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WTF is a "Sleep Regression"?

Have you heard the term "sleep regression", but you're not sure what it actually is? It can be confusing when you're inundated with information and tips about baby sleep, but nothing seems to be really concrete. So, let me break it down for you...

Simply put, a sleep regression is a period of time with increased sleep interruption, brought on by development. It can last a couple of weeks and how much it affects your baby will come down to what's happening specifically and how sensitive your baby is to these types of changes/development.

In the sleep training world, it's mostly referred to as "sleep regression", but I prefer to think of it as a PRO-gression, because these bouts of "regressed" sleep, actually signals PROGRESS in your child's development. So, even though it can totally suck, it's a good thing! Your child hasn't lost the skill of sleep, they are just gaining a boat-load of other skills, and because learning consolidates during sleep it only makes sense that their sleep will be impacted.

The nitty-gritty:

Apart from the 4-month sleep progression, sleep regressions isn't really a thing in the world of sleep science. Rather, it's a by-product of big bursts in your child's development, usually accompanied by a mixture of separation anxiety, growth spurts, teething, etc. All of which affects sleep.

Because all children develop in their own time, these sleep regressions can really happen at any point, but we typically see it around: 4 months; 6 months; 8-10months; 12months; 16-18months and 24months.

There is nothing you can do to prevent the effects of a sleep progression (so don't believe anyone who tries to sell you their services with this as a "goal"), because - once again - it's normal. And believe it or not, it does pass!

4 month sleep progression:

This is the only real sleep progression and is caused by a change in your baby's sleep architecture. Before this sleep progression, your baby only had two states of sleep in each sleep cycle: REM sleep (active sleep) and NREM sleep (quiet sleep). After this progression, though, your baby's sleep cycles will look a bit more like adult sleep cycles where there are 4 states of sleep. Even though it's called the "4-month" sleep progression, it can happen at any time between 2-5 months.

Apart from this, your baby might also be experiencing:

  • A change in sleep needs (slightly longer wake times and slightly less total sleep in 24hours)

  • Learning to roll

  • Become more aware of their environments and more easily over-stimulated

  • If breastfeeding, your milk supply might have dipped with longer stretches overnight, which your baby will need to help correct now with more frequent overnight feeds. Before your milk production was mostly driven by hormones, now it will be driven by supply and demand.

  • Some babies may even start teething around this age, so keep an eye out for that.

What you can do to help:

  • Tune in to your baby's cues to make sure they're not becoming overstimulated.

  • Try to keep an eye out for sleepy cues and hunger cues. Being able to respond effectively to these cues can help prevent overtiredness and help you establish a new sleep rhythm based on your baby's needs

  • If your little one is hard to read, play around with lengthening wake windows a little bit to see if it helps

  • Don't stress about creating "bad habits". Do whatever you need to do to get through it - contact naps / motion naps / safe bed sharing / whatever!

  • Find a bedtime routine that works with your baby and then try to be as consistent with it as possible

  • Offer your baby loads of tummy-time, so they can practice their new skills as much as possible during wake times

6 month sleep progression:

This sleep progression usually isn't as intense, and also doesn't tend to last as long. It's driven by a burst in cognitive, physical and emotional development; as well as a growth spurt.

What's happening?

  • Growth spurt - which will lead to your baby needing more feeds over night

  • Physical development - Many babies this age will start learning to sit, or other micro-milestones that will help them learn to crawl in a couple of months.

  • Cognitive development - Your baby is learning object permanence, which will contribute to a slight peak in separation anxiety

  • Starting solids - most babies start eating solid food around this age, and there can be a bit of a adjustment period, where their digestive systems are learning the ropes of digesting more than just milk.

What you can do to help:

  • Provide your baby with lots of opportunity to practice their new skills during awake times

  • Make use of baby-wearing to provide some extra closeness for your little one

  • Play around with sleep timings to see if your baby might need some extra sleep pressure

  • Prioritise your self-care and well being and keep an eye on your own sleep hygiene

8-10 month sleep progression:

What's happening?

  • Your baby is BURSTING with development!!

  • Physical development - sitting, crawling, pulling up, cruising, some might even start walking.

  • Language is also developing rapidly at this age

  • Around 9months there is a massive spike in separation anxiety

  • There's also a change in sleep needs around this age, and most little ones transition from 3-2 naps around this age

  • Your baby might also be experiencing teething pain, digestive issues (due to eating more solids) or some other discomfort

What you can do to help:

  • This is typically one of the hardest progressions for families and also tends to last the longest

  • During this progression it's absolutely key to take care of yourself and prioritise your own needs.

  • Once again, try to provide your baby with ample opportunities to practice all of their new skills, play games like "peek-a-boo" and other games where there is a small separation, followed by a quick reconnection

  • Practice brief, safe separations during the day. Never sneak away, always say goodbye and reassure them of your quick return.

  • Try to keep routines and bedtime boundaries as consistent as possible, but don't be afraid of creating bad habits. Sometimes you just need to do whatever you need to do,

12 month sleep progression:

What's happening?

  • This progression is usually brought on by gross-motor development and can happen between 11-15moonths.

  • Language is also developing rapidly at this age

  • Another peak in separation anxiety

  • A slight change in sleep needs, so your little one might need more awake time

  • Nap niggles are quite common around this age leading parents to drop the second nap of the day too soon.

What you can do to help:

  • Much like the 6 month sleep progression, this one doesn't last quite as long and isn't typically as intense as the 8-10month one (but, every child is different!)

  • Add in extra connection where possible

  • Practice setting boundaries and supporting emotions

  • Once again, try to provide your baby with ample opportunities to practice all of their new skills.

  • Practice brief, safe separations during the day. Never sneak away, always say goodbye and reassure them of your quick return.

  • If the second nap of the day becomes a struggle, consider capping the first nap by 30 minutes or offer a slightly later 2nd nap and push bedtime a bit later. If the afternoon nap isn't happening at all, be sure to offer some down time and bring bedtime a bit earlier.

16-18 month sleep progression:

What's happening?

  • Physical development, a big burst in language development, possible teething pain and a HUGE spike n separation anxiety all contribute to this progression

  • There's also a big shift in sleep needs around this age, and if your baby is still on 2 naps a day, it might be a good idea to transition to 1 nap.

  • There is also lot happening in their emotional developing, and you'll notice your little one will start to desire some more control over their little world

What you can do to help:

  • Much like the 8-10month progression, this one can be really hard and lasts quite a while.

  • Try to meet your toddlers needs before they ask/show signs of needing it

  • Allow them choices where possible and freedom within limits

  • Add in extra connection where possible

  • Practice setting boundaries and supporting emotions

  • Once again, try to provide your baby with ample opportunities to practice all of their new skills.

  • Consider their overall sleep needs. Is it time to drop a nap or shorten their nap? Do you need to extend wake times slightly or push bedtime a bit later? etc.

All in all, these progressions do pass. It's not some big scary thing and it's not brought on by anything you've done (or didn't do)! Some kids sail through these with NO signs of "regressed" sleep, for others it's really hard. Do what you need to do, have so much grace for yourself and your little one and know: this too shall pass.

Need more?

Grab the free nap transition guide here, or maybe you need some help figuring out your baby's sleep rhythms? This free Wake window guide is perfect for that!

But, if sleep is a sticky situation in your house and you just.need.more.sleep(!!) The Restful sleeper course is everything you need to get you through every sleep challenge and will leave you feeling more rested, informed and connected to your child than ever before.

Noeline is a double internationally certified pediatric sleep specialist, with a history as a healthcare professional with a passion for helping parents feel less alone and confused in this season of parenthood. Her main goal with Root of Restful is to create a space where parents feel supported as the experts in their family and leaving each family feeling more rested, informed and connected to their child.

Need some help? Get it here

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