Sleep Regressions Unplugged
Updated: Jan 8
If you are a parent, you've most likely heard of sleep regressions. Furthermore, you've probably heard of, and maybe even dreaded, the infamous "4-month" sleep regression. Many parents start to experience some sleep relief towards the end of the newborn stage. Their baby is sleeping longer and longer stretches; some may even be sleeping all night at this point. Then...
All of a sudden, the baby starts waking more often at night, fighting sleep in general, and requiring more comfort and coddling. This often leaves parents confused and frustrated, not knowing where to go from here. The "4-month" sleep regression is the first of many possible ones. Before I talk about how to get through these regressions, I want to talk about what it is and why it happens.
What is a sleep regression?
A regression is a period of time, usually lasting a couple of weeks, when a child "regresses" to having sleep issues (or worsened sleep issues) for no apparent reason. Regressions often happen in the midst of learning new developmental milestones. For example, when a baby is learning to roll, he may roll over in the crib to practice his new skill. However, if he can't yet roll back over to his normal sleeping position, he's going to cry for you to come help him...even if it's 3am. Similarly, when a baby is learning to pull himself up to a standing position, you will likely find him standing and crying in the crib after you put him down for bed. This may happen a handful of times before he'll finally quit and go to sleep.
Do all babies go through sleep regressions?
There has recently been lots of talk in the sleep science field about whether or not regressions are a real thing. The Wonder Weeks (WW) is a popular book (and phone app) that tells parents when their child is going through a developmental "leap". According to WW, there are 10 leaps in the first 2 years of a child's life. These leaps can supposedly cause sleep troubles, fussiness, feeding issues, and more.
The main issue that sleep scientists now have with WW and the leaps is that, in testing, the timing doesn't ring true for all children. I myself followed the app along with my first two children's developments. I noticed that they did experience fussiness and sleep issues for some leaps, while others flew by without me even realizing they were in a leap.
My conclusion: Wonder Weeks, and the notion of timed regressions (4-months, 8-months, 12-months, etc.), certainly has some flaws. Any sleep consultant will tell you that the 8-month sleep regression can actually happen anytime between 8-10 months. Why? Because regressions DO coincide with developmental milestones. I have no doubt about it that reaching a new milestone can affect your child's sleep. As a mother and a sleep consultant, I have seen evidence of that fact over and over. There's just no real scientific way to pinpoint exactly WHEN that will happen for your child. Children reach milestones at their own pace. Yes, there are some generalities we can make about the timing (eg. babies usually start rolling between 3-5 months), but every child is different. So, in short...regressions absolutely do exist, we just can't be so bogged down by expecting them at a specific time.
The "4-month" Awakening
Taking into consideration what I just said in the previous section, you can now understand all of my quotes around the "4-month" part when describing this regression (which I will now stop doing- you get the point). It is commonly called the 4-month sleep regression, but it can actually happen anytime soon after the newborn stage (0-3 months). I've seen it happen right at 3 months on up to 4.5 months.
The 4-month regression is a little different from all of the others because it doesn't seem to coincide with a specific physical milestone, other than rolling if that's happening. I like to call this sleep regression the newborn awakening period. Here's what is really happening: Newborns. sleep. a. lot. After the newborn stage, they don't need quite as much sleep. They can stay awake for a little longer in between sleep. Their vision has dramatically improved. They're becoming more observant to the world around them; and they start to realize that there are fun and exciting things going on in this world. These babies can no longer sleep anywhere you take them because they're now aware that they might miss something if they go to sleep (aka FOMO = Fear Of Missing Out). In other words, they have "woken up" to the world around them.
Around this time, a baby's sleep cycles are also maturing and becoming more similar to the sleep cycles of older children and adults. Newborn sleep is so sporadic; they don't have predictable sleep cycles. Older babies and adults go through cycles of sleep that last about 90 minutes. When one cycle is over, they either wake up or connect into a new sleep cycle. Connecting sleep cycles is not an innate ability; it needs to be taught.
Babies who were previously sleeping 8-10 hours at night now start waking up multiple times through the night. They start fighting naps and bedtime. It's not because they're all of a sudden way more hungry than they were as a newborn. It's because they're now going through normal sleep cycles, like you and I do. They also become more aware of their sleep dependencies once they "wake up". A sleep dependency, or prop, is anything a child needs to fall asleep. This can be feeding, rocking, bouncing, singing, etc. When they become aware of these dependencies, they begin to expect them in order to fall asleep, and back to sleep every time they wake up in the night. (Read post: What is a Sleep Prop?)
When are the common sleep regressions?
As I mentioned above, the other regressions seem to coincide with major milestone development. For example, a baby is likely to regress when learning to roll, then again when learning to sit without support, then when learning to pull himself up to standing, then walking...you get the point. Some may call these the 6-, 8-, and 12-month regressions, but again, they will happen whenever your child is working on that milestone, not at that specific month mark. There is also a common one around 18-months, which is due to a large burst in language development.
How to Help Baby Through Sleep Regression
Nighttime practice is very common when a baby is learning a new skill. It can affect sleep, but it shouldn't be a permanent change. Most of the time, babies will return to their normal sleep habits once they master the skill. You may notice I said most of the time. There are times when sleep does not get better once a skill is mastered. One reason this happens is because he may be working on multiple skills at once. However, the more likely reason is that new sleep dependencies were unknowingly formed during this time, out of desperation to get some sleep. In this case, your little one won't just go back to "normal" because he's now dependent on these new sleep props to fall asleep.
Here are some tips for getting through a regression as quickly and easily as possible:
Give your baby plenty of practice during the day. Does he sit up in his crib the moment you lay him down, then cry until you come lay him back down? He's practicing that sitting skill. Give him as much practice with this during the day so he masters the skill quicker and doesn't need to practice as much at night.
Try not to intervene too quickly as long as you know your baby is safe. Having a video monitor is great for this. You can check in on him to make sure he's not stuck, and then give him a few minutes to see if he can figure it out. If he rolls to his stomach, then cries until you come roll him back, he needs to learn how to roll back himself in order to get past the problem. So...give him a chance to learn how to do it before you go in and do it for him every time.
Try not to introduce new sleep dependencies. I know it can be really hard when your child was sleeping well and then is all of a sudden up multiple times a night again. You will want to do anything to get your normal sleep back. However, if you, for example, start rocking him back to sleep, then he's going to expect you to continue rocking him to sleep in the night. This will continue long after he's mastered the skill he was working on and the regression is over. While a regression may bring some rough nights, don't combat them with something that's just going to make those rough nights last even longer.
Sleep train, or retrain, if needed. If your child was already sleep-trained prior to the regression, you can always revisit the sleep training you did to get him back on track. If your child was not previously sleep-trained, now would be a great time to do so! Contact me for help!
Regressions do exist, but maybe not in the scripted way that some suggest. Learning new major milestones can certainly affect your child's sleep. Thankfully, it shouldn't last forever. Be patient, and you'll soon see the light at the end of the tunnel!
~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant