things rather than a single cause. Here are some common sleep regression triggers:

1. Growth spurts

Babies grow a little every day but there are periods of time when extra growth happens. Growth spurts make babies hungry. They need calories to fuel the growth and can wake from sleep because they want to feed.

2. Normal development

Learning to sit, crawl, walk and talk are very stimulating for babies and changes the way they look at and experience the world. It’s normal for sleep regression to happen alongside developmental milestones.

3. Routine changes

When babies experience new things there is an increase in their brain activity. Changes such as going to nursery, increased time away from usual carers or even travelling can disrupt routines and trigger sleep regression. As they become more alert, babies may need less sleep in the day and drop a nap which can upset their night time sleeping too.

4. Teething

Those pesky teeth! They seem to take weeks to appear and as soon as one erupts, there’s another one on the way. We all know how painful toothache can be so it’s no wonder teething is a cause of unexpected wakening for your baby.

5. Illness

Feeling unwell with a temperature, headache or tummy pain can make a baby wake up. They might quickly revert to their normal pattern when they feel better but for some it can trigger a longer period of sleep regression.

What age does sleep regression happen?

Sleep regression can happen at any age. The list of possible causes shows how unpredictable it can be. There do however seem to be periods of time when babies are more likely to have disturbed sleep. These generally relate to their developmental milestones and growth:

• 4 months sleep regression

At this age sleep cycles are beginning to change. Baby is moving out of the new born constant drowsiness and beginning to differentiate between night and day. It can take longer to get into a deep sleep and awakenings can be from hunger, teething and the new ability to roll!

• 8 to 10 months sleep regression

Around 9 months is a common time for sleep regression. Baby is moving more, may be crawling or pulling to stand. He or she has an increased awareness of the world. This includes who is important in their lives and they may experience separation anxiety.

• 12 months sleep regression

Walking is often achieved around one year of age although of course this may be several months later. This huge developmental milestone can trigger sleep regression. Many babies won’t experience this regression.

• 18 months sleep regression

Sleep requirements are reducing and baby may be dropping one daytime nap. This can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to problems with night time waking. Babies are often also teething, experiencing some separation anxiety and learning to say, ‘NO’!

• 24 months sleep regression

Sleep can regress around two years of age. Again, multiple changes are probably to blame with potty training, moving to a big bed and different childcare being potential triggers. Night terrors or nightmares can sometimes be the cause.

How does sleep regression affect babies?

All babies are different and you know your baby best. You’ll be learning about their sleep patterns and behaviours. You’ll know the little gestures they make that indicate they’re tired and the best ways to get them to sleep. When sleep regression strikes you might notice the following:

  • Baby is resisting day time naps.
  • It’s hard to get baby off to sleep at night, they’re fighting sleep.
  • Frequent night time waking.
  • Baby cries and fusses when they wake up and can’t settle themselves back to sleep easily.
  • Baby is cranky during the day.

    How long does sleep regression last?

    Of course it’s common to have the odd sleepless night or a run of two or three but sleep regression usually lasts two to six weeks. It depends on the cause. It can feel like an eternity!

    How do I know it’s sleep regression?

    Your knowledge of your baby will help you to work out whether this is sleep regression. When you’ve tried your usual tricks and nothing seems to be working then it raises the possibility. You might notice your baby seems to have really grown or suddenly become more active or alert. You’ll see the odd sleepless night progress to a couple of weeks and you as a parent can feel increasingly tired and frustrated.

    It’s important to make sure there are no symptoms of illness. Speak to your doctor if you notice any of the following:

    • A high or low temperature
    • Poor feeding
    • Dry nappies (suggests dehydration)
    • A drowsy or floppy baby
    • Constant crying
    • Rapid breathing
    • Blotchy skin

      What can you do to solve sleep regression?

      There is definitely no magic answer here but there are some things you can try out and keep in mind:

      ✔️ Remember it is temporary. It will end. It is normal and you should not blame yourself.

      ✔️ Keep your soothing pre-bedtime routines going.

      ✔️ Avoid your baby being overtired. This makes it harder for them to get to sleep. They may need an extra daytime nap or an earlier bed time.

      ✔️ Offer extra feeds. Growth spurts can trigger sleep regression. It might feel like a backward step to offer a night feed if you have previously stopped them but it’s usually temporary.

      ✔️ Try night time soothing. How you do this is a very personal thing. Some parents are happy to rock and cuddle their babies back to sleep while others choose to teach the baby to self-soothe by patting them, staying nearby or allowing some controlled crying in older babies. Do what works for you and what you feel comfortable with.

      ✔️ Get help and support from family members and friends. Either to do the night shift or look after your baby in the day so you catch up on some shut eye.

      Sleep regression can be tough on parents. Being deprived of sleep can make you feel grumpy, impatient and even low in mood. Be kind to yourself. Ask for help from others so you can have adequate rest and some time away from your baby if you need it. Like many things in childhood, it’s just a phase and simply knowing that it will end is helpful to get you through.

      Last updated: 16-06-2021

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