It happens at least once a week.
I wake up in the morning and there is an email waiting for me. It’s not an ad or a newsletter or an email from my kid’s school – the email is from a Mom.
The time stamp is usually between 3:00 am and 5:00 am and the message has a desperate yet purposeful tone. The sender is tired and panicky but trying to keep it together.
The message often reads as something like this:
My 4 month old has been waking up 3 times a night for the past 2 weeks. I think he’s going through a sleep regression.
My 6 month old is refusing to sleep in her crib for the last week. I think it could be a sleep regression.
Sleep regressions are a dreaded part of parenthood and rightly so. They are awful. They are irrational. They come out of nowhere and when you’re going through them, it feels like there is no end in sight.
Parents often think that a sleep regression is the culprit when their child is having sudden sleep issues but a true sleep regression has some unmistakable markers. It begs the question – what is baby sleep regression and more importantly how do parents distinguish a true regression from just a few bad nights?
Sleep regressions tend to happen during specific age ranges, which I have listed at the end of this post but they can happen at any time.
So What is Baby Sleep Regression?
A sleep regression occurs when a baby or toddler, who was previously sleeping well, suddenly begins resisting sleep and/or begins waking up several times a night. A child going through a sleep regression will often refuse to fall asleep on their own and if they do manage to fall asleep, they may wake up a short time later when they realize they have been left alone.
Although some sleep related behaviors can appear out of nowhere, they may not necessarily be signs of a regression. For example, if your child begins waking up before 6:00 am for a week or more, it’s possible that a change in schedule is necessary.
Perhaps they are getting too much sleep during the day or maybe their bedtime is too late or too early. If they are waking up at 5:00 am every day with a smile on their face, chattering happily in the crib while everyone in the house is still trying to sleep, it’s not a regression. A change in schedule is likely to solve the problem.
Changes and New Experiences
A sleep regression is always characterized by a resistance to the usual bedtime routine. As babies grow and develop, their cognitive awareness expands. This can lead to new fears, separation anxiety and good old fashioned unwillingness to go to bed. For example, let’s say your child is 9 months and you begin attending a new baby gym. Your baby is exposed to a new environment that is strange and exciting and perhaps a little scary. They have met new people and tried new activities. If you begin to notice sleep problems shortly after attending the gym, it could be because they are adjusting to their world becoming that much bigger. Maybe something scared them at the gym or maybe it’s so much fun that they are more interested in having fun than going to sleep. Do we stop attending the gym? No – give the baby additional support and ride it out. They will adjust eventually and the gym will become old news.
Sleep Regressions are often accompanied by a major developmental milestone. This is why they tend to occur when a baby first learns to roll over, sit up, crawl or walk.
The baby’s brain is driven to practice the new skill they are trying to master, leading to interrupted sleep and difficulty settling. Their brain will push them to practice the skill, even when they are sleeping.
Imagine that you are on a hard deadline to learn a new program for work. You are completely unfamiliar with it and learning requires a lot of mental energy and concentration. You may find that your sleep is interrupted as a result. The stress caused by increased levels of cortisol in your system may cause you to have trouble falling asleep or wake up in the middle of the night. It’s exactly the same when your baby is trying to learn a new skill.
The solution – give your baby lots of time to practice when they are not sleeping. If they are learning to walk, encourage them to cruise along furniture while you supervise. If they are learning to crawl, lay blankets and mats on the floor so they can bounce and scoot as much as they want.
Giving them a chance to practice these skills will give them the time they need and it will tire them out.
Tough but Temporary
If you are in the midst of a regression, hang in there. It won’t last.
Regressions can take some time but they only last a few weeks at the most.
If you want to avoid bedsharing, co-sleeping or assisting your child to sleep, try not to use these methods during a regression. Of course we all do what we have to do when we’re exhausted but it’s very easy to adopt these habits as long term solutions when we’re desperate for sleep.
If you have ruled out illness, scheduling, and developmental milestones, it’s possible that your baby simply needs a little support at bedtime and during night wakings. Use a gentle sleep training method to reintroduce independent sleep and remain consistent. It’s only a matter of time before your child is sleeping like a champ again.
Common Ages for Sleep Regressions
Are you in the midst of a sleep regression with your child? Book your complimentary 15 minute enlightenment call with me today.