In the quiet of the evening, you finally settle into your favorite chair after a long day of mommy-ing. Your baby is asleep, and you relish the peace, looking forward to some well-deserved me-time. But, as the clock strikes 9:30 pm, the baby monitor springs to life. Your once soundly sleeping baby is now awake and upset. A quick feed, a soothing touch, and you hope for a restful remainder of the night, only to be met with three more wake-ups before dawn. What happened to that peaceful night? Is it sickness, growth, teething, or could it be what you fear most: a sleep regression?
The first year of your baby’s life is a transformative journey filled with growth and development, and these changes often wreak havoc on their sleep patterns. Understanding the nuances of sleep regressions and distinguishing them from other factors is crucial for both parents and babies to navigate through the challenges of the night.
What is a Sleep Regression?
A sleep regression refers to a period when a previously good sleeper experiences disruptions in their sleep patterns. This can manifest in various ways, including:
- taking longer to fall asleep at night
- increased night wakings
- earlier mornings
- difficulties with napping.
When do sleep regressions occur?
According to the oh-so-wise internet, sleep regressions occur at pretty much every month of baby’s first year. The truth is though that we like to blame all sleep difficulties on regressions, when in reality that’s just one possible cause.
There is only one true regression that all people agree happens around the same time, and that is the 4- Month Sleep Regression. However, the term “regression” may be misleading, as it implies a step backward, but in reality, it marks a permanent progression in your baby’s sleep development.
The 4-Month Sleep Regression: A Deeper Dive
During the first three months, newborns experience only two stages of sleep – stage 3 and stage 4 – spending about half their sleep in each. Around the fourth month, a significant reorganization occurs as they transition from two stages to four. For the first time, your baby experiences stage 1 and stage 2 of sleep, which is characterized by very light sleep. The unfamiliarity with this light sleep increases the chances of waking up during these stages, leading to more frequent night wakings.
It’s essential to note that this change is a natural and expected part of your baby’s sleep development and does not ever go back to ‘how it used to be’. It is completely normal for both you and your baby to wake 4-6 times per night for the rest of their lives as they transition through sleep cycles. There’s nothing you can do (or need to do) to stop this! When independent sleep skills are in place, you just drift back to sleep so quickly that you don’t even realize the waking occurred. However, if independent sleep skills are not in place, you will need to help your baby/toddler fall back each time they naturally wake.
Identifying True Sleep Regressions
Beyond the 4-month mark, identifying true sleep regressions depends on the individual growth and development of your baby. While it’s tempting to attribute every sleep difficulty to a regression, several factors need consideration.
- Learning New Physical Skills: One of the most common causes of an actual regression is the learning of a new skill. Rolling, sitting, crawling, standing, and walking are physical milestones that often coincide with sleep disruptions.
- Internal Developments: It’s not just physical skills; internal developments like object permanence and expanding vocabulary can also trigger regressions. Separation anxiety may surface during these times, contributing to sleep challenges.
Questions to Ask When Your Baby Wakes More Frequently
In addition to recognizing signs of a true sleep regression, it’s essential to consider other factors that might contribute to increased wake-ups. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is Your Baby Sick? A fever, congestion, an ear infection, etc., can all cause increased wakings. Rule out any signs of illness that might be affecting your baby’s sleep.
- Is a Tooth About to Erupt? Teething is often cited as an explanation for poor sleep, but studies show that teething pain is most severe 2-3 days before a tooth actually erupts. If you can see a tooth ready to pop through, it might be the cause. Otherwise, teething might not be the primary factor.
- Is Your Baby’s Schedule Right for Their Age? Babies undergo rapid growth in the first year, leading to changes in sleep and nap needs. Assess if it’s time for a nap transition or adjustments in wake times. While sleep begets sleep to a certain degree, excessive daytime sleep can impact nighttime sleep.
- How Long Has This Been Going On? Babies are not robots, and occasional extra wake-ups or restless nights can happen. Consider the duration of the disruptions – if it’s an occasional occurrence or a prolonged pattern.
Duration of Sleep Regressions
A crucial aspect to understand is that a genuine sleep regression should last around 2-3 weeks at most. This aligns with the time it takes for your baby to fully learn and get comfortable with their new skill. However, the 4-month “regression” is a misnomer, as it doesn’t actually go away. The changes in your baby’s brain are permanent, shaping their sleep patterns moving forward.
If your baby has been experiencing disruptions for several weeks to months, it may indicate that a new habit has formed. In such cases, sleep training (or re-sleep training) may be necessary to get back to sustainable sleep habits.
Strategies to Navigate Sleep Regressions
Understanding that sleep regressions are often linked to the development of new skills, here are some strategies to navigate through these challenging periods:
- Practice New Skills: Encourage skill development during wake times. Increase tummy time to help your baby master rolling, practice standing (in and out of the crib!), and engage in activities that promote the learning of new skills.
- Maintain Sleep Expectations: This is BIG. While it’s tempting to introduce new sleep habits during a regression, try to keep bedtime routines and expectations consistent. If you weren’t night feeding, rocking or bed sharing before, don’t start now! Avoid creating new sleep associations that may persist beyond the regression.
- Teach Independent Sleep: Babies with independent sleep skills are better equipped to handle regressions. Since regressions often result in additional wakings, having the ability to self-soothe allows your baby to fall back asleep independently.
The Moral of the Sleep Story
It’s essential to remember that your baby is not a robot. Off days are inevitable, and there will be variations in sleep quality. However, true regressions shouldn’t dominate the first years of your baby’s life. With the right approach, it’s entirely possible to be a well-rested parent with a baby who generally sleeps well.
If you feel like you are constantly trying to weed your way through sleep regression after sleep regression, maybe it’s time to reach out for some 1:1 help. I can help empower both you and your kiddo to make it through all these sleep changes and finally get some consistency in your life.
The journey through your baby’s first year involves trying to solve so many of the mysteries of sleep. Embrace the changes, celebrate the milestones, and equip yourself with the knowledge to navigate the night with confidence and ease. Sweet dreams await!