Ah, sleep regressions. The ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ of the baby-sleep world. No one wants to tell a new parent what lies around the corner when they’ve just finally “figured out” their 3.5-month old baby’s sleep. But with a little education, and a lot of grit, the whole house doesn’t have to come crumbling down when your little one hits a regression.
What is a sleep regression?
If you’ve been anywhere near a sleep training or parenting Facebook group, you’ll see the same daily post: “My 4-month-old baby was sleeping 12 hours straight through the night for the last month and, all of the sudden, they are waking up every hour crying!” Parents with slightly older babies will nod solemnly as they type out their condolences—welcome to the 4-Month Regression.
Regressions happen during massive points of shift in a baby’s development. From the moment they’re born, babies take in a ton of information and grow rapidly each day. As they learn new skills, such as rolling over or blowing raspberries, babies want to practice their new talents and, because this life can be cruel, they really want to practice them at night. Regressions also coincide with major changes in sleep cycles, verbal communication abilities, and all sorts of other changes.
Typically, regressions show up in interrupted sleep, restlessness, grumpiness during wake windows, and a sudden change to your baby’s sleep habits and mood in general. Baby’s appetite can change, naps can become a total war, and it can feel like that gooey, sweet newborn has been possessed by an actual demon.
Hang in there, sleep regressions are temporary, and usually mean that baby is about to become a lot more interesting and fun when they are awake.
How many sleep regressions do babies go through?
Sleep regressions are inevitable as your baby develops, but most children follow a pretty predictable pattern when it comes to regression occurrences. If you know when and where the regressions will typically strike, it can save you a ton of frustration as you decode what on earth is happening with your kiddo.
The first regression, right around 4 months, is typically the hardest because neither of you have experienced it before. Your baby’s sleep cycles are shifting out of that newborn sleep-through-anything mode and into sleep cycles that better reflect a child's patterns. This shift is massive for your little one, and can be really tough on you, too. What works one night could completely fail the next. The 4-month sleep regression usually lasts 2 to 6 weeks as your baby adjusts to their new sleep cycles. Typically, this is when most parents start to introduce sleep training methods, as the constant night-wakings start to drive you both insane.
After that first one, regressions become a little easier to tolerate, mainly because you have a light at the end of the tunnel. You know that a happy, chipper baby is still in there, somewhere, and will come back to you… at least for a few weeks before the next one.
For the first year, your baby might experience a regression every month or so. Some babies cruise through the 6-, 8-, and 9-month regressions with just a little extra fussiness. Some will react strongly to every single one. Having solid nap and bedtime routines can help keep your kiddo on track, but for some kids, it’s just going to be something you survive.
Regressions spread out a bit more into toddlerhood. Typically, there are 15-month, 18-month, and 2-year regressions that parents notice. As your child gets older, the sensitivity to these regressions should lessen, but it always helps to be aware of why your toddler might seem even moodier than usual.
How to survive a sleep regression:
It’s not going to be fun. But surviving a sleep regression is possible, with a little prep work, patience, and some bargaining with your deity of choice.
Have a routine, and (try to) stick to it.
Having a bedtime routine helps communicate to your baby that it’s time for a long, long nap. Consistency is always helpful for your kids, no matter how young. It doesn’t have to be a long routine, but a bath, bottle, and book ritual can help you both unwind for the evening.
When you see an eye rub, red eyebrows, or yawn, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not stop to collect $200. Keeping your baby caught up on sleep will be the best defense against night wakings and fussiness during the day. Naps are hard during a regression, but missing sleepy cues only makes it worse for everyone involved.
Avoid making new habits, but know that sometimes, it’s inevitable.
Giving your kid new crutches to help them sleep only means you’ll have to fight them later, but sometimes the trade off is worth it. What worked for your baby before might not work now, and adding a new habit might be the only way both of you get some sleep. It’s best to avoid introducing new crutches, or reintroducing old ones, but survival is important. Be gentle on yourself during these phases. Your kid isn’t going to sleep on you forever, and it’s okay to punt it down the road if you really can’t avoid it.
Try a calendar or development app.
Knowing when to expect these things is half the battle. A simple calendar reminder for those monthly markers or an app like Wonder Weeks can help you expect the changes, and understand more about your baby’s development.
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