Just when you thought sleep could not get any tougher with a baby, a sleep regression hits.
Suddenly it feels like any progress you thought had been made was almost a figment of your imagination.
Sometimes it can feel like you’re back to having a brand new baby again. Sometimes it feels even worse than those very early weeks when you were feeding every two hours.
Sleep regressions can push you to the very edge of your sanity, because lack of sleep has an awful knock-on effect on so many aspects of your life.
Your skin might break out. You’ll be grouchy. You won’t feel up to doing anything. You may feel mentally very low. It sucks.
But this blog post is going to talk you through sleep regressions to expect with babies in the first 18 months of life.
Not only that, it’s going to show you how you can get through them and what, if anything, you can do to make this time a little easier.
Before we go any further, I want to emphasise that if you are in the depths of despair about your baby’s sleep and think you’re close to losing the plot, this will not last forever.
Put aside the tales from other parents about their champion sleepers who are dodging all the regressions like some kind of super baby. Ignore people who tell you what’s natural and what is not.
Although regressions may land a little like clockwork, how long they last and your individual experience of them can be very different to anyone else.
So remember that while it’s tough, it certainly is not something that means your baby will never sleep again. In fact the regressions often disappear as suddenly as they arrived.
What is a baby sleep regression?
A sleep regression is where your baby’s sleep patterns suddenly change. They more likely to wake up frequently at night, they sleep for less time and when they are awake they are agitated.
It can impact on nighttime sleep more than daytime sleep, but because they tend to be getting less sleep than they need, your baby may be a lot grouchier than normal which makes them cry more frequently in the day.
The term sleep regression is the most widely used, but I read a fantastic article by a sleep expert who pointed out they should be called sleep transitions.
This is because your baby has not moved backwards in their behaviour. The change to their sleep pattern is actually about your baby moving forwards.
What age do babies experience sleep regressions?
Baby sleep experts have found that sleep regressions tend to hit at similar times during babies lives.
Of course a sleep regression may not arrive like clockwork, so always allow for a few weeks give or take, and even for your baby to skip a regression altogether.
The most common ages for sleep regressions are four months, nine months and 18 months. There is some debate around there being more frequent regressions, however other issues such as teething can sometimes be mistaken for a sleep regression.
What causes baby sleep regressions?
A sleep regression usually occurs when your baby is going through a natural physical or mental change.
They tend to coincide with a big development, or leap, in your baby’s skills. For example, the four-month sleep regression is usually tied in a change in your baby’s sleep patterns.
Although it causes sleep to become temporarily worse, ultimately your baby’s sleep should start to improve once they emerge from the sleep regression.
Other changes that can cause sleep regressions are crawling and learning to walk.
How long will a sleep regression last?
It may feel like they last for a lifetime, but actually it tends to just last for a few weeks!
Baby sleep regressions tend to last anywhere from two weeks to six weeks.
Signs of a sleep regression
It may seem obvious that your baby is in a sleep regression, because they will stop sleeping as well as they previously were!
However the four-month sleep regression can be tricker to spot as your baby is so young their sleep is unlikely to have been amazing beforehand.
The key signs of a sleep regression are:
- Fussiness when baby is awake
- Baby wakes up more frequently
- Baby is harder to settle to sleep
- A change in appetite – baby may feed far more frequently and be more agitated during feeds
Tips to manage the four-month sleep regression
The first sleep regression for your baby will hit at around four months. This regression tends to be the toughest one for parents to cope with, as it can cause quite an alarming change in behaviour and if you were already coping with sleep deprivation, anything making it worse is a big challenge.
The good news is it will pass, and you should frequently remind yourself this is not a new permanent state for your baby and sleep.
In order to manage the four-month sleep regression you can try the following tips:
This is tough when you are exhausted. But your emotional response can feed your baby’s own stress and anxiety.
It’s difficult to stay patient when you’re tired, but it’s important you be there to offer the support your baby needs to get through this.
Try to remain calm. If you need a break, ask your partner or a relative to give you an hour or two to rest or just mentally reset.
One of the most stressful things can be second-guessing what you’re doing and wondering if you are actually helping your baby or not.
Try to avoid developing “bad” habits
I hate using the term bad habits, because sometimes you’re so tired then using the “by any means necessary” strategy is the only way to go.
But having said that, when it comes to a sleep regression, whatever you introduce as a regular way to get your baby to sleep during this time will be something you need to learn to live with when it’s over. Or you’ll potentially need to spend a few weeks weaning your baby off of it.
Some things you may introduce during a sleep regression that could be tough to quit after its over include:
- Rocking to sleep
- Using a dummy
Whatever you do introduce now to get through the regression is of course not the end of the world. Just remember that it may be something you will want to ditch once things have settled down.
Stick to your usual routine
Try to keep going with your usual routine. If you can, try to let your baby nap at normal times and stick to your baby’s normal bedtime.
Consistency is helpful, not because it will stop your baby from regressing but because once they are over the regression they can return to a good routine without too much fuss.
Don’t attempt any major changes during this time, like a different bed for your baby or bedroom. Stick to their usual cot and location for naps.
Accept it will not always go to plan
But having said the routine that works for you is important, you can’t force it.
If your baby screams if you put them down for sleep, and prefers to fall asleep in your arms, then some days you may have to accept this is the new normal.
Of course as I said above developing bad habits can be a hindrance in the long run. But if you do have to spend the odd day with every usual nap time happening too early or too late, do not stress about it.
Try to go with the flow a bit during baby’s sleep regression, because so much of this is out of your hands.
Surrender to cluster feeding
If your baby is fussy and feeding more in the evenings during their regression, remember that this is extremely common.
Cluster feeding can be exhausting for breastfeeding mothers but it’s completely normal and will not be forever.
I have lots of tips for how you can cope with cluster feeding over on this blog post. These phases of growth in appetite tend to last for one to two weeks.
If your baby is fussy in the evening and difficult to console, and is around two to four months, this could also be the witching hour.
Many babies go through a phase in their early months where they are very fussy in the evenings. It’s very common and could be to do with developmental leaps or just processing the events of the day.
So the witching hour and sleep regressions can clash together, making things confusing for parents.
The solution when you’re confused remains the same, go with the flow and try to remain calm.
Avoid overdoing it during the day
Don’t make too many plans during the day. Avoid dashing around on errands and planning lots of potentially fraught meetings with friends in public when your baby is prone to screaming all the time.
Opt for get togethers at home and don’t overdo it on the chores. You don’t need any additional stress when dealing with a sleep regression, so be kind to yourself and take the pressure off.
Tips for coping with the nine-month sleep regression
If your baby goes through the four-month sleep regression this is no guarantee they will experience any more as they grow.
However many parents report a regression some time between eight and 10 months.
This is a crucial time for development when baby will be learning how to eat, crawl and processing a whole lot mentally too.
To cope with the nine-month sleep regression, try these tips:
Encourage baby to practice new skills
If your baby is learning brand new skills, then let them practice as much as they want.
Give your baby lots of time on the floor where they can roll and crawl around.
Encourage your baby to stretch their legs and move about with activities that get them reaching for toys and objects.
Get your baby sitting up and playing as much as you can as well.
Assess your nap schedule
Look at how many naps your baby is taking.
By nine months many babies are down to just two naps a day. If your baby is still take three, then consider merging two of their naps, so that they have a nap in the morning and another after lunchtime.
The morning nap is likely to be short at around 45 minutes in length, while the afternoon nap may be two to 2.5 hours long.
If you do try to drop one of the naps and this just makes matters worse, then don’t force the matter. Try again in a week or so and see if they respond better then.
Stick to weaning
Your baby may be refusing more food than usual. Continue to offer food at the meal times.
Do not get too stressed if your baby barely manages a bite at some of their meals. Your baby continues to get most of their calories and nutrients from milk until age one anyway.
But it’s important to stick with the routine of weaning, so that your baby is used to incorporating solid food into their daily routine.
Try not to rush to comfort them
It’s tough to ignore your baby when they’re crying. But often if you give your baby a couple of minutes to settle themselves back to sleep, they will get themselves back to sleep.
It’s important to teach your baby how to settle themselves to sleep. However, it’s also worth noting that sometimes your baby will fuss as they change sleep cycles, so the noise may not be a sign that they are actually waking up. If you go tearing into their room though, you could completely wake them up.
This doesn’t mean you need to leave your baby to cry it out, but it does just give your baby the chance to settle back themselves. You won’t traumatise them, promise!
How to manage the 18-month sleep regression
While many would say the four-month sleep regression is the worst, the 18-month regression is difficult for a whole different set of reasons.
Your baby is now far more mobile, and approaching the terrible twos if not already there.
This makes for a combination of things that can be really tricky for parents to deal with. But the basic rules remain the same when it comes to staying calm and trying to be consistent.
When dealing with the 18-month sleep regression you can also try the following:
Be strict about your bedtime routine
Stick to your bedtime routine. Some days your child may make it difficult to make this a peaceful routine, but it’s worth trying to do it every single day anyway.
A bedtime routine will start at roughly the same time of day (ours has always been around 7pm) and will last around 30 minutes.
I don’t bathe my kids every single day, but this is just a personal preference. Many parents do include a bath as part of the everyday bedtime routine.
Have a wind down period in the afternoon
Expecting your toddler to just fall into bed exhausted at 7pm can be wishful thinking if they have been on the go for hours.
If they are running around and screaming right up until you put them to bed, they will struggle to immediately nod off.
Give them a little calm playtime around an hour before bedtime. This should involve minimal physical activity. Instead focus on simple things like puzzles and building things with Lego.
Avoid big changes
Now is not the time to attempt potty training or a big move to a different bed.
Try to avoid making any huge changes to your toddler’s day while they are going through a regression. There will be plenty of time to pick those issues up when the regression is over.
Try to stick with your routines and methods for getting your toddler to sleep.
It may be tricky, but eventually the regression will end and things will be back to normal.
While you may feel powerless in the midst of a regression, actually trying to stick to some routine, and your toddler’s usual methods of getting to sleep, means you are controlling the situation in the ways that you can.
What do you need to know about sleep regressions in babies
The biggest thing to remember about sleep regressions is that they do not last forever.
Once you are through them, you may be amazed at how your baby’s sleep simply returns to being manageable again.
If after the regression is over, and your baby is easier to settle, but you are still have problems your can start to think about sleep training after your baby is six months.
It’s unwise to try sleep training in a younger baby, although there are lots of steps you can take with a baby from day one to foster good sleep habits.
I have a whole post on sleep training babies over six months over here.
Good luck with the sleep regression, you will get through this mama!