Sleep regression. These two words must represent one of the biggest shocks of mothering, especially as a first time mum.
We all know that newborn babies are supposed to keep us up at night, but when they arrive it often isn’t too bad in the early days and we wonder what all the fuss was about. Then, 3-5 months down the line, BAM! Suddenly we can’t get them to sleep more than 15 minutes out of our arms or we struggle to even get them to sleep in the first place. And this happens again more like 7/8/9 months down the line when we’d finally managed to get into a routine and we wonder what the hell is going on.
If your baby is anything like mine was (she’s now nearly 4 🙀), the reason you’ve landed here is because you’ve been frantically Googling “Why is my baby waking up every 2 hours?!” or “Why is my 7 month old suddenly waking up at night?!” at 3 o’clock in the morning. Probably with a few expletives thrown in there for good measure. Well I’m glad you did, because this is your ultimate guide to all things sleep regression.
Actually I prefer to call them “sleep progressions”. I’ll explain why in a moment but, by the end of this article, you will hopefully join me in using this phrase. I’ll mainly be referring to “sleep regressions” in this piece though as that’s the term most people are used to and search for.
So without further ado, let’s dive into all things sleep regression and explore what they are, when, why and how they happen, when they might stop and what you can do to survive them.
Start by downloading my Sleep Regression Survival Kit, which has detailed explanations of all the major sleep regressions and tips for how to navigate each unique one.
What is sleep regression in babies?
A sleep regression is when a baby’s sleep habits and cycles suddenly change. People refer to them as ‘regressions’ because it often feels as though you are going backwards, with the longer stretches of sleep your baby may have been getting used to suddenly vanishing.
While things do change during this unsettled phase, it is far more accurate to call them sleep progressions. Before having children, most adults assume that baby sleep will be linear, i.e. move forward in an upward trajectory. We expect wakeful babies in the first few weeks of life but, if you’re anything like me, you probably assumed that this would just naturally improve until the baby sleeps pretty much like you do.
The reality is, though (as you are no doubt becoming aware!) that baby sleep is very much up and down like a rollercoaster. It can be slow, painful, exhausting and frustrating, but I promise you that the quality of their sleep IS ultimately progressing and moving forward to something more akin to adult-like sleep. It’s a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kinda deal – it takes a while, but you do eventually get there.
Why do baby sleep regressions happen?
Each sleep progression or sleep regression has its own trigger, but basically they happen for one of three reasons:
- A physiological shift in development i.e. sudden changes in cognitive awareness, development of new physical abilities etc.
- A change in sleep needs i.e. needing to drop a nap or go to bed a bit later
- Emotional reasons such as a house move, arrival of a new sibling, or something else that challenges or upsets the environment
The majority of sleep regressions that occur in the first three years of life are for the first two reasons. Developmental changes are the biggest cause of sleep regression in under ones.
For sanity-saving information about developmental milestones and how they impact babies, download the awesome Wonder Weeks app. When that runs out at 18-months, head to The Observant Mom for toddler-plus developmental shifts.
Do all babies experience sleep regression?
Infant sleep is as unique as your baby. No two babies experience sleep patterns in the exact same way and there will be an incredible amount of variation. Your baby might skip a common regression or have several running into each other – there’s no way to predict it, but personally I’d be amazed if they didn’t have any at all.
Anecdotally, I have come across one baby who skipped the common 3-5 month sleep regression and I read the comment of one mother in a Facebook group who said her baby slept through the night from day one onwards, never having a single regression. We all agreed that she had a unicorn rather than a baby on her hands!
How do I know if my baby is having a sleep regression?
Sleep regressions rear their exhausting heads in many different ways, again unique to each baby. The most common signs of sleep regression are:
- Frequent waking
- Trouble linking sleep cycles
- Light sleep
- Waking up as soon as you put them down
- Constant need to nurse or feed (in younger babies)
- Sleep resistance either at night or in naps
- Wanting to stay up and play in the middle of the night (AKA ‘night parties’ in older babies, toddlers and preschoolers)
- Nighttime clinginess
- Big emotions at bedtime (in order infants, toddlers and preschoolers)
- Nightmares or night terrors (in toddlers and preschoolers)
At what ages do babies have sleep regressions?
Again, each child is unique and may or may not have progressions during the following times. Sleep regressions may also occur outside of these times, although they might be down to emotional reasons rather than physiological, developmental and sleep-need changes.
All that said, the most common ages for babies and older infants/toddlers to have sleep regressions are:
- 3-5 months
- 8-10 months
- 12 months
- 18-20 months
- 24-30 months
- Every year around the child’s birthday
To find out more about why each sleep regression/progression occurs and learn how to ethically navigate these tricky times, download my Sleep Regression Survival Kit below.
Do toddlers have sleep regressions?
Oh yes, they most certainly do! When my daughter Ursula (now approaching four) was a baby, I knew all about the typical sleep regressions up to 12 months.
However it was a BIG shock when she had one at around 20 months and another one shortly after at 2-years old. Nobody seemed to be talking or advising about these ones but they were by far the hardest I had dealt with.
When you’ve got a baby having a regression, you can bundle them into a sling and go for a walk or jiggle them around a bit until they (eventually!) fall asleep. But a toddler has a will of their own and, if they want a night party, my goodness is it hard to talk them out of having one!
Does sleep regression affect naps?
Yes, sleep regression signs affect naps – my experience was that nap resistance was the very first sign of a progression, in fact. At first I very much tried to get Ursula to nap despite her protests, since I felt I needed the daytime downtime and respite from baby care.
However, as I went through more and more sleep regressions I came to realise that regular nap resistance is usually a sign of a change in sleep needs. She was in a transition between needing and not needing that nap, so I was better off letting go of trying to get her to sleep and instead put my energy into helping her learn to cope without it.
How do you fix sleep regression?
You can’t! Sorry, I know that’s not what you want to hear but the fact is that this is an important developmental period of time and there’s nothing you can do to “fix” it. Just like you can’t make your 3-month old drive a car because they lack both the physical and cognitive capacity to do such a complex thing, so you can’t force them out of this season of their young life.
However, there are things you can do to make things little easier for both you and them. Again, there are lots of specific tips in my Sleep Regression Survival Kit but if I had to give you just two little hacks for making sleep regressions easier to cope with, they would be:
- Go to bed earlier. I know you need your evening downtime but this is only temporary and will make all the difference to your nighttimes. If you cosleep you will most likely find the wake up less if you go to bed with them in the evenings.
- Remove all timepieces from your sleeping area. The minute I stopped looking at the clock every time Ursula woke up, making a mental note of how many times she’d woken and how much sleep I’d had, was the moment my nights dramatically improved. Put your energy into nurturing them and yourself as best you can instead of clock-watching.
If you want more tips for how to generally improve sleep through nighttime parenting and strictly no sleep training, check out my post on 15 Gentle Sleep Techniques That Work Without Sleep Training.
Click here to learn more about why sleep training is harmful and won’t help you during a sleep regression.
Should I feed during sleep regression?
YES! Of course you should feed them if they are asking to be fed. This is called responsive parenting, or as I like to call it…parenting. The needs of babies and infants should be met. Quite simply, that’s the job we signed up for. If you breastfeed, nursing (whether for food or comfort) is usually the easiest way of settling and getting them back to sleep, so you have this to your major advantage.
If you are concerned that feeding them on waking will become a “bad habit” or a “negative sleep association”, please don’t. These are both outdated myths that need to die in a bin fire.
The only thing you will achieve by denying them nighttime parenting of this kind is to frustrate and upset you both at an already fractious time. If you don’t believe me, here’s renowned sleep expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith to explain more.
How do I get my baby to sleep during a regression?
As I mentioned above, if you breastfeed then nursing is an incredibly effective way to get your baby to sleep under any circumstances and should not be feared. If, however, you do not breastfeed or feeding to sleep is no longer working for you, there are other options. As someone who combination-fed and whose baby stopped feeding to sleep at age 3-months, I’ve had to get very creative over the years!
- Sitting on a yoga ball and bouncing with baby in arms
- Holding baby over the shoulder and pacing back and forth
- Swaying from side to side (this often works better when standing – there’s something about the rhythm of your heartbeat when standing that is more soothing to them)
- Lying down and cuddling to sleep
- Patting their bottom rhythmically (never worked for us but I know many mothers swear by it)
- Using a pacifier or dummy (*gasp* there, I said it. Dummies are not the Devil, I promise!)
- Singing lullabies and swaying
- Using a white noise machine while mimicking the sound softly near their ear
- Repetitive and relaxing alpha music such as Sarah and Ian Ockwell-Smiths’ Gentle Sleep Music For Babies (available on Spotify, Apple Music and the dreaded Amazon)
- Using a soft sling (especially useful when they are getting too heavy to rock/sway/bounce)
- Going outside and walking around the garden or the block, speaking calmly. I used to gently recite all our old addresses over and over while pacing around the back garden and it worked like a charm – told you I’d had to get creative!
All that said, I do very much advocate keeping in touch with yourself and your capacity and knowing when it is time to LET. IT. GO.
Sometimes baby just won’t sleep right at that moment and that’s the end of it. You will both benefit enormously from stepping back, having a change of scene, doing something else for a bit (fresh air helps) and trying again even just half an hour later.
Do babies go back to normal after sleep regression?
Well, it depends what you mean by “normal… They are likely to return to a more settled state, going to sleep relatively easily and being able to link one sleep cycles again.
It is also highly likely that their sleep patterns will have changed somehow, so don’t expect them to go back to doing things exactly the way they did before the progression.
As we’ve discussed, babies and infants are gradually moving in the direction of adult-like sleep when they have these bumps in the road. More often than not, sleep looks a tiny bit “better” on the other side of a regression, so keep that in mind when you’re tearing your hair out at 3am!
When do sleep regressions end?
You’re not going to like this, so take a nice deep breath before you read on… I’m not sure if they do 😧 Before you throw your device at the wall, hear me out.
The major sleep regressions, those ones that all seems to run into each other, are usually out of the way by roughly age 2-2.5. However, as I mentioned above, you can expect a regression to occur roughly around the child’s birthday for a few more years to come yet. If that makes you want to gauge your eyes out, consider the following.
Even adults will have times in our lives when sleep is more difficult to achieve and maintain. These are generally for emotional reasons than developmental ones, but can of course due to physiological changes such as pregnancy.
Of course, as adults, we have the capacity to help ourselves in those situations. We can go to the loo and get a glass of water, put on some relaxing music or sit up in bed and read for a bit to help our minds slow down. Babies and small children can’t do any of that.
Your job in this season (and it is but a season of your life) is to help support this tiny human in the phases when they struggle. Whether that struggle is happening in your daytime parenting shift or your nighttime one, remember that your little one needs you.
Yes, you need your sleep too. I’d be the last person to try and deny you the support and care that you need. But you most likely have the capacity to turn to others for help. You can go to bed earlier and, most importantly, remind yourself that this too shall pass.
I hope you’ve found something useful in my guide to sleep regressions. Hopefully something here will help you through this time. I know that right now it doesn’t feel like it will ever end but believe me, it will.
Lots of other things will end too, like the lovely baby snuggles; the way they always want you and nobody else; their wonder and awe at everything about you. When those moments pass we’ll be sad. We’ll wish we’d lingered longer, so let’s try not to wish away this time completely.
Wishing you much love and all the strength you need. Full power to you, Mama – you’ve got this 💪 💜💚💛