Sleep regression: The ultimate guide

Find out what causes sleep regressions at different ages and how to cure it.
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  • Getting babies and young children to sleep is one of parenting’s greatest challenges. However this expert advice will help you get one step closer to a good night’s rest.

    To help solve your sleep regression problems, we talked to sleep consultants and parenting experts specialising in baby and toddler sleep regression. They answer your most important questions and give expert advice to get you through the 4-week, 4-month and 8-month sleep regressions.

    What is baby sleep regression?

    ‘Sleep regression is a phase where a baby suddenly stops sleeping as they were previously,’ explains paediatric sleep consultant Francesca Beauchamp.

    There are particular age ranges when sleep regression is likely to occur: 1-4 weeks, 3-4 months, and 8-9 months. Toddlers and young children can also go through sleep regressions.

    ‘We often make the mistake of thinking that baby sleep is linear,’ says Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a parenting expert, trained psychologist and author of The Gentle Sleep Book. ‘New parents assume that their baby’s sleep starts off really bad then gets progressively better. Until at some point it becomes “good” like that of an adult. The trouble is, life doesn’t work like that.’ Ockwell-Smith likens it to a rollercoaster with ‘peaks when you feel rested and then lots of big dips, just when you think you have the whole sleep thing sorted.’

    READ MORE: Second night syndrome: what is it and what it means for you and your baby

    Young children go through many difficult phases including weaning or potty-training, but sleep is probably the most pressing issue. ‘If everybody in the family is sleep deprived,’ says Ockwell-Smith, ‘it’s much harder to cope with challenging behaviour in the daytime.’ Francesca Beauchamp agrees: ‘There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a torture tactic: it is brutal!’

    What causes sleep regression?

    Sleep regression can start for the following reasons:

    1. Baby’s new psychological developmental phase
    2. New physical phase, such as rolling over or crawling
    3. Growth spurt
    4. Pain, such as teething
    5. Sickness, such as a cold or cough
    6. Unfamiliar routine. Including going on holiday, moving home, or the primary carer returning to work
    7. Starting eating solids

    ‘What’s important to remember is that adults don’t always sleep particularly well,’ says Sarah Ockwell-Smith. ‘We often wake at night and our sleep gets disturbed by different things. So why would babies be any different?’

    Crying baby

    Credit: Getty

    What age do babies have sleep regression?

    Sleep regression happens most often at a time of change or upheaval. This can happen any time in a baby’s short life, but it tends to happen at one of the following four stages:

    4-week sleep regression

    After four weeks, babies have begun to adjust to life outside of the womb, new feeding patterns, and the difference between day and night. A slight sleep regression can therefore happen at four weeks. ‘Babies usually sleep well in the first few days after birth. This lulls parents into a false sense of security,’ says Ockwell-Smith. ‘But the huge transition babies make from being inside the womb is a crazy difference and understandably impacts their sleep.’

    ‘Babies are born needing a lot of sleep,’ explains Beauchamp. ‘They develop rapidly. It’s all about feed, sleep, repeat! At two or three weeks babies also have a growth spurt. This can rouse them from sleep due to hunger, which is a normal phase in baby development.’

    At four weeks you might feel like you’re just getting the hang of it, so don’t be disheartened if you feel like you then take two steps back with the four-week sleep regression.

    4-month sleep regression

    Four months is the dreaded sleep regression. ‘Most parents have heard of it before they even have their baby,’ says Francesca Beauchamp. ‘It’s when most new clients get in touch with me!’

    ‘At four months, babies are more aware and alert,’ explains Sarah Ockwell-Smith. ‘However, control over their bodies is still quite poor. This inability to get hold of a toy they want, move towards you, or out of an uncomfortable position is very frustrating. It seems to cause a negative impact on their sleep.’

    Learning sleep cycles also has a big impact on babies at four months. ‘Younger babies drift relatively easily through sleep cycles,’ says Beauchamp. ‘But at four months they have conscious, awake time between cycles. This means your baby will have distinct stages of sleep and will go through light sleep before entering deep sleep. This causes tears and grizzling while they learn how to drift back off and sleep through cycles.’

    Why do babies have a 4-month sleep regression?

    ‘The only sleep regression that is based on a real physiological change is the four-month sleep regression,’ explains Heidi Skudder, The Parent & Baby Coach. ‘This regression occurs because baby’s brain becomes more aware of how they transition through sleep cycles. They become more wakeful at the end of one sleep cycle and look for the same conditions that they had to fall asleep to move back into another sleep cycle. This can often cause short naps and lots of night time waking too! To avoid this, parents can work on helping their little ones to fall asleep independently from an early age.’

    Sleep training can be very helpful before you get to this point. At three or four months babies are old enough to learn new sleep techniques, but they haven’t got into difficult habits yet. Controlled crying or spaced soothing is very effective, or read our guide which explains some of the most popular sleep training techniques.

    Do all babies have a 4-month sleep regression?

    Not all babies have this sleep regression. Every baby has their own sleep challenges and habits, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ rule when it comes to sleep. Because the four-month sleep regression is so infamous, it can be at the forefront of parent’s minds. Your baby might just have an occasional bad night’s sleep at four months; try to avoid immediately worrying that it’s a serious sleep regression when it could just be a blip in their routine.

    baby awake

    Credit: Getty

    8-month sleep regression

    As an experienced parenting coach Sarah Ockwell-Smith has discovered that the ‘most common age for poor sleep in the first year is between eight and ten months.’ This will come as a surprise for many parents who dread the four month mark. ‘Scientific research has found that the best sleep in the first year happens at around three to four months,’ explains Ockwell-Smith. ‘At nine months sleep is usually significantly worse. This really goes against the whole idea of it getting better as the baby grows.’

    One of the main issues is that there’s an enduring belief that by eight months babies should be sleeping through the night. In fact, teething can just start taking hold at this age and with newly introduced solid food, eight month-old babies often have quite disturbed sleep patterns.

    Then there’s the issue of separation anxiety. Babies don’t have any concept of time; Ockwell-Smith explains that ‘every time you leave the room they may feel abandoned and scared that you’ll never return.’ An additional problem is that around eight months can often coincide with the end of maternity leave, so your baby may have new routines, or a new environment such as a nursery or childminder. ‘Basically, if you have an eight, nine or ten month-old don’t expect much sleep,’ says Ockwell-Smith.

    Try these sleep regression tips from The Sleep Nanny:

    Why do toddlers go through sleep regressions?

    ‘There are three stages, rather than specific ages, that cause toddler and preschooler sleep regresion,’ explains Sarah Ockwell-Smith. ‘When they potty train, when they start preschool or nursery, and when a new sibling arrives. All of these disturb a child’s status quo, which can leave them feeling anxious and upset, and tend to disrupt regular bedtime routines.’

    Francesca Beauchamp agrees that regressions in older children are often as a result of ‘big changes in little lives that can come on suddenly and out of nowhere.’ When this happens ‘it’s really important to validate your child’s feelings. Offer lots of love, cuddles and praise during waking hours and keep bedtime straightforward and calm.’

    What are the signs of sleep regression?

    Sleep regression is several consecutive nights of broken sleep. One or two occasional bad nights is usually just part of a normal sleeping pattern as your baby learns to settle themselves. Other signs may be increased fussiness, less daytime naps, decreased appetite and multiple wakes in the night for four or more nights in a row.

    How can I cure sleep regression?

    You won’t be able to stop sleep regression entirely, but you can help your baby through it more quickly. Surviving sleep regression is all about being patient and kind to yourself and your baby. It may feel like a gruelling time, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

    Try some of these simple sleep regression techniques:

    1. Give your baby full feeds during the day

    Ensure your baby takes full feeds throughout the day, and especially before bed and the all-important dream feed. If your baby is distracted or not feeding well, try a quieter room away from distractions. Allow yourself plenty of time and avoid multitasking whilst feeding to ensure your baby is calm and feeds well. Read our guide to the 12 best nursing pillows to make bottle or breastfeeding more comfortable.

    2. Keep calm and take rest when you can

    Your rest is as important as the baby’s. Ask for help: if a partner or trusted friend can watch the baby whilst you catch up on sleep during the day you will feel more able to deal with disruption in the night. Go to sleep as early as you can after the baby is in bed, so you have undisturbed sleep before they wake. Also try to avoid making many social or work plans during this time, as you will need to conserve your energy.

    3. Establish a bedtime routine

    If you aren’t already, put your baby to bed at the same time each night. A four month old baby should be settled in their cot by 6.30pm or 7pm at the latest. A good bedtime routine might include singing the same gentle songs, closing the curtains, dim the lights, giving baby a gentle bath or massage, putting them in their pyjamas, and giving them the evening feed about 6.30pm. You can use one of these 12 best sleep aids to create relaxing background white noise or music. Start the bedtime routine about 6pm or when they give you tired cues like grizzling or rubbing their eyes. Try some of these 9 rules for a successful bedtime routine in our baby sleep guide.

    4. Establish a daytime napping routine

    If you aren’t already, try to get your baby into regular nap times throughout the day. Their last nap should finish before 5pm so they are tired before bed. Read our ultimate sleep guide for more tips on napping and sleeping at night. ‘A good routine will breed sleep organically,’ reassures Francesca Beauchamp. ‘A baby in a routine is better placed to deal with a regression phase.’

    5. Avoid making sudden changes

    Don’t feel like you have to suddenly change everything you’ve been doing when sleep regression starts, as this will only create more unsettled feelings for you and the baby. In fact, sleep regression often happens because of physical, developmental or environmental changes in the first place. If you’d like to start a nap or bedtime routine, start gradually so you both become more accustomed.

    Try these tips for establishing a bedtime routine for your baby:

    Should you try sleep training during a sleep regression?

    Some experts advise against using new sleep training techniques during a sleep regression. Since the baby’s sleep patterns are already off-kilter because of a change in routine or a developmental phase, they might not be at their most receptive. However you can still use gentle techniques mentioned above to soothe your baby and help them get back to sleep.

    Don’t be tempted to suddently change everything you’ve done up until now. ‘Sleep tends to stay consistent if the parents can be consistent too,’ recommends Heidi Skudder, The Parent & Baby Coach. ‘They only really turn into full regressions if the parent starts to introduce new sleep habits – such as rocking or feeding baby back to sleep when previously they hadn’t done so.’

    How long does sleep regression last?

    Sleep regression usually passes naturally after two to eight weeks. ‘If you can, be patient,’ says Sarah Ockwell-Smith. ‘Most sleep regressions will pass naturally without you doing anything.’ Every baby is different, so try to not hold onto expectations about how your baby ‘should’ be behaving.

    Just as babies go through phases to learn to crawl, talk or eat, learning to sleep is another process with lots of ups and downs.

    Expert sleep regression tips to remember:

    Sarah Ockwell-Smith has these three tips to help parents cope:

    • Realise that sleep regression is normal.
    • You’re not to blame. Regressions are rarely the parent’s fault or a result of something you have or have not done.
    • Sleep is a rollercoaster, not a straight upward line.
    sleep regression

    Credit: Sarah Ockwell-Smith and Francesca Beauchamp

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