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Sleep Regressions

Updated: Jan 1, 2023

How to survive AND get sleep back on track.

A sleep regression describes a period of time, usually 3 to 6 weeks, when a baby or toddler who has been sleeping well (or reasonably well) suddenly starts waking at night, taking short naps and/or skipping naps for no apparent reason.

Parents often feel caught off guard and, understandably, become frustrated: you think you have conquered all your baby’s sleep challenges, when suddenly, out of nowhere, you’re back to constant night wakings and nonexistent naps.

Sleep regressions occur at many ages:

  • 4 Months

  • 6 Months

  • 8-10 Months

  • 12 Months

  • 18 Months

  • 2 Years

Remember, all babies are different. Some babies' sleep becomes very disrupted during these times, whilst others continue sleeping as normal. As frustrating as these periods can be, it's also important to remember that sleep regressions are an indication that your child is progressing developmentally.

A number of factors can cause a baby discomfort or make them anxious or restless, leading to sleep regression, including:

  • A growth spurt, which makes babies extra-hungry

  • Teething pain

  • Reaching a new (exciting!) developmental milestone (rolling, sitting, pulling to stand, cruising, walking, talking)

  • Disruptions in routines, like starting daycare

  • Travelling, which inevitably involves sleeping in a new environment

  • An illness, such as a cold or an ear infection

4 Month Regression

The 4 Month Regression is the first major sleep regression and it is a permanent change! It can begin as early as 3 months or as late as 5 months. By 4 months, babies have entered a significant cognitive milestone; their brains are experiencing an enormous growth spurt, which equals increased alertness and distractibility.

Your baby's sleep cycles make a biological, permanent change from newborn, sleepy cycles to the same sleep cycles as adults. They cycle between light and deep sleep a lot more often now and each overnight sleep cycle is 2-3 hours.

Every time your baby cycles out of deep sleep and into light sleep, there’s a good chance they will wake up – and once your baby is awake, they will more than likely need your help to fall back to sleep. They may not know how to get into their next sleep cycle which is what causes the sleep disruptions. This will be more prevalent if your baby requires your input to fall asleep at the beginning of their sleep (naps and night time).

Tips to survive this regression:

  • Assess your input to helping your little one fall asleep at sleep time. Can you reduce your input in anyway? Layer in some new associations?

  • Offer an assisted nap in the afternoon. This is a very difficult nap to achieve due to it falling outside of biological sleep windows. Try a contact nap, pram, car or baby carrier nap.

  • Ensure the bedroom/sleep environment is as dark as possible. This will encourage the production of melatonin - the sleepy hormone, and reduce distractions which can hinder sleep.

  • Make sure you're following age appropriate Awake Windows and aiming for optimal day sleep.

  • If you aren’t already using white/pink noise, definitely consider adding that to the bedroom. White/pink noise can help block out external noises that could wake your baby

  • Start thinking about how you would like your baby to fall asleep. What is going to be sustainable for you, your baby and your family? If you would like your baby to learn to fall asleep independently, now is the time to begin teaching them how to self-settle.

6 Month Regression

At 6-months of age, your baby is going through rapid growth and development. This can lead to disrupted sleep, for everyone!

Your baby is learning a lot of new things. Some babies will be rolling, some will start to scoot or crawl while still others may be learning to sit independently (with support). Your little one may have trouble slowing their body down during the day with all of this new activity going on.

Tips to survive this regression:

  • Ensure your baby is getting enough daytime calories and begin the introduction of solids if you haven’t already.

  • Offer A LOT of floor play to give bub the chance to practise all of their new skills.

  • Ensure baby is on an age appropriate routine with adequate awake time and day sleep

  • If your baby is still catnapping, it might be time to consider dropping the 3rd nap.

8-10 Month Regression

Between 8-10 months your baby is developing like crazy! The primary cause of the 8-10- month sleep regression is due to rapid growth and brain development. Your baby may be crawling, scooting, sitting up, pulling up, and/or cruising. It can be even more challenging when your baby starts standing in the cot and won’t sleep!

They are making great physical developments and they are absorbing language at an incredible rate. It is at the age that babies start to feel their separateness from you. They begin to recognise when you're not right there with them, however they do not understand that you're still around and will come back. Once our babies can't physically see us, they believe we are gone forever! Cue Separation Anxiety.

Many babies are also cutting teeth during this time.

Tips to survive this regression:

  • This regression lasts 3-6 weeks. Be patient and offer a lot of comfort. This is not the time to begin leaving your baby to cry alone.

  • Ensure your baby is on an age appropriate routine. It is a good time to transition from 3 naps to 2.

  • Check sleep environment is dark and cool. Use white noise to minimise external noises.

  • Practise short bursts of separation during the day/play peek-a-boo games.

  • Always tell your child when you're leaving, don't sneak off.

  • Introduce a comforter. See my Introducing a Comforter Blog for the best way to do this.

  • Lengthen your bedtime routine to allow time for more connection.

12 Month Regression

This regression can start from 11 months and has a lot to do with naps – specifically, you might find that your baby suddenly starts refusing their second nap, and tries to get by with just one nap.

Lots of parents assume that this is a normal nap transition and that it means their little one is ready for just one nap a day. However, most toddlers really aren’t ready to transition to just one nap a day until about 15-18 months old, on average.

At around 12 months many toddlers begin the "Pick Me Up/Put Me Down Syndrome", where they need to be constantly near you and beg to be picked up, at which point they're happy for all of 30 seconds. Then they start to wiggle and squirm to be put down. Then the routine repeats itself a few minutes later. They're struggling between their want for independence and to be close to you. They desperately want to do things for themselves, but become overwhelmed easily.

So how does all of this affect sleep?

  • You will begin to see nap resistance, as they don't want to miss out on all of the fun. They want to keep practising doing things for themselves.

  • Their enthusiasm for life at the moment may result in early rising, as they can't wait to start their day.

  • Night wakings due to being overtired from resisting their naps and bedtime.

  • They're so active and busy during the day that they don't want to slow down for a nap or bedtime.

  • They're overwhelmed by how fast they're developing that they have some separation anxiety with you.

Tips to survive this regression:

  • Have a consistent bedtime routine. Considering lengthening (starting earlier) to allow more connection time.

  • Keep a consistent routine.

  • Make daytime VERY active. Encourage them to practise their new skills.

  • Develop a goodbye ritual to help with separation anxiety.

18 Month Regression

Every sleep regression can be connected to a baby’s mental and physical development at that particular age. 18-month olds experience some developmental milestones that can, unfortunately, negatively impact their sleep. Of course, as with all sleep regressions, this one can start early at 17 months old or as late as 19 or 20 months old. All children develop on their own unique timeline.

All sleep regressions are difficult and exhausting, but the 18-month sleep regression can be one of the hardest, for one simple reason — there’s a discipline factor involved in this regression that wasn’t present in the earlier ones. The previous regressions didn’t have anything to do with independence-seeking behaviour on your baby’s part, but this one does.

Around this age your child is excited by their independence, and more than ever, wants to do things their way. Many children experience a language burst around this time, however their desire to express themselves is often beyond their ability and frustration ensues.

Separation anxiety can also peak AGAIN around this age. Again they want closeness and independence and become easily overwhelmed with all of these changes.

Tips to survive this regression:

  • Set limits and boundaries (physical and emotional) around sleep

  • Consistent bedtime routine

  • Keep the nap! If you haven’t already, transition to one nap.

  • Provide independent choices throughout the day.

  • Don't interrupt their talking in their bed. Give them space to practise and enjoy their new words.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate! Tell them what will be happening, "I'm going to go and start the bath and then you're going to get in."

  • Keep stimulation before bedtime to a minimum. Quiet play, reading books, doing puzzles are great wind down activities.

2 Year Regression

Sleep problems at 2 years old are a little less straightforward than the others, there are a variety of factors that can cause it. For one thing, your 2-year old’s awake time is growing longer, but as they make that transition, it can disrupt sleep.

Around this time, lots of toddlers begin having very real nightmares (or even night terrors). All of this can lead to a very real, very exhausting sleep regression around 2 years old.

Around this age your toddler's development will be accompanied by testing and tantrums. They have a dramatic increase in expressive language and an improvement in their fine and gross motor skills. They have a newfound desire to make independent decisions (insert tantrums).

At bedtime delay tactics start to come in, one more drink, one more story, one more kiss, one more cuddle etc. Set firm boundaries.

Tips to survive this regression:

  • Set limits and boundaries (physical and mental) for sleep. "We will read 2 stories."

  • Consistent bedtime routine.

  • Offer quiet time before dropping the nap.

  • Transition to "big bed" 2.5-3 years old, when they have developed impulse control and have the ability to stay in bed.

  • Introduce a night light and/or Gro Clock (Sleep trainer clock)

Getting Sleep Back On Track After Regressions

When your baby is going through a sleep regression, try not to introduce anything that you’re not willing to continue once the regression is over. This may include things like:

  • Rocking or cuddling to sleep

  • Patting to sleep

  • Feeding to sleep

  • Co-sleeping or bedsharing

If you have introduced a new sleep association to get through, that is normal and totally okay! Once you’re confident the regression has passed, you’ve given it a couple of weeks, start to make the necessary changes for you and your baby. You can make these changes as quickly or as slowly and gently as you like.

To make slow, gentle changes, start to layer in other child controlled associations as you begin to wean back from your current associations.

Get a copy of my Infant or Toddler Sleep Guide for settling strategies or reach out for a consult if you’d like some support in making changes for your family.

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