The question that I get asked a lot by parents is “why has my child’s sleep suddenly got worse?”. If teething, illness and pain have been ruled out then it’s most likely a sleep regression. These regressions get even the most experienced parent a little perplexed because they seem to last forever! The truth is that most sleep regressions last between 2-6 weeks, but when your little one is waking multiple times a night and seemingly wanting to be awake for hours on end it definitely seems like an eternity!
What are sleep regressions?
“Sleep regression” is generally a term used to describe a deterioration in sleep. It is more apparent in children and babies who have been sleeping really well up until that point and then who suddenly start waking at night for no apparent reason. It is believed that regressions are actually just a normal part of a baby and child’s development, especially considering that they seem to occur at key developmental periods in a child’s life. There is some evidence that regressions also tie in with when your baby or child is learning a new skill such as crawling, learning to stand or language development.
When do sleep regressions happen?
There seems to be a lot of consensus around when sleep regressions happen and this commonality links to key developmental periods. The wonder weeks app is great for highlighting when regressions may occur using a dark cloud to signal these developmental periods when babies are learning new skills and moving onto new milestones. The general agreement is that sleep regressions happen at these times…
4 months – Often referred to as the ‘dreaded 4 month regression’. It is during this period that babies sleep changes to more closely mimic the sleep of an adult so that babies alternate between deep sleep and lighter REM sleep. With this change in brain development babies also start to become more aware as they enter into lighter sleep and more likely to wake fully, especially if the only way they know how to go back to sleep is by being rocked or fed etc. At around 4 months your babies sleep needs also start changing and he needs more of the restorative sleep gained from longer naps and moving through sleep cycles. A lot of this is due to the key developments your child will be making around this age such as rolling over and being able to interact more socially.
8-10 months – This sleep regression is linked to major developmental changes that occur around the 8-10 month mark. There is usually a lot of physical and cognitive development going on from learning to crawl or stand or even beginning to walk with assistance or unaided! Around this time babies hand and eye co-ordination also starts to develop. A lot of babies begin to master the pincer grip, where they can pick up smaller items such as blueberries between their thumb and index finger, whereas before it was all about the fist grab! These huge developmental changes and achievements that your baby is reaching can lead to sleep disruptions, especially if the first thing your little one does at night when they wake is stand up!
12 months – At around 12 months most babies will start walking. This is also the time where babies start transitioning their sleep and moving towards becoming a toddler. At 12 months old most babies are able to communicate their needs quite clearly and a lot are starting to learn and use the word ‘no’. It is around this time that babies start to realise they have some independence from refusing to eat certain foods to fighting naps! Most babies still need two naps at this point but their sleep is transitioning and it is from this point that awake periods between naps have a big impact as babies start working their way towards having only one nap. Although your little one may start fighting their nap at this point most children are not ready to have just one nap a day until they reach at least 15 months of age.
18 months – At 18 months your child is now a fully fledged toddler! They should be down to one nap a day at this point, usually around lunch time. Alongside becoming a toddler comes an increase in language development and if your little one has not been talking previously, you will start to notice an increase in their words and vocabulary around now. Even if their word formation is not the clearest your little one should be babbling away in conversation. For most toddlers it is around now that they realise that they can push boundaries and ‘test the waters’. At this point in a child’s development it is key to maintain consistency and routine. This gives your child a sense of security as they know what to expect and also helps when they are trying to push those boundaries!
24 months – This is the final sleep regression to occur! Again around this time your child’s language skills are beginning to develop even further and their word formation is becoming clearer. Some children may even begin potty training, whether that be because their parents decide it is time or that they decide they no longer want to wear a nappy. Your child’s social skills are also developing and they may be moving from playing alongside another child to trying to engage in play with another child. At this point they are trying to work out social etiquette, although they still don’t always get it right! This leap in development, cognitively, physically and socially means that yet again sleep can be disrupted. Your little one is probably quite clear during her wake ups about what she expects at this point as well, whether this be to play or to try and come into your bed!
How to manage sleep regressions
The key with managing sleep regressions is consistency! In a sleep deprived haze it is all too easy to resort to a number of different tricks to try and get your little ones back to sleep, from offering them a feed to rocking them to bringing them into your bed (something I have been guilty of on many an occasion!). At this point the key is not to develop any new sleep associations, so if on one night you do bring your child into your bed to gain some much needed sleep that is fine, as long as you don’t do this on every night of the regression. If you do you’ll find once the regression is over your little one will be waking expecting those things to happen and so your sleep deprivation will just be extended! As with all night wakings, if you are certain that it is not illness or pain (there are so may pesky little teeth coming through at these points), then give your baby the chance to settle herself. Offer her comfort as needed but try to make sure she falls asleep in her cot/bed and not on you. Remind yourself that this is only temporary and that your child is developing appropriately and her brain is working hard! Try and get your partner to support you during this time. Have a clear plan on how to manage the wake ups and have them get up and help out on occasions to give you a break. The more you work as a team the more sleep you will both get.
Remember if your little one is waking a lot during the night, staying up for long periods of time, or not napping well, they are going to be tired. That will mean a change in their behaviour where you might find they are more cranky in the day as well as having more tantrums. This type of behaviour is hard for any parent to deal with at the best of times, let alone when you are sleep deprived. Try and remember that she is going through some big developmental changes, take a deep breath and remember that you are not alone. If you can ride it out and support her through it she will feel much more secure and confident at the end, knowing that she gets a consistent response from you as well as your love and attention.