Updated: Sep 1
Ahhhhh, sleep regressions...one of the most frustrating and disruptive stages that happens to your child's sleep as they grow. Sleep regressions can cause changes in your child's sleep and bedtime behaviours which can leave parents feeling confused, annoyed and in doubt with how they should approach this stage.
The thing about regressions, is although they cause sleep to regress, it's all due to progression in their development. You may have heard sleep professionals refer the regressions as progressions.
Whatever it's called, it has the same impact. And you may have heard of these regressions even if your baby hasn't even experienced one yet. The reason they're a hot topic of conversation is because of the big and sudden impact that the 4 month regression brings. Many parents are concerned about this particular regression, as wonderfully sleeping unicorn babies can become frequent night wakers!
But don't worry, you and your baby are not alone. And the regressions show that your child is growing and developing, which is really a good thing. So, let's learn a little more about these regressions...
The most common sleep regressions are typically at:
4 Month Sleep Regression
The first regression that occurs is commonly called the ‘4-month sleep regression’ and will present between 4-6 months of age. This regression is due to the development of your child's night cycles. From birth, your child has inconsistent and sporadic stages of sleep, being Active Sleep and Quiet Sleep. Each stage is random in length and can happen at any point during their sleep phase, so there is no consistency in their sleep stages. They will typically only wake for a need too, so supported by the stored melatonin that your baby is born with, this can bring long blocks of sleep over night. This will leave you feeling delight (and super proud of yourself!), that your baby is a brilliant sleeper. But let's not get too comfortable...
As the 4 month regression rears its ugly head, the inconsistent sleep stages of sleep turn to sleep cycles, similar to that of an adult, and are around 2-4 hours in length. At this point, we can start to see babies who are sleeping long blocks of sleep at night, wake 2 hourly and need some assistance and encouragement to return to sleep. This regression can almost present overnight and it can’t be avoided completely, but there is a significant difference in impact when a baby who has healthy sleep habits before this change as this baby is not overtired and already understands how to join sleep cycles together.
Signs that your baby is in the 4 month regression:
Multiple night wakings
Reduced naps or “disaster naps”
Changes in appetite
Difficulty falling asleep.
Notably reduced total sleep time
9 Month Sleep Regression
The second regression happens at around 9 months but it can hit as early as 8 months, or as late as 10 months of age. There are a few triggers to this regression, but it is mostly linked to the development of separation anxiety and also the fear of missing out peaks at this age. In addition to a wave of separation anxiety, your baby will have an increase in their motor skill abilities and will be practicing lots of movement, such as crawling and pulling to stand. They may practice their new skills in the cot, and then become frustrated that they can't get from standing to sitting or laying down, and call out for your help. As your child explores movement and that little bit of freedom to create distance from you, linked with separation anxiety, they can become more clingy and be awake and upset in the night as a result.
Around this age babies also begin to categorise objects and people, and process the fact that things can be different, and not everything is the same. They also recognise patterns of sequences and events and become confused when things change.
Team all these cognitive and motor developments with this new wave of separation anxiety, and this can be the point of your child's sleep falling apart, even if they were sleeping well previously.
Signs of the 9 month sleep regression include:
The sleep starting to fall apart, even if the child was sleeping well previously.
Naps become harder to achieve, particularly if there was no schedule in place already
Night time sleep becomes worse with some babies waking excessively
Crying when put to bed
Separation anxiety during the awake time
12 Month Sleep Regression
The 12 month sleep regression is the next one to rock to the boat, and usually presents between 11-13 months of age. Experts believe that the 12 month sleep regression is linked to furthered learning of language, movement and social skills. There is a new found ability to speak between 1-3 weeks, and the way the brain learns to express language can be complicated and unique.
Sleeping habits can be interfered with as your child learns to become more able with walking and talking, develops great physical, emotional and spatial awareness, all with another wave of separation anxiety as your child begins to understands that you are still there when you are gone.
Signs that your child is experiencing the 12 month sleep regression include:
Crying when put to bed, even if previously a good sleeper
Night wake ups
Early morning waking
Please note that nap refusal or resistance is extremely common with this regression but this is never a signal to drop a nap. Your child needs to continue on with a two-nap structure for a little while longer before dropping this morning nap, otherwise the impact of the regression and lessened day sleep can exacerbate your child's disrupted night sleep.
18 Month Sleep Regression
The 18 month sleep regression is very similar to the 12 month regression and many parents feel like the two just merge into one. This regression usually presents between 16-20 months and is due to your child's grasp of verbal language and understands what you are saying almost entirely. Coupled with another wave of separation anxiety, this regression can really cause sleep to fall apart.
Signs that your child is experiencing the 18 month sleep regression include:
Crying at bedtime
Needing parental presence to fall asleep
2 Year Sleep Regression
Lucky last...the 2 year sleep regression. I find this one can be as impactful as the 4 month regression, with many of my clients reporting this is the worst of all! Sorry to plant any concerns here if your child hasn't yet gone through this regression, but with the right information and tools, you can smoothly navigate it.
This regression happens between 22 to 26 months of age and is caused by a language explosion and a further wave of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety tends to be very pronounced at this age, so ensure you are prepared for it. During this regression, it is quite normal for you to offer your child more support as they transition through this phase, because the separation anxiety appears to be more pronounced.
Signs that your child is experiencing the 2 year regression are:
Crying at bedtime
Significant separation anxiety at bedtime and through the night
Frequent night wakes
After reading through the facts of sleep regressions, you may be afraid to ask, "how long do they last?"!!! Regressions typically last 2-6 weeks, dependent on how you approach and manage them. During each regression, you need to remain confident and calm, so your child can emulate these emotions, preventing them from thinking that there is a problem through their development.
You don’t really need to change anything about your child's nap, bedtime or settling when your child goes through a sleep regression; the more consistent your are with your usual approach and patterns, the quicker you will pass though.
There is not much you can do to stop the regressions from occurring however, it is certainly possible to reduce the impact of each regression and swiftly move through them by following these tips:
Maintain your child's current nap schedule
Continue to aim for their recommended sleep quantity in the 24 hour period
Put your child to bed confidently
Spend lots of quality time during the day with your child to ease the separation anxiety
Provide your child with lots of opportunities to practice their new skills during awake times
Foster their independent play during the day
Establish a good wind-down routine, with lots of quality quiet time as part of the wind-down
If your child's sleep becomes disrupted for longer than that 2-6 week period, there is a high chance that it's not just the regression causing your child's sleep disturbances. In many cases, the regressions can be exacerbated if there is an underlying issue affecting sleep.
If you need some professional assistance to navigate the regression, or even determine if it really is a regression at play, then I can help. Book in for a free (no obligation) discovery call.
Forever bringing sleep to families,
My name is Shereen Nielsen and I am a certified infant and child sleep consult, working with children aged birth to 12 years. I am also a lecturer and mentor for students on their journey towards becoming a Sleep Consultant, through my on-line internationally recognised sleep consultants course.