Sleep regressions and how to move past them
What to Know
We know this is hard to hear, but sleep regressions are the norm. A sleep regression occurs when a baby wakes frequently during a time she otherwise had been sleeping well – at night or in daytime sleep. Along with disrupted sleep, your baby may also seem clingier, grumpy and in general ‘out of sorts’. You can expect the regression to last anywhere between 2-6 weeks.
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. Sleep regressions most commonly occur at 4, 9, 18 and 36 months of age – periods typically associated with growth spurts in physical, cognitive, and emotional development.
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.
Here’s more specifics on the changes in your baby by age that cause the most common sleep regressions:
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. This is a big change from the newborn sleeping pattern, and it will likely take some time to settle into the adjustment.
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. Object permanence can then cause separation anxiety. So when your baby wakes in the night, instead of soothing herself back to sleep, she 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 motor skills with the onset of standing, crawling, creeping and mobility. It’s an exciting time, but your baby may be so focused on mastering her new skills that she will want to practice even during times she should be sleeping.
18 Month Sleep Regression
At 18 months old, your baby is gaining independence and an understanding of others’ roles in relation to theirs. This new social and emotional development allows your little one to understand that she is her own individual and separate from you. But such growth can also cause increased anxiety and disrupt her sleep.
36 Month Sleep Regression
Similar to the 18 month sleep regression, this period marks social and emotional growth and the increased feelings of stress and anxiety that come along with it. Your toddler or preschooler is beginning to understand her 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 they are still figuring out what’s real and what’s pretend. And they possess an extended memory, which means they can develop fears from images or events (and wake up from bad dreams).
What to Do
Respond to your baby as needed without creating unintended long-term sleep crutches
Practice letting your baby soothe herself to sleep at bedtime with intermittent support such as tummy rubbing or head stroking until she falls asleep independently.
If your baby has separation anxiety, briefly check in with her in the night or during a nap to let her know you are still near.
Some parents choose to not pick their child up but simply comfort from a distance. 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 her back in her sleep space while she’s still awake, so she doesn’t need to rely on you long-term to go back to sleep.
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’. This way, you are responding to your child’s needs, but still sending the message that it is time for sleep.
Consider what’s best for your family when thinking about nighttime feedings.
As with most sleep decisions, what works best is what works best for your family. Some outside sources may discourage nighttime feedings as it may cause negative sleep associations. But unless breastsleeping is causing strife in your family, then it is OK to let your child do this. Just be sure to brush their teeth at night and in the morning if baby is over one. If your child is waking up and asking for milk and they are over the age of one, give water in a cup instead to avoid cavities.
Practice developing motor skills during the day
Give your 9-month-old plenty of daytime practice for her new skills. It will wear her out!
Offer extra emotional support during the day to your 18-month-old
Your little one will need you to stay nearby as she begins to navigate the world on her 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, she will trust that you will not just disappear without warning and that you will always reappear when you say you will.
Taking these steps during the day can help a toddler begin to separate from you more easily at night.
Model positive social interactions during the day for your 36-month-old
Avoid exposing her to images that may frighten her on TV or in books. Turn off screens and devices at least 60 minutes before bed and be sure your bedtime routine is calm and soothing. If your child insists on a nightlight, plug it in behind a piece of furniture so that she is not able to look directly at the bulb in the night.
When your child wakes in the night, go to her and offer reassurance, but avoid elaborate delay tactics your child may try at bedtime or in the night to prevent bad habits
Instead, sit with your child in her room until she seems less fearful and is able to fall back to sleep on her own.
When in doubt, call the pediatrician
If you have any concerns that your child’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.
In any case, if a 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 she naps, you might need to catch a nap, too. Eating and hydrating especially well will also help.
Lewis, Marc, Isabela Graniz. “Bedtiming”, 2010.
T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua D. Sparrow.”Touchpoints Birth to Three: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development, Second Edition” DA CAPO PRESS / 2006.