Baby Sleep Regressions: what, when, & how to survive them
In this baby sleep regression guide:
- What is baby sleep regression?
- Signs of sleep regression
- Sleep regression ages
- How regressions affect sleep associations and sleep cycles
- How long do sleep regressions last?
- Is it a sleep regression or something else?
- Tips for surviving your baby's sleep regression
Picture this - your little one was a top napper and/or sleeping through the night, and just when you think you have conquered all of their sleep woes, you are suddenly faced with constant night waking and non-existent naps. How did this happen!?
This is known as a sleep regression, and if you’ve found yourself struggling with the issue, you’re not alone. Research published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology found that at least one in three mothers experience problems with baby or toddler sleep patterns and that these can have serious impacts on their daytime mental functioning and mental health.
In short, a sleep regression is a period when a baby or toddler who has been sleeping well suddenly starts waking at night and/or skipping naps. They can now be hard to settle for naps and at bedtime. Sucks, right?
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So, what is a sleep regression?
Basically, a sleep regression is any time where your baby seems to regress in their sleep or settling. For example, a baby settling and napping well can suddenly start to resist naps, or a baby sleeping through the night with just 1-2 feeds may start to wake every 2 hours. These regressions in sleep and settling are often linked to developmental changes.
Although this can seem daunting when you’re in the thick of it, remember that sleep regressions are signs that your baby’s development is on the right track. The bad news is, yes, their sleep bears the brunt of this, but the good news is that your baby is growing and learning new things and becoming more engaged with their surroundings, and that’s something worth celebrating!
How is a sleep regression different to a ‘phase’?
Sleep regressions are commonly passed off as a ‘phase’ when in fact, they’re a normal part and, in some cases, a permanent part of your little one’s development that can’t be avoided.
A phase suggests something that will pass on its own, which is true for most regressions except for the famous four-month sleep regression. This regression is certainly not a phase as it is a permanent change in your little one’s sleep - keep reading to find out more.
Many things can cause your wee one to go through a ‘phase’, such as daylight saving causing early morning wakes, learning new skills such as rolling or crawling, or being unwell. In some cases, the changes to your baby’s settling or sleep may simply be due to their naps needing a bit of tweaking. For example, if something is disturbing their sleep environment like sunlight, your baby may go through a bad sleeping phase due to this, or if your little one is unwell, that can temporarily disrupt their sleeping pattern.
So, before you assume your baby is going through a regression and try to “ride it out”, it’s worth sussing out whether their sleep difficulties are actually due to an easy-to-fix reason like their naps or sleep environment needing a bit of tweaking. Our Little Ones App can help with this!
What are the signs of a sleep regression?
The main sign that your little one is going through a regression is that their sleeping pattern takes a turn for the worse. For example, your baby might have been a pro-napper before hitting the 3-4 month mark, and all of a sudden, you find yourself part of an anti-nap riot. Or your 8-10 month old might have been happily sleeping through the night and is now having 3 am parties every night!
Some common signs to look out for are:
- Your baby’s daytime naps may become shorter.
- They may start waking more overnight.
- They can become overtired as a result of poor naps and waking more overnight.
- Your baby might resist naps/bedtime and need more help settling to sleep.
- Your baby may no longer easily go back to sleep when they wake.
- General fussiness/irritability with no apparent cause.
- They’re not hungry or sick.
At what age do babies go through sleep regressions?
There are five distinct sleep regression ages that most babies and toddlers will experience:
- 1. As early as 8 weeks - it’s a minor blip, but it happens.
- 2. Around 4 months.
- 3. Between 8-10 months.
- 4. Between 12 -15 months.
- 5. Around 2 years.
The 8-week baby sleep regression
This is the magic mark where many babies begin to catnap and start sleeping worse in the day. Their newborn sleepiness has worn off so your baby suddenly seems a lot more alert now.
What also happens at this point is their maternal melatonin has worn off, so they need to produce their own melatonin in order to settle to sleep easily and sleep well. Melatonin is a sleep hormone that is only produced and released in the dark, so having a super dark room from this age onwards really helps babies link sleep cycles and stay asleep during naps and overnight.
If your baby is continuing to catnap past this point, even if you are using blackout blinds, it could be that their nap timings need a bit of tweaking to move them gently away from newborn sleeping patterns. Read more about how to cope with a catnapping baby.
The 4-month sleep regression
The first of the big sleep regressions is the biggest change in your baby’s sleep cycle EVER! In fact, as we mentioned earlier, it’s a permanent change. Your little one will now start to wake fully between each sleep cycle rather than drift between cycles automatically as they did when they were younger.
If your baby relies on a parent-led sleep association like feeding, rocking or patting to sleep, they will be looking for that when they wake in between sleep cycles now so the key to getting through this regression is to guide your baby towards self-settling. Sleep has now become a very conscious thing for your baby and it will take practice for them to learn how to self-settling and re-settle themselves. Unfortunately, this regression WON’T go away until your baby has learnt to self-settle.
The 8 -10 month sleep regression
At this age, your baby is going through a massive physiological developmental change. They’ll be learning to crawl, pulling up to stand and finding their voice - your baby is a busy bee, this means they want to wake during naps or in the night to practise their newfound skills. Basically, at this age, babies are distracted by their own amazingness (and rightly so).
There is also often a peak in separation anxiety at this age, which can mean your baby becomes clingy and hard to settle at naps and bedtime. When this happens, it’s very easy for new sleep habits to form so your best bet is to try to stay consistent! Don’t worry, unlike the 4-month regression, this one should only last for a couple of weeks on and off.
The 12 - 15 month sleep regression
This sleep regression is less common and is more to do with the nap transition around this age. Around 12 months, your baby might refuse to take 2 naps, and many parents assume this means it’s time to transition from 2 naps to 1. This could be the case for some babies, but for others, it can be closer to the 15-month mark.
If your baby is alert or a really good sleeper who sleeps past 7 am, you may find that they’re able to drop to one nap shortly after 12 months, but if your little one is waking earlier in the morning, then it will be closer to 15 months. Don’t rush this transition!
As your wee one adjusts to this new change, they may start waking earlier in the morning or after one sleep cycle at bedtime for a few days. However, just like the 8-10 month regression, this will usually resolve itself once your baby is comfortably through the nap transition period.
The 2-year sleep regression
Just when you thought it was over … well, you thought wrong! At this age, your bubs is now a toddler, and independence comes with that. At this age, they’re going through some major developmental milestones that can negatively impact their sleep, and there is often a peak in separation anxiety.
This regression will often cause toddlers to resist their day sleep - sometimes refusing their nap altogether. Many parents assume that this is a sign that their toddler is ready to drop their nap, but this is rarely the case and most 2-year-olds will get overtired without it.
Again, this regression will pass, but you have to remain strong with your sleep schedule, especially now your toddler has found their voice and can argue like there’s no tomorrow! As long as you stay consistent with offering the nap each day, your toddler will more than likely go back to napping well once this regression has passed.
How does a sleep regression affect sleep cycles?
Your baby’s sleep cycles change significantly during the 4-month sleep regression. Prior to 3 or 4 months, babies' night-time sleep cycles are 4-6 hours long, but after this time, babies go through a massive development, where their sleep cycles become more organised and pronounced.
Changes to sleep cycles around the four-month mark:
- Day time cycles change - This is where babies begin to wake fully between each 45 minute sleep cycle in the day.
- Night time sleep cycles shorten to be 2 hours long and babies stop drifting from one cycle to another so easily.
Since your little ones’ sleep cycles have changed, this will usually mean that they start catnapping more and being very overtired come bedtime in the evening, because catnaps are the least restorative type of nap for a baby. This change also marks the point in which learning to self-settle can really benefit your baby’s napping and night-time sleep. You can learn more about self-settling here.
How does a sleep regression affect sleep associations?
New sleep associations often develop around periods of big developmental change or nap transitions - for example, around 8 weeks, at the 3-4 month mark, during the 8-10 month regression or the 12-15 month regression/nap transition period.
Babies can be more difficult to get to sleep during these times because they might be over or under tired, they are standing or sitting in their crib or their sleep needs have changed. A baby in any of these situations won't be able to settle to sleep easily.
During these sleep regressions, you might start rocking or feeding to assist your baby to sleep and if your little one has come to rely on that method to go to sleep, they will now need you to replicate that every single time they wake between cycles.
How long does a sleep regression last?
Not all sleep regressions last for the same amount of time, it depends on the age of your little one and when they are hitting those developmental milestones.
Now, we hate to break it to you but the infamous four-month sleep regression is a whole different ball game. As mentioned earlier, this is the biggest change in your baby’s sleep that will ever happen and it is a permanent change too. This regression won’t go away until they have learnt to self-settle.
Unlike the four-month sleep regression though, the other sleep regressions will pass and should only last a few weeks on and off - as long as no new sleep habits creep in during this time.
What causes sleep regressions?
Nothing necessarily CAUSES regressions, as they are developmental phases that all babies go through, but sleep regressions do often get confused with other things like growth spurts or the need for nap transitions.
These can definitely cause a change in your little ones’ sleeping pattern, but are not a ‘regression’ as such, as sleep regressions are more about your baby’s mental growth, rather than their physical growth.
Is it a sleep regression or something else?
If your little one has suddenly started showing signs of a sleep regression, it’s a good idea to rule out other potential causes first.
When babies suddenly start to wake more during naps or overnight, it can sometimes be due to a growth spurt - particularly if they are wanting to feed as soon as they wake. Growth spurts happen more frequently than sleep regressions and usually don’t last for more than a week.
If your baby seems to be going through a “growth spurt” around 4 months though, keep in mind that their waking may actually be due to the sleep regression. For some babies, particularly those who are fed to sleep at the start of naps and bedtime, they can start to wake in between sleep cycles expecting to be fed back to sleep each time.
Teething usually gets the blame for A LOT of issues surrounding your wee one. My baby’s not feeding … oh it must be teething, my baby is grumpy...must be teething, my baby isn’t sleeping ...must be teething. But the truth is teething is actually a short-lived nightmare that happens for a day or two and you will know when your little one is teething as you can actually see the tooth emerge from the gum. So, if your little one is waking more than usual and they are around 3-4 months and you can’t see any teeth sprouting, then it’s safe to say they have hit the 4 month sleep regression. Read more about teething.
As your baby gets older, you may recognise that they start to cling to you more or cry when they are left with someone other than you, this is called separation anxiety. This is quite common from around 6 months onwards when babies start to develop the concept of object permanence.
Object Permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be perceived (seen, heard, touched, smelled or sensed in any way. In the earlier months of your baby’s life, you may have noticed that your wee one liked to play peek-a-boo, because in their minds once you had disappeared from their line of sight, you vanished and then you re-appeared again (best trick in the book), but for older babies, this is no longer the case.
This can cause your baby to become clingy and hard to settle at naps or bedtime, or they may need you to stay in the room with them while they fall asleep. This is particularly common during the 8-10 month sleep regression.
How do sleep regressions coincide with changes to napping/sleeping?
Some sleep regressions occur around the same time as nap transitions, which usually happen around 6-8 months and 12-15 months. During this time, you may find that your baby is clingier in the day and harder to settle at bedtime.
- The 3-2 nap transition happens around 6-8 months old
- The 2-1 nap transition happens around 12-15 months old
Do sleep regressions ‘ruin’ the sleep training you have done/doing/plan to do?
The answer is not at all. Certainly, during a regression, it makes it a little more tricky to follow a plan, but working on self-settling is the only way through the big 4-month sleep regression, so we would say the more prepared you are, the better.
Following a schedule and implementing good sleep habits early on will certainly help you down the line and will allow you to recognise when something like a sleep regression is occurring because you will be able to recognise the changes in your baby’s sleeping habits. And most importantly, you will recognise when your baby’s sleep needs have changed due to illness, in which case you can contact your GP straight away.
Our Little Ones App can help you to regulate your baby’s sleeping patterns. We’re not saying it’s going to be smooth sailing because dealing with a regression is darn right tough, but following a routine will help your wee one to adjust to these big changes, allowing them to sail through the regression a lot easier.
How to survive your baby's sleep regression
We know it probably feels like the first 12-18 months of your little one’s life is an endless whirlwind of regressions, but just remember they are natural developmental periods in your baby’s life that are helping them to grow, mature and develop. And yes, it’s going to be tough, but there are plenty of things that you can do to help you and your little one along the way.
Firstly, breathe and realise it won’t last forever.
Apart from the four-month sleep regression, the other regressions are not permanent and can go away in a matter of weeks.
Give your baby the chance to self-settle.
Now, this doesn’t mean hard-out sleep training or a crying, abandoned baby. Instead, self-settling simply means your baby is able to fall asleep on their own when they’re ready to (this shift happens during the four-month sleep regression). Try putting your bubs down to sleep in their crib when they’re drowsy, but still awake, this will help your wee one to self-settle and will also break those existing sleep associations.
Encourage good sleep habits early on before the regressions hit.
This way you won’t have to try and change any deeply ingrained sleep associations down the track.
Good sleep habits to foster:
- Make sure the awake times are age-appropriate
- Sleeping your baby in a totally dark room to allow the release of the sleep hormone melatonin
- Have a good bedtime routine to follow (check out our article here), which highlights the importance of a bedtime routine)
- Using white noise to help get your baby to sleep
- Ditch the dummy/pacifier if you’re having to replace it all night long
- Allowing your baby to sleep in their crib for their day time naps as they will learn to associate their bed with sleep.
Stick to your routine.
Although sleep regressions make it difficult for you to stick to your schedule, try to keep up with your regular routine as it will make it so much easier to get back to it once the regression is over.
Don’t suffer in silence.
You also have to look after yourself during this time and if that means asking for help from a grandparent, your partner or a friend, then do it. The more help you can get the better. You are also welcome to join our community in our in-app Little Ones Village, where you can talk to other parents and our certified sleep consultants for tips to get you through these tricky periods.
Baby sleep is an ever-changing phenomenon. From infancy to toddlerhood, there will be many things that affect your baby's sleep patterns and some of these are fleeting, like a cooler night, while other things stick around, like the developmental leaps during a regression.
Almost everything in your baby's world will have some impact on their sleep, so in a sense, babies regress and progress in their sleep all the time and sleep regressions are simply just part of that process. So, with that in mind, just remember - you’ve got this!
If you do need a helping hand with tackling your baby’s sleep during this tricky time then have a look around our website and check out our comprehensive Little Ones App.
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Tham, E., Schneider, N., & Broekman, B. (2017). Infant sleep and its relation with cognition and growth: a narrative review. Nature and Science of Sleep, Volume 9, 135–149. https://doi.org/10.2147/nss.s125992