What is Sleep Regression?
How to Survive a Sleep Regression, According to Child-Sleep Experts
The first time your baby sleeps through the night is almost as exciting as the day you bring them home from the hospital. But at certain points in their life — around 4 months in particular, but also around 6 months and 18 months — you may notice your baby is having trouble falling asleep again, or waking up several times during the night. The good news is that periods of infant sleep regression are actually quite normal and are considered a positive sign of brain development. And, they won't last forever.
Maintaining a bedtime routine during sleep regressions may feel impossible, but regulating your baby's sleep patterns and naps to the best of your ability pays off in the long run. "Babies benefit from a predictable routine with age-appropriate naps and bedtimes that allow the body to get the proper rest for energy, learning, memory consolidation, and physical development," says Nichole Levy, CuboAi sleep advisor and certified child sleep and behavior consultant.
But it's also important to give yourself grace and turn to family and friends during this sleep-deprived time. "Parents should make sure to have ample support as they cope with changes in sleep that inevitably affects the whole family structure," says Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, MD, FAAFP, family physician at Southern New Hampshire Health. "Always call your family physician if you have any questions or concerns."
Levy and Dr. Ramas gave us more information on what sleep regression is, why it happens, and how long sleep regression lasts, typically. Oh, and most important: how to get through it with your peace intact.
What Is Sleep Regression?
Sleep regression is when children who have already established consistent sleep in the night suddenly have difficulty falling asleep or have increased nighttime awakenings, according to Dr. Ramas. "While sleep regression is typically before age two, children can also experience sleep regression later in life as well," she adds.
But often sleep regression happens around the 4-month mark. "It's at this time that your newborn's sleep is changing drastically," Levy says. Around 4 months, babies start producing melatonin, the hormone that helps to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Adjusting to lighter phases of sleep can make babies more likely to wake up for a period of a two to six weeks, according to Cleveland Clinic.
In that way, the 4-month regression is actually a progression because it's a permanent change to how your baby sleeps caused by natural brain development. "Your baby now has a strong circadian rhythm," Levy says. Past this developmental point, babies should have more defined sleep cycles than they did as newborns; although they'll still sometimes briefly wake up between cycles, and then fall back asleep. And environmental factors will continue to affect their sleep, just like they do for adults.
What Causes Sleep Regression?
Again, the 4-month sleep regression in particular is caused by a biological change in how your little one's body is producing melatonin and cortisol (the sleep and wake hormones, respectively).
But other sleep regressions also tend to coincide with your little one hitting cognitive or physical developmental milestones such as crawling, sitting up independently, standing, walking, and talking. Something about these developmental growth spurts can affect sleep — either because your little one is simultaneously learning to stay awake for longer stretches, or because the excitement of all the new skills they're learning is keeping them up, or for some other related reason. If they're teething, the pain can keep them away, for instance. Or they might have separation anxiety making it harder to stay asleep.
What Are the Sleep Regression Ages?
While many babies experience sleep regression around 4-months, it's not a flip of a switch that occurs overnight, so the exact timing of your little one's sleep regression may be slightly different. "There are a series of physiological changes to your baby's sleep that develop over multiple months, starting from birth and continuing through the first few months of your baby's life," Levy says.
Throughout the first year of life, sleep regressions usually coincides with a developmental milestone. Other common sleep regression ages include:
- 6 months
- 8 months
- 12 months
Sleep regressions can also occur in toddler years (at 18-months and 2-years), Dr. Ramas adds. After the toddler years, she says children can continue to face sleep regression during major life changes, such as moving, loss of a close relative or birth of a sibling — although eventually, people tend to stop calling periods of changing sleep "regressions."
How Long Does Sleep Regression Last?
Dr. Ramas says sleep regressions are typically short phases, often lasting one to two weeks. "During sleep is when the body processes learnings and memories, and restores physically," Levy says. "So, it makes sense that sleep can be disrupted when a baby is learning and practicing these major milestones." Practicing a milestone (like rolling over, crawling, standing, walking) during the day will help them master the skill and sleep will get back to normal.
"A child's experience in these times is best nurtured with love, compassion, and steadiness to help them learn skills to self-regulate," Dr. Ramas says. "While these times can be trying for parents, it's important to keep in mind that these are healthy and expected responses in children."
However, it's best not to assume your baby is experiencing a sleep regression. Your baby might be waking up in the middle of the night due to an illness, a dirty diaper, or hunger, so go through your normal steps of checking on their wellbeing and before trying to get them to settle back down. If their sleep doesn't even out after a couple weeks, or something feels off, speak with your pediatrician.