What are Sleep Regressions?
Read time: 8 minutes
What Should You Know About Baby Sleep Regressions?
- Common baby sleep regression ages
- Causes of baby sleep regressions
- How to help baby move past a sleep regression
We know this is hard to hear, but baby sleep regressions are the norm. A sleep regression occurs when a baby wakes frequently during a time they otherwise had been sleeping well – at night or in daytime sleep.1 Along with disrupted sleep, your baby may also seem clingier, grumpy, and in general ‘out of sorts’. The duration of a sleep regression will vary from child to child but, fear not, they will not last forever!1
Although a sleep regression can be very frustrating for both you and your baby, it is actually a signal of healthy growth and development in your child.2 Common baby sleep regression ages are 4, 9, 18 and 36 months of age – periods typically associated with growth spurts in physical, cognitive, and emotional development.3
While it is not guaranteed that your baby will experience a sleep regression at any or all of these age ranges, most families do notice a sleep regression at some point in their child’s baby-hood.
What are the most common sleep regression ages and what can you expect at each one?
4 Month Sleep Regression
At around 4 months old, babies develop their sleep rhythm or sleep cycles that bring them through phases of deep, light, and REM sleep.1 This is a big change from the newborn sleeping pattern, and it will likely take some time to adjustment.
The good news is that around this time, sleep is also starting to consolidate; allowing for longer sleep through the night for many babies.4 Something to look forward to once this 4 month sleep regression passes!
Learn more about sleeping patterns for 4 month old babies here.
9 Month Sleep Regression
Around 9 months to a year, babies develop object permanence or the understanding that something or someone still exists even though they are not in sight.5 Object permanence can then cause separation anxiety.5,6,7 So when your baby wakes in the night, instead of soothing themself back to sleep, your baby may realize you are not around and fuss, wanting to be near you.
In this same age stage, many babies experience a burst in gross and fine motor skills, such as standing, crawling, and grasping objects between their thumb and index finger.5, 7 It’s an exciting time, but your baby may be so focused on mastering their new skills that they may want to practice even during times they should be sleeping.
Read more about sleeping patterns for a 9 month old here.
18 Month Sleep Regression
At 18 months old, your toddler is gaining independence and an understanding of others’ roles in relation to theirs.8 This new social and emotional development allows your little one to understand that they are their own individual and separate from you.9 But such growth can also cause increased anxiety and disrupt your little one’s sleep.5
36 Month Sleep Regression
Similar to the 18 month sleep regression, this period marks social and emotional growth, as well as increased feelings of stress and anxiety that come along with it.10 Your toddler or preschooler is beginning to understand their role in peer relationships, and new emotions, like jealousy, will begin to emerge.
At this age, children’s minds are also bursting with learning, making it more difficult for them to settle down to sleep. They can now create using their imaginations, but are still figuring out what’s real and what’s pretend. And your toddler now possess an extended memory, which means they can develop fears from images or events.10 This may lead to wake-ups from bad dreams, such as night terrors.19
What can you do at night to help with baby sleep regressions?
Create a bedtime routine and allow your baby to self-soothe
Form a consistent bed time routine, such as: Bath, brushing teeth, book, and cuddle. Around 4 months most little ones are ready to start self-soothing – or falling asleep on their own.20
Practice letting your baby soothe themself to sleep at bedtime and nap time, allowing for a bit of fussing as they find a comfortable position. If your little one is having a hard time, you can provide some intermittent support such as tummy rubbing or head stroking until they fall asleep independently.11
Create a safe space and provide comfort if needed
If your baby has separation anxiety and is fussy for prolonged periods at night, you may choose to briefly provide comfort so your little one knows you are still near.
Should you want to check in and comfort, some parents choose to not pick their child up but simply provide reassurance from a distance, or by rubbing baby’s belly. Others may choose to pick up and soothe their child. Do what’s best for your family. If you do pick up your baby, place them back in their sleep space while still awake so baby doesn’t need to rely on you to fall back to sleep.11
Keep the sleep space dark at night while you are soothing your baby and try offering a calming mantra such as ‘night, night, sleep time’.12 This way, you are responding to your child’s needs, but still sending the message that it is time for sleep.
Should I breast or bottle feed at night to soothe baby?
Some outside sources may discourage nighttime feedings when used for soothing purposes only, as it may cause negative sleep associations. But unless breastfeeding or bottle feeding at night is causing strife in your family, it is OK to let your child do this.13 Just be sure to brush their teeth at night and in the morning if baby is over one years old.14
If your child is waking up and asking for milk and they are over the age of one, you may choose to instead provide water in a cup to help avoid cavities.15
Our Happy Baby Experts are dietitians and infant feeding specialists; they can you figure out what night-time feeding strategies may work best for you and your little one. Chat with them now!
What can you do during the day to help with baby sleep regressions?
Practice developing motor skills for your 9-month-old
Give your 9-month-old plenty of daytime practice for their new skills. It will help wear them out!
Offer extra emotional support to your 18-month-old
Your little one will want you to stay nearby as they begin to navigate the world on their own two feet. Practice short separations during the day (even just to the bathroom) and always let your child know when you are leaving and when you’ll be back.
Your child may not like this practice and will likely protest, but by sharing your comings and goings, your little one will trust that you will not just disappear without warning and that you will always reappear when you say you will.8
Taking these steps during the day can help a toddler begin to separate from you more easily at night.
Make bedtime calming for your 36-month-old
Avoid exposing your little one to images that may frighten them on TV, tablets, or in books. Turn off screens and devices at least 60 minutes before bed and be sure your bedtime routine is calm and soothing.16 If your child insists on a nightlight, plug it in behind a piece of furniture so that they are not able to look directly at the bulb in the night.17
When your child wakes in the night, go to them and offer reassurance, but avoid elaborate delay tactics your child may try. This will help to prevent bad habits from forming.18
Instead, sit with your child in their room until they seem less fearful and are able to fall back to sleep on their own.16
Do I have to call the doctor about a sleep regression?
If you have any concerns that your baby’s sleep regression is due to something other than normal growth and development, call your pediatrician and schedule a visit. Your doctor will be able to rule out any medical concerns you may have.
If baby’s sleep regression lasts longer than 6 weeks, a call to the pediatrician is appropriate.
Remember to take care of your own sleep needs, too
If your baby’s sleep is disrupted, so is yours. When your little one naps, you might need to catch a nap, too. Or if you’re able, try to enlist the help of family or friends at night or during the day. Making sure you’re eating and hydrating will also help.
Read more: Lost Sleep and Postpartum Sleep Support
We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond. Our Happy Baby Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too, which means they’ve been there and seen that. They’re here to help on our free, live chat platform Monday through Friday, from 8am–6pm (ET). Chat Now!
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