Animated Illustration of an Infant Rolling in Its Bed

Infant Sleep Regressions
What’s Myth, What’s Fact, and How to Cope

After the birth of my son, one of the most common questions I got was, “How is he sleeping?” I thought that people were just exaggerating about how tiring a new baby was; he started out sleeping long stretches and had no problems putting himself to sleep. Oh, how naive I was.

 

Right at about four months, my perfect little sleepy angel baby—well, let’s just say he was no longer a sleepy angel baby. I started to understand what having a baby that never sleeps was like; sleepless nights turned into delirious days, naps were a distant memory, and diet coke was coursing through my veins.

After all the Google-ing, reading, and research, I found out that my child isn’t broken; most babies experience what many call “sleep regressions,” a period of time when infants resting habits change, night wakings occur, and naps often become shorter.

Section 1

Why Won’t My Baby Sleep?

Section 2

What Are the Common Ages and What Can You Expect?

Section 3

Are There Long-term Risks?

Section 4

Questions for the Pediatrician

Section 5

How to Cope

Section 6

Conclusion

Why Won’t My Baby Sleep?

I feel comfortable in saying that nearly all parents have asked themselves that question. As a parent, you have probably made sure that all of their needs are met: they have been fed, they are at the right temperature, their diaper is changed. Physically, everything seems fine, but a lot is happening up in that brain of theirs, and that is when sleep regression comes in.

Is Infant Sleep Regression Real?

Type “sleep regression” into any search engine, and you’ll get millions of results. This term is commonly used among parents, doctors, and scientists, but it does create some misconceptions about what is actually happening to your baby.

 

Regression means to “return to a former or less developed state;” however, your baby is not forgetting what they have already learned or regressing at all. A sleep regression actually means the exact opposite is going on in your baby’s brain. He or she is learning and developing.

 

So many changes occur in the first two years of life: smiling, laughing, rolling over, developing a solid sleep cycle, sitting on their own, crawling, and walking (among a million other things).

 

During these developmental milestones, babies are constantly practicing these skills, attempting to master them, and research suggests that until they do, snoozing often takes a backseat.

Illustration of Exhausted Mother Holding Her Crying Baby

Rachel Gorton, certified infant and toddler sleep specialist, explains: “Even though these phases sometimes come with less sleep, they are important to your baby's emotional and physical development. In other words, they need to happen.”

So pour yourself another cup of coffee—none of that decaf stuff—and be comforted by the fact that your baby is growing and getting smarter by the day; pretty soon, these sleep regressions will all just be a distant, foggy memory.

What Are the Common Ages and What Can You Expect?

Now that we understand why sleep regressions happen, we can also estimate periods of time that your baby may experience them. These periods usually occur before a new skill is obtained, but every baby is different and will go through developments at different times.

As Macall Gordon, professor of parenting psychology at Antioch University, puts it, “The development line is … not perfectly straight.”

If your baby is going through these stages earlier or later—or not at all (you blessed soul)—this is totally normal. As always, if you have any concerns about your child’s development, discuss them with their pediatrician.

4 Months

Illustration of a Baby Waking up and Crying at 3am

This is around the time that a baby can start to form their own sleep cycle that looks much like ours, albeit shorter. After the newborn stage, infant rest becomes more predictable and cyclical, between approximately 50 and 60 minutes. Babies spend a lot more time in REM sleep than we do and can be awakened more easily during the stages of lighter sleep, and as they get used to this, it can lead to more night wakings.

 

To learn more about sleep cycles, click here.

Typical Baby Sleep Graph
Typical Adult Sleep Chart

Source:Why Do Babies Wake up So Often?“, Teal Bee

There is a ton of brain growth happening, so your baby being extra hungry or needing more feedings is to be expected. Plus, around this time is when babies start to be much more aware of the world around them, which can cause distracted daytime feedings leading to more night wakings out of hunger.

 

Read more here: 4-Month Sleep Regression—Everything You Need To Know To Move Past It

6 Months

Baby Sitting up in the Crib Crying for their Parent Illustration

By this time, you have probably settled into a routine with normal wake times and naps, and your baby most likely sleeps through the night. Just when you think you have it all figured out and your baby is becoming more fun to interact with, they might start to experience some issues: nap refusals, early morning wakings, you name it.

 

Along with recognizing how fun it is to be social, babies might be beginning to push up on all fours, have probably been rolling for a while, and are getting a taste of separation anxiety. When you put them down for a nap and close the door, they do not understand that you are in the next room over, available at a moment’s notice.

 

Naps on the go are probably a no-no at this point, too. There might be a car nap here and there, but for the most part, your baby might be too interested in the exciting stuff going on around them to get in a solid rest. Missing a nap throughout the day can cause a baby to be overtired, making them more difficult to put down for bed or even the cause of midnight wakings.

 

Find out more detailsThe 6 Month Old Sleep Regression – How To Help Your Little One

8 Months

Illustration of a Baby Crawling with Toys all around Them

Eight months is an awesome time to be a parent; your little dude or dudette is probably in the beginning stages of cruising around, scooting, crawling, or even pulling themselves up. They are probably playing with toys like never before and fine-tuning their motor skills. There is nothing better than watching your baby squeal in delight as they master something they weren’t able to do before.

 

 

Unfortunately, all the fun things can cause some issues with baby sleep; you might enter their room and find your baby pulling themselves up on the rails trying to practice standing or cooing to themselves instead of sleeping. While they are taking everything in throughout the day, falling asleep at night could be problematic due to overstimulation, much like you might be after watching a scary movie.

 

 

Your baby might also be dropping their third nap, which could create some overtired problems at bedtime while they are getting used to it. This sleep regression is pretty variable and can occur anywhere from 8 to 10 months.

12 Months

Congratulations; your baby has gone from a newborn to an infant to a full-blown toddler! If they haven’t yet, they will be taking their first steps in the not-to-distant future and babbling “Mama” or “Dada” any day now. They are probably becoming increasingly interested in reading and practicing understanding language even if they are not talking quite yet, and they definitely have heard the word “no” a time or two.

 

As fun as this stage is, the way that they are recognizing their surrounding environment can make sleeping seem boring—they would much rather be stacking blocks or rolling cars on the floor than taking a snooze. Missing out on what is going on outside of their room sounds like torture to them.

Illustration of a Baby Taking His First Steps

One-year-olds are growing rapidly and might show signs of being hungrier than normal, refusing their second nap, and protesting bedtime. Most kiddos are not ready to drop down to one nap at this age despite their vehement denial. Like other sleep regressions, this period of time should only last a couple of weeks at most, so try to stick it out.

 

In case it happens earlier you can read our guide for managing 11 month regression here

18 Months

Remember that sweet little baby of yours, those tiny little onesies you washed a million times (because spit up, obviously), and when they would fall asleep right in your arms? Well, that baby turned into a toddler, some of them with a vengeance. Those cuddles might be fewer and far between and tantrums might become your new norm, but teaching your little guy or gal new words, feeding them new foods, and getting to know their little—or big—personalities is one of the joys of parenthood.

 

 

Well, like all the other joys of parenthood, there is always a downfall. Baby sleep can fall by the wayside at this age, while these developmental milestones are going on. The sudden need to be independent can create some issues when it comes to putting them down; when your baby feels like they no longer have a choice of what to do, the crib might feel more like a prison than a place to get cozy.

 

 

While this is super normal, this stage can feel like it is the most difficult. With personality comes the ability to be defiant, and some one-and-a-half-year-olds know exactly how to make life difficult.

Baby Girl Crying Looking over Dads Shoulder Illustration
Age Possible Developmental Changes Average Day Sleep Average Night Sleep
4 months
  • Rolling
  • Sleep cycles
  • Growth spurts
  • 4-5 hours 9-10 hours
    6 months
  • Social awareness
  • Separation anxiety
  • No more naps on the go
  • 4 hours 10 hours
    8 months
  • Practicing fine-motor skills
  • Separation anxiety
  • Scooting or crawling
  • Pulling themselves up
  • 3-4 hours 11 hours
    12 months
  • Taking steps
  • Language development
  • 3 hours 11 hours
    18 months
  • Independence
  • Walking
  • Language development
  • Dropping to one nap
  • 2.5 hours 11 hours

    Source:Infant Sleep“, Stanford Childrens

    Are There Long-term Risks?

    illustration of a flustered woman taking care of two kids

    The short answer is no; sleep regressions are temporary and once milestones are reached, baby sleep patterns generally return to normal or improve. During these periods, though, bad habits or coping techniques can be formed which can lead to some potentially dangerous situations.

     

    Bed sharing, falling asleep while holding your baby, and using a swing or rock-n-play for unsupervised sleep are all against the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) guidelines for safe sleep and can potentially lead to suffocation and SIDS. Although these long nights are seemingly endless, try to remember that it will end soon.

    Questions for the Pediatrician

    Pediatrician Checking Baby in Mother's Lap

    Does sleep training work?

    Every parent seems to have an opinion on this hot topic, but Duke Department of Pediatrics has found sleep training to be effective and safe. There are many different methods and no shortage of books and blogs about it; generally, sleep training works best around 5 months of age. Be sure to ask your doctor about their opinion and what might work best for your child.

    Crying for more than three nights! Help!

    The most common sleep training method out there is cry-it-out, which means exactly what you would think; your child has to learn how to fall asleep on their own without intervention, so followers of this method let pure exhaustion take the reigns leading to a lot of crying. For some, it is quick and easy, but for others, it just doesn’t work.

     

    Chat with your pediatrician about their recommendations or some softer approaches.

    Could the problem be something else?

    Sleep regressions are totally normal and are a sign of normal development, but sometimes other issues are causing difficulties. Acid reflux, teething, and growth spurts are among the few things that can interfere with a good rest. If your baby is still struggling after a week or two, discuss your concerns with a doc.

    How to Cope

    Hire a Nanny — Just Kidding...Maybe?

    It might sound like a dream to pass the responsibility of parenthood onto someone else during these difficult periods. While hiring a nanny for these sleep regressions probably isn’t in the cards for most, enlisting help can be a key to surviving. You and your partner can split the night shift so that losing zzzs is not quite so detrimental.

     

     

    If you are killing the single parent game (shoutout to all you rockstars), ask a family member or friend if they can watch your baby for a couple of hours while you catch up on some shuteye. Most loved ones would be happy to help, and those couple of hours can make a huge difference.

    Enforce a Good Bedtime Routine

    A Father Giving Baby a Bath Illustration

    Babies, just like adults, thrive on routine, and implementing a bedtime queue is a perfect way to make bedtime easier. Studies show that bedtime routines lead to fewer night wakings in both infants and toddlers in just a matter of days.

     

     

    If you are anything like me, a feeling of dread washes over you as soon as you hear the word routine. But it does not have to be complicated; something as simple as a feeding, bath, lotion/massage, book, and bedtime can help your baby understand when it is time to wind down for the night.

     

     

    Whatever you decide to put into practice, make sure that you stick to it. Try not to mix steps around to keep nights as predictable as possible.

    Increase Daytime Feedings

    As your baby gets more associated with the world around him or her, feedings start to get a lot less exciting. They would rather be checking out the funny facial expressions their siblings are making or staring at the flashing lights in their toys. Unfortunately, if your baby doesn’t get enough to eat during the day, they are probably going to wake up for food at night.


    If distracted eating is a recurring issue, try feeding in a dark, quiet, unstimulating environment. This could also mean no scrolling through your social media feed if your baby is particularly sensitive. Bummer, I know.


    By making sure they are getting enough to eat during the day, you can be reassured that those night wakeups are probably not for hunger and address the real issue at hand.

    Experiment with Bedtimes

    Putting your baby down at the right time might just be the most important part of getting a good rest; a baby that is not quite tired yet will refuse to sleep, but overtired babies can be impossible to calm down. Getting that happy medium is important for the best rest.

     

    There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to bedtime, easier as that may be. Every baby is different, and every baby needs a different amount of rest. Stanford scientists recommend you try to plan a bedtime that blocks out around 10 to 12 hours of nighttime sleep.

     

    It might take some trial and error to find that magic time, and it also might change in a month or two, so be patient when working it out.

    Light/Sound Proofing

    Woman Putting up Curtains in the Nursery Illustration

    Natural development will cause your infant to be more interested in what is going on around them, so external light and sound might be disturbing his or her sleep. Be sure to keep their room extra dark with blackout curtains or blinds for optimal rest, and drown out sounds like the doorbell ringing or your dog barking with a sound machine.

     

    Don’t worry; babies are not scared of the dark, and white noise often helps them sleep better by reminding them of similar sounds they heard in the womb.

    Avoid Caving to Bad Habits

    While it might be easier in the short term to bring your baby into bed or nurse or rock your baby to sleep every time he or she cries, this can create some crutches that they might start to rely on. Ultimately, your baby will be a better sleeper if they can fall asleep on their own in their own bed, but during these regressions, getting up five, six, twenty times a night can be draining.

     

    Stick to your guns and know that this phase is only temporary. If you find yourself wanting to co-sleep, try extending room-sharing to at least six months—the AAP recommends room-sharing but not bed-sharing for 6-12 months. The zombie-like days will soon be just a memory, and your kiddo will eventually sleep through the night like a pro.

    Practice Self-care

    Full Body Massage- Illustration

    To be the best parent or caregiver you can be, taking care of yourself is key; for most, it tends to be put on the backburner. Know when you need a break and ask for help before your breaking point. If a nap just is not happening, try to get out of the house, grab yourself a smoothie, get a massage, or spend some time with friends.

    Remind yourself that this is a completely normal and temporary part of your child’s development.

    Conclusion

    As a parent, I have constantly been surprised by how much I don’t know. But the thing that gets me through the tough times is knowing that I am not the only person going through them. Sleep regressions are a regular part of development, and they are necessary for him to get smarter and grow.

     

     

    I made it through the four-month thing feeling confident in my abilities as a parent when getting to the other side. Of course, my kiddo is napping as I type this, probably gearing up for his next sleep regression. I’ll go turn on the coffee maker now.

    Jess Carpenter
    Jess Carpenter

    Jess is only serious about a few things in life: sleeping, writing, and making the perfect chocolate chip cookie. In her free time, you’ll probably find her having a dance-off to ‘80s pop with her family or watching scary movies with her cat, Waffles.

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