Sleep Regressions and Their Causes

Sleep regressions are some of the most frustrating and exhausting periods of time over a baby's first year and a half. Knowing when they will happen and why they happen can help you prepare yourself and get through them.

What is a sleep regression?

Babies follow roughly the same developmental patterns, including predictable periods lasting from a few days to a few weeks of fussiness and wakefulness when they should be asleep. Since no two babies are exactly the same, sleep regressions don’t happen on cue, according to some official calendar. Nevertheless, knowing when you might expect sleep regressions can help you recognize them and meet your baby’s needs. Sleep regressions can be utterly exhausting for parents and sometimes just being able to recognize them gives moms and dad some hope that they won’t last forever.

What can I expect to see during a sleep regression?

When a baby goes through a sleep regression, they are usually crankier than usual because they are not getting the rest they need. Naps, nighttime sleep, or both can be affected. Babies may protest being put to bed, wake early, or wake up crying in the middle of the night.

When do sleep regressions happen?

Babies commonly experience regressions at roughly:
● 6 weeks
● 4 months
● 9 months/starting to crawl
● 12 months / starting to walk
● 18 months

What causes sleep regressions?

Sleep regressions are related to developmental shifts.

● The 6-week regression is caused by a major growth spurt. The baby wakes because he is super hungry at this time, and he requires more calories more often. The 4-month regression is not a true regression, it’s a shift in how sleep happens biologically. Before this time, a baby falls from an awake state right into the deepest stage of sleep, waking mostly only to nurse or take a bottle. Around 3-5 months, the sleep process completely transforms. Now the baby cycles in and out of lighter and deeper sleep, and you will see frequent wakings during the light stages of sleep, which occur about every 45 minutes.
● The 9- and 12-month sleep regressions are directly related to the developmental milestones of crawling and walking. When babies get close to mastering these skills, their minds become completely preoccupied and that affects their sleep. These regressions are tied to when these milestones occur, rather than any set age.
● The 18-month regression is also developmental, but it has to do with testing the boundaries. At this stage, babies discover that they can impact their parents’ behavior with their own actions.

What should I do during a sleep regression?

How you respond to a baby who is going through a sleep regression should be linked to what is causing it.

● At the 6-week growth spurt, feed your baby as needed. Power through, because she needs those calories. Fortunately, this regression usually lasts only a few days, and when it’s over, you’ll get longer stretches for both of you to rest.
● At the 4-month regression, you will want to begin giving your baby tools to put herself back to sleep throughout the night. The best way you can do that is to work on putting her down awake at naps and bedtime, instead of putting her down after she is already asleep. Many parents sleep train at this age, but it’s not necessary for parents who don’t feel comfortable with letting their baby cry. You can still work towards putting her down more and more awake without leaving her to cry. Just realize that babies don’t grow out of this regression like they do the others, so you may need to keep trying.
● The 9- and 12-month regressions need to take their course. They will be much more bearable if your baby already has independent sleep skills, however. You can choose to let your little one work it out or you can go in and comfort him. It’s up to you and your personal philosophy. However, it’s wise not to introduce new props at this time, because they can easily become habits that you’ll need to break later. If you decide to comfort your baby, try to put him back down while he’s still awake.
● When the 18-month regression hits, consistency is more important than ever. Your child is experimenting to see if your limits are firm. Remember that firm limits are comforting to children, who want to know that you mean what you say and that you can be trusted. Stay calm and stand your ground.

Sleep regressions often affect even the best little sleepers. You can’t predict them exactly, but knowing how they fit into a baby’s normal development will help you get through them.

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