Sleep regression is a period, usually about two to four weeks when a baby who's sleeping well suddenly has trouble settling down for sleep or wakes up fussing in the middle of the night.
The term "sleep regression" refers to a period when a baby or toddler experiences a shift in their sleeping pattern.
Often, sleep regression signs include:
- fighting naps or bedtime
- difficulty falling asleep
- taking shorter naps or skipping naps
- frequently waking at night
- fussing and crying
There is not much current and formal research on infant sleep regressions. However, some older research suggests regressions are responses to the developmental changes babies experience during the first couple of years of life.
For example, an older study from 1991 suggests that periods of change in sleep patterns and behaviour often coincide. Likewise, a 2002 case report found that sleep regressions may happen alongside the developmental brain changes that happen roughly between 2 and 21 months.
That said, it seems sleep regressions may happen for various reasons, including:
- developmental milestones (learning to crawl, walk, talk)
- needing to transition to one nap per day
- separation anxiety
- the growing desire for independence
- life changes (potty training, moving from crib to bed, getting a sibling)
However, sometimes, what looks like a sleep regression is more of sleep disruption due to growing pains, teething, hunger, and reflux. Additionally, a baby may have trouble falling and staying asleep because they have not established solid sleeping habits.
Is your formerly perfect sleeper suddenly waking up in the middle of the night or wailing every time you put her down at her regularly scheduled naptime?
You may be facing a case of sleep regression. Here's what sleep regression is, when it usually happens, how long you can expect sleep regression to last and what you can do to help everyone sleep well again.
Baby Nursery FAQs
Sleep regressions are common at several ages, including four months, eight months, and 18 months. While other issues can cause disruptions in a baby's sleep habits, you can distinguish a regression from other sleep disturbances based on when it happens, how long it lasts, and whether there are any other issues.
While there are many effective ways to sleep train your four-month-old, he recommends the cry-it-out method, as it's usually the quickest and allows your baby to put themselves to sleep (or back to sleep) instead of you rushing in to soothe them.
Teething. The 8-month sleep regression is often caused by teething. So, if your baby is chewing and drooling a ton, his gums are red, or you begin to see new choppers poking through, that could be a sign that nighttime wake-ups will be visiting you soon!
In short, dealing with nighttime disruptions is often simply a part of new parenthood. Most issues related to a baby not sleeping are caused by temporary things like illness, teething, developmental milestones or changes in routine — so the occasional sleep snafu likely isn't anything to worry about.
Sleep regressions usually last between 2-6 weeks. The good news is that most babies don't experience every sleep regression between birth and three years old. Some developmental milestones are more exciting and more difficult than others for different babies.
Signs of sleep regression
The signs of sleep regression can vary based on the cause of your baby's sleep problems. However, here are some signs your baby may be going through a sleep regression:
- More frequent night waking.
- Trouble falling asleep at bedtime
- Increased fussiness or crankiness
- Sudden resistance to naps
When sleep regressions happen
Sleep regression can happen anytime since it's linked to unpredictable factors like disruptions in routines or an illness.
But there are a few periods when sleep regression is relatively foreseeable due to growth spurts, teething or reaching new milestones:
- 3 to 4 months: The dreaded 4-month sleep regression is often the hardest for parents because it's the first. There are several culprits behind baby sleep problems at this age: the pain caused by teething, hunger linked to growth spurts and the excitement of rolling over for the first time.
- Six months: Babies often go through another growth spurt at about six months old. By this age, however, little ones can sleep through the night and may wake simply for snuggles — which means it might be time to test a sleep training method.
- 8 to 10 months: Many babies begin crawling at around nine months old (although some start sooner and others later) and begin standing at around ten months. Separation anxiety is also common (and perfectly normal) around this age, which may cause your baby to wake up looking for reassurance from you during the night.
- Twelve months: Sometime between 9 to 12 months, babies start standing up. At around the one-year mark, others take their first steps (although the average age is 14 months, some babies start earlier, and others wait until the 18-month mark). Reaching big milestones can cause temporary sleep problems.
Toddlers often go through sleep regressions at around 18 months and 24 months that may be caused by nightmares and night terrors, fear of the dark, toddler teething and separation anxiety.
Tips for managing sleep regressions in your baby
Fortunately, sleep regression is usually temporary. Follow these tips to manage sleep regression in your baby:
- Get to know and watch out for your baby's sleep cues (like rubbing her eyes, fussiness, yawning, looking away), so you can get her to bed before she's overtired, making it harder for her to fall stay asleep.
- Stick to a consistent bedtime routine. Think dinner, bath, book, lullabies and a few comforting words.
- Ensure your baby is getting enough sleep during the day, as overtired babies are more likely to have problems sleeping at night.
- If your baby suddenly starts crying in the middle of the night, give her a few minutes to fuss before you respond; she may self-soothe back to sleep. If she doesn't, enter the room to check that everything's okay, pat her on the head or tummy, quietly say a reassuring word and leave. Try to avoid rocking, cuddling, or feeding your baby, as this may encourage her to wake up for your attention regularly. If she keeps crying, you may want to say a few comforting words from the door and leave her again, repeating as necessary at increasing intervals.
- Consider trying (or retrying) sleep training if your baby is at least 4 to 6 months old. Give it at least two weeks to see if it's working.
- Give her extra attention during the day and especially before bedtime. If your baby seems stressed out by a life change or has separation anxiety, this can help her to feel more secure at night.
Take a deep breath, and remember that sleep regressions are temporary. Your baby is likely frustrated with its fast-growing body and mind. They're now more engaged and aware of their surroundings, including you.
Before trying the suggestions below, it's good to make sure your baby isn't sick. An illness can also disrupt their sleep. See your doctor if your baby has a fever or is much fussier than normal.
Give your baby time to practice during the day.
Your baby is working hard to master newfound skills and may be so eager to learn that they try to practice at night, which may, unfortunately, keep them up.
You might be able to reduce bedtime skill practice by giving your child uninterrupted time during the day to practice rolling over or sitting up.
Fully feed your baby during the day.
Full feedings during the day and just before bed can help prevent your baby from getting hungry at night.
At this age, they are incredibly curious about the world around them and might shift their attention away from feeding before they are full. Try eliminating distractions by feeding your baby in an environment less likely to stimulate their curiosity.
Once your baby starts sleeping through the night, try not to feed them if they begin to cry at night. If your baby is always fed to make them stop crying at night, they may come to expect this response every time they wake up.
Introduce 'drowsy but awake.'
Help your baby soothe him or herself to sleep. Sit by their side and offer reassurance, both physical and verbal, as they close their eyes and drift off to dreamland.
But if your coaching is not helping, and they're still crying, you may decide to pick them up and hold them or rock them to sleep. It's OK if your baby isn't ready to learn how to put themself to sleep yet, as it takes time.
Keep the room dark
When you put the baby down for a nap, keep the room as dark as possible to encourage better sleep. If your baby wakes up too soon, the darkness will help encourage them to fall back asleep.
Likewise, in the morning, when it's time to get up, make sure the room is full of natural sunlight. Light helps signal the brain about the sleep-wake cycle.
Establish a bedtime routine
Babies need roughly 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night and a couple of naps during the day. Now is the time to start regulating your baby's sleep patterns and naps.
If you haven't done so already, establish a bedtime routine and stick to it. This can include a bath, changing clothes, reading a bedtime story, or singing a lullaby.
You can do whatever you'd like, as long as you are consistent with the approach. Also, it's okay to wake your baby in the morning if they sleep longer than usual, as long as it's at the same time each day.
Adjust your routine
Adjust your daily routine to fit your baby's nap and sleep schedule. Mealtimes and play times should also happen on a consistent schedule. Factor in your baby's schedule when you plan your day.
Make it quick
If you hear your baby wake up at night, wait a few minutes before you get up to see them. If they continue to cry, it's time to respond.
However, try to make these nighttime awakenings for changing and feedings as quick and quiet as possible. That means avoiding any talk or play and keeping the lights low.
Light from mobile devices or computers can stimulate your baby, so try to keep screens off as well.
When you take a low-key, quiet approach, you'll reinforce the idea that nighttime is for sleeping.
Pay attention to sleep cues and act quickly.
Yawning, rubbing their eyes, fussing, and disinterest … These are all classic signs of a sleepy baby. When you notice them, try and get your baby to a quiet space to rest.
Your response time to these signs can mean the difference between getting them to sleep and trying to console an overtired baby resisting sleep.
Stick with the program
Your child is going through a lot of changes that may feel uncomfortable. In the short term, continue using the same soothing practices as your little one adjusts.
This could mean nursing to sleep or rocking them to slumber. While you'll have to wean them off of these sleep patterns, later on, they will bring comfort to your baby right now.
Other soothing techniques include shushing your baby gently and giving them a pacifier to suck on.
Go with the flow
Your baby may catch their Zzz's anywhere during the day: the swing, the car, the stroller, or bassinet. But what helps them today may not work tomorrow, so be prepared to try different things to soothe your infant.
Offer extra love and affection.
Lots of hugs, cuddles, and kisses will comfort your baby and make them feel loved. It will also mean a lot to them as they grow and develop.
Turn to family and friends.
As much as your baby needs sleep, you do, too. Don't be afraid to turn to your loved ones to watch and play with your little one while you take an hour (or two or three!) to sleep.
Sleep regression stage by stage
Like most things regarding babies and toddlers, sleep regressions can vary in when they happen and how long they last.
However, many specialists agree that the most common regressions happen around four months, six months, eight months, 12 months, 18 months, and two years of age and last between 2 and 6 weeks.
4-month sleep regression
Typically, the 4-month sleep regression is the first sleep pattern change babies experience.
However, not all babies experience it. It might come a month or so earlier or later for those who do.
- changes in nap routines
- waking more frequently at night
- restless sleep
- trouble falling back asleep
Generally speaking, the 4-month sleep regression is less regression and the beginning of a permanent change in a baby's sleep pattern. Around this time, babies start sleeping more like adults and less like infants, so this "regression" is typically like a springboard into more mature sleeping patterns.
6-month sleep regression
There is some debate about the 6-month sleep regression, specifically whether it exists.
Some argue that sleep disturbances around this age do not last long enough to qualify as true sleep regression.
Generally, babies around this age wake at night because they are hungry. Maybe they are breastfed and still need a night feeding, or they need to replenish the calories they burned during the day to practice their scooting, crawling, and sitting up skills.
On the other hand, some claim the 6-month sleep regression is a true regression, though they admit it is a short-lived one. Additionally, these advisors add newfound skills, teething, and separation anxiety to the list of causes.
Regardless of phrasing or reasoning, the signs are the same: waking at night, fussiness, and longer daytime naps.
8-month sleep regression
This stage is also called the 8- to 10-month sleep regression because it may happen any time during that age range.
As with most sleep regressions, this one coincides with developmental changes such as learning to pull themselves to a standing position or crawl.
Also, some babies get their central incisor teeth between 8 and 12 months, which may contribute to this sleeplessness. Anyone concerned about teething may ask a pediatrician for advice.
12-month sleep regression
There is not much mystery surrounding the 12-month sleep regression. It might happen as early as 11 months for some babies or blend in with an 11-month regression. For some babies, it might not even happen at all.
Like most sleep regressions, the 12-month sleep regression seems to happen due to the baby's growing skills and awareness of the world around them.
Caregivers keep babies on a regular bedtime routine to help this regression pass.
18-month sleep regression
It is safe to say toddlers go through many changes around the middle of their second year, and some of those changes contribute to the 18-month sleep regression.
One change relates to the toddler's circadian rhythms, specifically the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle.
Babies begin establishing a sleep-wake cycle during the first four months of life.
Trusted Source. However, rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) change over a person's lifetime, including the first five years of life.
This may cause some toddlers to start fighting their usual bedtime. Both REM and NREM are sleep phases that are important for various mental and physical processes.
Additionally, some toddlers go through the 18-month sleep regression because they deal with separation anxiety and do not want to be away from their caregivers.
At the same time, toddlers around this age begin wanting more independence. They want to stay awake to practice their growing skills and explore the world.
2-year sleep regression
Typically, the 2-year sleep regression is the last one.
Causes may include:
- life changes such as potty training or moving to a toddler bed
- return of separation anxiety
- night terrors, nightmares, and nighttime fear (think "monster under the bed")
There are a few ways caregivers can help ease this regression, including:
- initiating one life change at a time (e.g. toddler bed and then potty training, or vice versa)
- increasing wake time between the afternoon nap and bedtime
- teaching skills to cope with nighttime fear
Additionally, the toddler may experience a nap regression.
Generally, toddlers this age take an afternoon nap. Some may start resisting this nap, confusing caregivers into thinking they are ready to stop napping. However, typically the afternoon nap lasts through and sometimes beyond toddlerhood, and caregivers may treat this resistance as a regression.
When to call the doctor about sleep regression
While sleep regression will very likely end on its own given some time, never hesitate to call your doctor if you have concerns or questions about your baby's sleep or the potential cause behind sleep problems (like persistent nightmares).
If you've constantly been stuck with a sleep training method for at least two weeks and your baby's sleep is still disturbed, you're not sure why to consider calling your doctor to see if they have any insights or advice to help your baby sleep better.
If your baby isn't sleeping because she's sick, know the signs it's time to call her pediatrician, most commonly including fever (101 Fahrenheit or higher if your baby is six months or older), bloody nasal discharge, swollen glands or an earache (babies may pull at their ears).
Sleep regression isn't fun for anyone. Know that it's normal and will very likely pass, given time. Stick to your normal bedtime and sleep routines, which little ones find reassuring, and your baby will be sleeping like a champ again soon.