Forget bars of gold, 401k contributions, or BitCoin stocks. Sleep is one of the most — if not the most — precious commodities for a new parent.
But while we all struggle through the first sleepless days and weeks of our baby’s life, there comes a time when you think you might see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Your baby is sleeping longer and at long stretches.
You’re starting to feel rested in the morning.
You think you can see the finish line: Sleeping through the night.
And then boom. Your baby has a sleep regression.
What is sleep regression — and when do they happen?
First thing’s first, though: What exactly is a sleep regression?
Sleep regressions are a (temporary) period during which your child’s sleep patterns are disturbed. This could be waking up more frequently at night, or it could be a disruption in their napping.
Sleep regressions are frustrating for many reasons, but they’re an entirely normal part of your baby’s development. They are so normal as to be predictable. They frequently occur around the following months:
Does my baby have sleep regression, or are they just sleep-challenged?
Good question. No, great question! It can be hard to tell sometimes, but here are the key signs of a sleep regression:
Waking more frequently at night
Difficulty falling asleep
Increased crankiness or fussiness
For it to be a sleep regression, these behaviors disrupt their normal sleep habits. What if your baby already does these things, though? They can still have a sleep regression. (It just might be a little more painful than if your baby was a super sleeper.)
As a side note: We caution parents against framing their baby’s sleeping patterns as “good” or “bad.” First of all, babies shouldn’t sleep through the night — sleeping through the night means missing out on valuable nursing time. (Your prolactin levels are highest at night, which means nursing at night supports a strong milk supply — aren’t babies so stinking smart?)
Nursing at night also helps Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Why? Waking rouses their brain, which has been found to protect against SIDS.
What’s more, it puts an awful lot of pressure on you and your child. Some babies struggle with sleep, but so do some adults. The best thing you can do, as a parent, is set the conditions for success. (See Keep A Routine below.)
How long do they last?
As we said, sleep regressions are temporary. They also affect each baby differently. Not all babies will have noticeable sleep regressions, while others may last for several weeks.
But for most babies, they will eventually get back to their regular sleeping habits.
Why does my baby have sleep regression?
Parents often wonder what they’re doing wrong — or what is wrong with their baby — when good sleeping habits go out the window. Rest assured, sleep regressions typically have nothing to do with you. They’re a sign of normal, healthy developmental progress. (This can be your mantra at 3 am if it helps!)
Examples of this include:
Growing sense of independence from caretakers
Learning how to sit up, pull themselves up, or crawl
Learning first words and other language skills
Growing awareness of their surroundings
Once your baby has gotten their new skills under their belt, their sleep patterns should level out.
However, developmental milestones aren’t the only cause of sleep regressions. Other changes can upend sleep patterns.
New daily routine, such as starting or changing daycares
The same thing goes for these causes, though: Once your baby has acclimated to them, their sleep should go back to “normal.”
Breastfeeding and sleep regressions
If you’re a breastfeeding parent, what does that mean for your baby and sleep regressions?
Sad to say, it doesn’t mean they won’t experience sleep regressions. Some breastfed babies wake more frequently during the night to feed, especially when parents co-sleep.
But before you start thinking this is a bad thing, remember, these wake-ups are due to the benefits of breastfeeding your baby. Babies more easily digest breast milk than formula. This translates to more wakes for midnight snacks for your baby. What’s more, when breastfeeding parents co-sleep, they tend to be more responsive to their babies’ wake-ups — which is an excellent thing for emotional and cognitive childhood development.
And while it might sound like you’d get less sleep, what with the more frequent wake-ups, the opposite is true: Research finds that breastfeeding parents get an average of 40-45 minutes more sleep each night than parents who fed formula.
How do you cope with sleep regressions?
Coffee. Catnaps. Cold showers to wake you up. These are time-honored ways of staying alert during the low-sleep periods of parenting. Yes, you can remind yourself that this too shall pass. But in the meantime, there are strategies you can employ to manage sleep regressions.
Keep a routine
Stick to a routine, even if it seems like your baby doesn’t understand the concept. And if you’ve been taking a loose approach to sleeping routines, now’s a great time to start.
That’s because while your baby doesn’t cognitively understand routines, the process of repeating the same activities before naptime and bedtime creates associations with sleep. Common sleepy-time routines include:
Make sure to avoid blue lights before bedtime as well. That includes TVs, tablets, and smartphones.
Word to the wise: Your routines may change as your baby grows and develops. What works at 2 months might not work so well at 2 years. Maintaining flexibility here is the key to keeping your sanity!
Make sure your baby stays rested during the day
Being overtired can make it harder to get good quality rest later. Make sure your baby gets the opportunity to rest during the day. Remember that babies and toddlers need quite a lot of sleep.
Newborns (0-3 months old): 12-17 hours, including naps
Infants (4-12 months): 12-16 hours, including naps
Toddlers (1-2 years old): 11-14 hours, including naps
Preschoolers (3-5 years old): 10-13 hours, including naps
That means if a regression is causing your child to sleep less at night, let them sleep longer during the day. Everyone will sleep better — and be less cranky.
It’s not easy to be roused from sleep in the early hours of the morning. Few of us are our best selves then. But a patient response to sleep regressions is the best way to handle these disruptions. Your baby isn’t doing this to upset you — in fact, they can’t help it.
So if they’re upset, give them love and reassurance. If they’re in the mood for a late-night party, be consistent and calm. Nursing can be a good way to deliver some calming oxytocin for both of you, plus fill up their bellies.
Learn your baby’s sleep cues
While schedules help manage life —and sleep — with a baby, flexibility is essential. If your baby is tired, let them sleep! But besides just drifting off, what are the signs that your baby needs to rest?
Pulling at ears or hair
Sucking on fingers
Fluttering eyelids or difficulty focusing
Jerky arm or leg movements
Fussiness, boredom, clinginess, or increased need for attention
It’s a massive cliche, but it does take a village to raise a child. In part, your child can never have enough people who love them and because parents need that support. If you’re dealing with a sleep regression, call on your village.
It might be asking a friend to come over and rock your baby while you grab a nap. It might be asking your in-laws to walk your baby in the stroller so they can take a longer nap. It might be organizing your sleep in shifts with your partner so you can BOTH get adequate sleep.
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