The dreaded sleep regression! If you have a baby, have ever met another parent, or work with children, you have most likely heard about sleep regressions. But are they real? In this article, I’ll try to explain what is going on, and debunk a few myths.

Developmental milestones and how they affect sleep

If you’ve read my earlier blog about development, you’ll know that children are constantly changing, growing, adapting and learning. These developmental milestones occur at certain times during your child’s life. They can be a bit variable, which is why not every baby sits up at the same age, or learns to clap hands. However, there are some broad ranges where major developmental milestones tend to occur – click here to learn more.

When children are learning, their brain is processing a lot of new information. The brain has to ‘file’ new learning, as well as ‘attach’ some older learning to the newly acquired skills or thoughts. It’s complicated!

How might brain development cause a sleep ‘regression’

An infant’s brain is highly under-developed at birth. It begins to ‘wire’ itself under the influences of social interaction, experiences, and to some extent, with maturity. Unconnected brain cells begin to form connections, which help a baby to link events, people, meanings and learning experiences. This is why a baby initially might cry on the changing mat during a nappy change, but after several weeks of their parent reassuring them, and doing the same things in the same order, they begin to calm down. They panic less, and tolerate the task, partly because they know what is coming next.

This might sound trivial, but every single little experience, interaction and learning event will happen due to brain activity. Amazing really, when you think about it. But it means that during a phase of increased learning, if you overload that little person with too many things to think about, they can get overwhelmed.

Parents will often get in touch about sleep during a phase of acute developmental change. It’s almost as if their baby is so busy learning about how to roll over, or how to grab an object, crawl, stand or whatever it is, that sleep goes on the ‘back burner’.

What do sleep regressions look like?

I don’t really like this term, and in fact, there is no scientific evidence to back up sleep regressions! There is plenty of evidence about development, and also about how a baby’s sleep cycle changes and evolves, but there is no mention in scientific literature about sleep regressions. That means that this is pop-science, not actual science. What parents usually notice is that their baby’s sleep suddenly changes. They might notice any of the following:

  • Refusal to nap
  • Waking soon after falling asleep
  • Resistance to fall asleep
  • More night waking
  • Waking up early in the morning
  • Waking up seeming upset
  • Being more cranky or clingy in the day

Often, it’s a combination of many of these things. It can feel very frustrating and demoralising to have your baby suddenly appear to ‘regress’ in their sleep. But I assure you, they have not lost skills. It’s just that sleep has temporarily gone on the back burner. It is simply less of a priority than the other things your baby is learning about or processing at the time.

When does this typically occur?

A sleep ‘regression’ can occur at any time of developmental change. There are of course, some well-known times when it all tends to go belly-up – see my earlier blog on developmental milestones for a re-cap if you want to refresh your memory. The most common time parents notice sleep taking a hit is around 4-5 months, and again at around 8 months.

4-5 months

Babies at this age are learning a huge amount! They seem to be developing at full speed across many different areas. You will probably notice more vocalisation (cooing, laughing, trying to have deliberate ‘conversations’ with you). They will probably be learning to roll (usually from back to front first – and they may get stuck). They are also probably experiencing some adaptations to their sleep cycle, which can have some very specific effects on their sleep behaviour.

As a newborn, your baby transitioned from awake to asleep via REM (dreaming) sleep. The brain activity during REM sleep is very similar to the activity during wakefulness, and babies often fall asleep easily – whether in arms, during a feed, or a little bit of movement. Their sleep cycle is also quite short, and they simply alternate between REM sleep and deep sleep. As their sleep cycle matures, they transition from awake to asleep via a completely new state of sleep that they have not experienced before – light sleep. It’s a type of non-REM sleep, and may well feel quite unfamiliar to your baby. For this reason, it seems that many babies suddenly struggle to ‘switch off’ and go to sleep. Parents will commonly identify these phases as sleep regressions.

As well as this, a 4-5 month old baby often has FOMO (fear of missing out)! They are distractible, stimulated by their environment, eager to interact and learn, and find new experiences, places and people exciting. At the same time, their need for daytime sleep may have decreased, and they may genuinely need fewer naps in the day, or be able to tolerate being awake for longer periods. So you may need to re-evaluate your whole day!

Learning can be exciting and stressful

During any phase of development, babies and children will often feel a little unsettled. These phases of needing more support or help at sleep times are often labelled as sleep regressions, but in reality, all of us are like this. Think about a time when you have been studying hard, or learning a new skill. It can be very tiring, but also quite overwhelming. Babies are just the same, only they are less able to calm down by themselves – see my earlier blog here and a video explaining it here. Often parents will tell me that before these sleep regressions, their baby was able to drift off to sleep by themselves, and now….. not so much. They wonder if their baby has lost this ability to go to sleep alone. Well, no, because babies cannot calm down by themselves. It’s just that if you previously had got the timing right, and your baby was neither over or under-stimulated (see this blog), and your baby had all their needs met – emotional, nutritional, physical, psychological etc, you may have just nailed it.

As you can probably appreciate, that’s an awful lot of things that have to be just right for a baby to be able to go off to sleep. If they are unable to calm down on their own, and anything, anything, is bugging them, then they will need your help to calm down. You see, the truth is, sleep regressions do not mean they have not lost their ability to self-soothe – they never had the ability in the first place!

So the upshot is, your baby who previously didn’t put up much of a fight before naps and bedtime may need additional help to settle down and go to sleep. More ideas to follow….

8 months

This is another time when sleep often goes belly-up, and sleep regressions often get the blame. At this age, babies are babbling, probably learning to stand with some help, crawl, clap hands, wave, and all sorts of other clever little tricks. On top of that, they are usually experiencing separation anxiety to some extent. If your 7-9 month old baby has suddenly become fretful when you leave to go to the bathroom, or answer the doorbell, chances are separation anxiety is to blame. Many of the same challenges at around 4-5 months will recur, and this can feel very frustrating.

You may need to drop the mid-afternoon nap around this age, if it is beginning to rob your evening sleep and make bedtime a challenge. But when you do this, remember to make the lunchtime nap a bit later and the bedtime a bit earlier, or you’ll end up with a cranky baby by bedtime, and you may get sleep resistance.

How to help your baby during sleep ‘regressions’

There are lots of things you can’t change or stop. Firstly can’t stop your baby developing. Second, you can’t stop your baby prioritising the developmental learning that is taking place during one of these phases. Finally, you can’t stop your baby’s sleep cycle changing and how difficult they find this. So, you’ll have to focus on the things you can do:

  • Keep calm. Babies sense panic! It’s understandable that you’d find sleep and nap times stressful if they’re a bit of a car-crash. But acknowledge this, and then try to dump those thoughts somewhere to enable yourself to stay calm, confident and connected. Have a read of my earlier blog on this.
  • Re-evaluate your naps. Has your little one’s need for naps changed? Watch your baby’s individual tired cues and try to be responsive to them.
  • Consider fiddling with bedtime. Around 4 months and 8 months when nap needs often reduce, babies may need a slightly earlier bedtime to compensate
  • Maintain your predictable, positive and calming routines. Some general sleep tips here
  • Consider hovering nearby when you think your baby may startle awake (this often happens after about 20 minutes in a 4 month old) – get in there before the danger time and lay a hand on them, or play some white noise to see if this helps them to stay asleep.

How long will my baby’s sleep ‘regressions’ last?

Usually, sleep regressions last several days, but it depends what else is going on. You see, habits and behaviours take time to form and become embedded. If you’re trying to do anything new, and your baby is in the middle of an acute developmental phase, the chances are progress will be slow. Psychologists say it takes a couple of months to form a firm habit, and that’s with no interruptions in consistency. With babies and children, you almost never have 2 months straight when nothing is happening. So the truth is, progress is likely to have ups and downs. Sometimes it will feel like you’ve made some in-roads, and then you’ll feel like you’ve plateaued and got ‘stuck’. Other times, especially during particularly significant times of development or massive routine disruptions, it may feel like your baby is having one of many sleep regressions. It’s normal for progress to feel like this.

Sleep regressions can cause parents a lot of stress. But sometimes the fear of one can be worse than the experience. Try to stay calm, and remember that all phases eventually come to an end.

Good luck!

Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.