Signs of Sleep Regressions and What to Do About It
August 23, 2021
Lead Parenting Expert and Safe Sleep Educator, Emily Osborne, shares her advice for parents tackling the dreaded sleep regression.
Sleep is one of the most common topics parents ask about. Everything from “how long should my baby sleep?” to “how to get my baby to sleep?” And for new parents with young babies, sleep regressions are one of the most challenging times to navigate.
Your baby’s sleep patterns change quite a bit during the newborn phase which is challenging and exhausting for parents. Understanding the why’s and how’s of baby’s sleep help set realistic expectations about your baby’s sleep development.
What are sleep regressions?
A sleep regression is a period of time when your baby’s normal pattern of sleep is disrupted by sudden changes in their ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Baby sleep regressions can affect a baby’s bedtime routine, overnight sleep, and naps. As a result, babies will often have behavioral changes such as increased fussiness, irritability, and increased need for soothing and comfort.
Common signs of sleep regressions are:
- Sudden, frequent wakings during the night
- Baby showing difficulty with or resistance to bedtime routine
- Altered nap lengths
Sleep regressions in babies are usually associated with changes in a baby’s sleep cycles, as well as developmental leaps—times when Baby is approaching or has reached a milestone. Not all babies will experience sleep regressions, but it is normal to expect that your baby will go through the natural shifts in their sleep patterns. As parents, it is important to remember that change is the one thing you can always expect during your babies’ early years. Thinking about these changes in sleep as a normal part of your baby’s growth can help you feel more prepared when it happens with your baby.
What happens during sleep regressions
Sleep regressions in babies typically occur at a few specific times during your baby’s first few years. The 4-month sleep regression happens as a direct result of a change in a baby’s sleep cycles.
In the first 3 months or so of your baby’s life, their sleep cycle is about 40-60 minutes long and split pretty evenly between 20-30 minutes of light or active sleep, followed by 20-30 minutes of deep or quiet sleep. During light or active sleep, your newborn’s brain is active with increased blood flow and dreaming patterns. This is when your baby’s brain is active and growing and responding to this stimulation activity in their sleep. You will see your baby twitch, smile, or even watch their eyelids open or flutter during their sleep. Your baby is also likely to wake more often during light sleep.
By contrast, during deep or quiet sleep, your baby’s brain rests and stores important information. Your baby lies still with minimal movement, and they might even feel heavier in your arms. It is much easier to put your baby down and have them stay asleep during deep sleep. Sometime between months 3 and 4 of your baby’s development, their sleep cycles increase from 2 stages to 4 stages of sleep, which is closer to an adult’s sleep cycle structure.
Why are sleep regressions hard to deal with?
This sleep stage progression usually means that babies wake more frequently between their sleep cycles because of the different stages of sleep within each sleep cycle. These more frequent wakings are tricky for babies who are not yet skilled at self-soothing and falling asleep independently. During the 4 month sleep regression, I encourage new parents to anticipate these changes and make adjustments to support more independent sleep as early as possible. It’s important to know that most 4-month-old babies do not have the ability to completely self-soothe, so it’s normal for babies to struggle with independent sleep at this age.
Other common sleep regressions occur as a result of developmental leaps, teething, illness, and/or family schedule disruptors such as visitors or vacations. We typically see these around 8 months, 12 months, 18 months, and 2 years old. Developmental leaps also include more emotional skills such as separation anxiety. And while not all developmental leaps will cause sleep regressions, learning a new skill takes a lot of baby’s energy and can throw off their sleep.
Navigating sleep regressions
When navigating the 4 month sleep regression remember to be patient and know that this phase will soon pass. Consistency with your bedtime routine and your soothing strategies will help your baby continue to learn what to expect at bedtime, even if they are struggling with sleep.
Teaching your baby self-soothing skills and encouraging them to fall asleep independently is the best proactive approach to any sleep regression. Sucking is a newborn reflex that helps babies feel relaxed and often leads directly to sleep. Newborns also bring their hands together at the chest to seek comfort and soothe themselves. Offer your baby a pacifier at sleep time and encourage them to use their hands for self-soothing. You’ve been using various techniques and strategies to soothe and help your babies fall asleep from the moment they were born, like rocking, singing, and nursing. These strategies support Baby’s transition from life inside the womb.
Following a simple, consistent bedtime routine will help your baby learn to fall asleep independently. Your routine can be as simple as reading a story, dimming the lights, turning on a white noise machine, and putting your baby down in their crib drowsy but awake. You can support your baby during this time by staying close by to offer gentle comfort as they learn to relax and go to sleep. The more experience your baby has to practice their sleep skills, the more likely they are to fall back asleep when they wake in the middle of the night. Learning to self-soothe and drift off to sleep independently helps your baby better navigate their sleep cycles changes at 4 months.
You got this!
Your baby will continue to have variations and regressions in their sleep patterns as they grow and develop. Sleep is not something that always remains the same. As humans, our sleep naturally changes in response to changes in our internal and external environments. Therefore, instead of feeling like your baby’s sleep regressions are completely turning your life upside down, try to expect these changes as a normal part of your child’s healthy development. By supporting your baby’s ability to be well-adjusted throughout their sleep changes, you are helping them to build the necessary skills that promote healthy, independent sleep!
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