The myth of baby sleep regressions – what’s really happening to your baby’s sleep?

The 4 month sleep regression, the 12 month sleep regression, the 18 month sleep regression – what is happening?

Of course, any time your baby’s sleep suddenly seems to go pear shaped , you wonder what am I doing wrong? Having a neat little term like ‘sleep regression’ gets you off the hook – it’s not you, it’s your baby. It’s a sleep regression. It’s normal and common and it will pass.

The term ‘sleep regression’ sounds more helpful than the patronising label ‘accidental parenting’ which implies you have done something to create your wakeful baby but you are such a half-wit you didn’t even realize you were doing something ‘wrong’. It sounds much smarter too and even a little bit intellectual, as though you have done your homework about infant sleep.

But here’s the thing: your baby isn’t having a ‘regression’. Sleep isn’t a milestone – even though it certainly feels like an achievement when your baby starts snoozing for several hours at a stretch. By the way, ‘all night’ in infant sleep studies means five hours sleep in a row –not eight hours like an adult or twelve hours like some baby books will tell you. The real, measurable, important milestones that signal your baby’s actual development can influence your baby’s sleep, or lack of it. So, when your baby, who has been sleeping in peaceful bocks, suddenly starts waking more frequently, it usually means he is approaching a real developmental milestone – he is not ‘regressing’, he is ‘progressing.’

Developmental milestones can be physical (rolling, crawling, cruising, walking), emotional (separation anxiety) and neurological. Neurological milestones are outlined in ‘The Wonder Weeks’ , a book by Dutch researchers, psychologists Franz Plooij and Hetty Van Der Rit , who observed many children in their homes over a number of years. They describe the ‘wonder weeks’ as critical periods of development that change the baby’s perception of his world. For instance, at 26 weeks, babies start to perceive distance. This means that as you walk away, your baby is now more aware of the distance that separates you and he will yell at you because the increasing distance between you and him is confusing and a bit scary.

As babies approach any new developmental phase, their perception of the world changes so, although this can be just a blip on the radar for some babies, more sensitive babies will need extra reassurance and can become quite clingy or generally unsettled at these times.

Because babies process information during their sleep – circulation to the brain almost doubles during REM sleep – it’s perfectly normal for them to wake more often as they are approaching new milestones. For instance, at around four months (the four month sleep ‘regression’ that everyone is talking about), babies are becoming much more aware of the world – they are babbling (this is the beginning of language acquisition), exploring things with their mouth (soon that will include their feet too as they suck their toes), they are recognizing familiar people (and becoming anxious around strangers – separation anxiety is kicking in), many babies are starting to roll over so they wake because they have unintentionally rolled onto their belly and this has woken them. They are confused and upset because they really wanted to be sleeping but that tiny brain processing information has resulted in some extra ‘practice’ of their new skill. All of this adds up to a very busy little brain that finds it difficult to switch off. And, as well as often having difficulty getting to sleep in the first place or resettling after being woken by their busy brains and bodies, when he wakes, confused, your baby will call for help from the most important person in his world – you.

Of course at any time if your baby suddenly becomes unsettled or wakeful, it’s important to check that there isn’t a medical reason for this or an impending illness such as sore ears or a urinary tract infection (babies generally wake when they wee if they have a UTI because it hurts), or if your baby has recently started family foods she isn’t upset by food sensitivities.

Once you have ruled out illness as a reason for sudden changes in your baby’s sleep patterns, consider your baby’s development: what new skills is your baby learning? Is she a bit more clingy during her awake times? Does she seem more sensitive right now? And try to see her wakefulness as a positive – she is not regressing, she is progressing. She is learning and developing in leaps and bounds. She isn’t waking because you have done anything wrong. You aren’t encouraging ‘bad habits’ you are helping your baby feel secure as she grows through these intense developmental stages. You don’t have to justify your baby’s behavior with fancy labels or reasons for her waking (except perhaps, to yourself if it makes you feel better).

The good news is that, as your baby masters each new milestone, there will be spells of sound sleep again – until the next developmental leap!

 

Pinky McKay is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and best selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying, Parenting By Heart and Toddler Tactics.  For more baby sleep tips, check out her bundle - Sleeping Like a Baby plus the recording package of interviews by leading international sleep researchers ‘The Truth About Infant Sleep – Science, Wisdom and Gentle Solutions’ 

 

 

32 Comments

  1. Joanne Says Reply

    My 20 month toddler used to be a sound sleeper (7h in a row) at the 1 year mark but it’s been a while since I’ve had any sound sleep. Correspondingly, it’s almost like she’s on a developmental highway. Is this to be expected or should there be breaks between her developmental milestones?

    Looking forward to a period of respite.

    • kitkat32 Says Reply

      My baby is coming up to 4 month mark and he has been waking in the first hour of his sleep balling his eyes out over the last week, up until this point he\s been sleeping between 10-14 hours every night since he was 7 weeks old. Hopefully he gets through this soon and sleeps better again it just breaks my heart when he wakes up crying like that.

  2. Anna Says Reply

    Hi Pinky,
    Thank you for writing this article. It is exactly what I needed to read now to bring me back down to earth. Your articles are the only ones I find that align with my values and they always provide me with reassurance of my parenting choices. I read a few other articles before this one and all felt was “doomed” for at least the next month. Now I have a better understanding that my bub is not trying to GIVE me a hard time, she is HAVING a hard time and I need to support her through that!

  3. Ha ha! The Universe (Temporarily) Hates Me / Melissa Coursey Hess Says Reply

    […] “See you soon!” I whisper.) Some people call this the four month sleep regression, but I prefer this perspective. It’s a process and I’m looking forward to getting some longer stretches of sleep […]

  4. rebecca Says Reply

    Hi Pinky.

    I needed this article this morning. I have no idea how I managed to find it or stumble across it but it’s just opened only browser and I read it out if curiosity. My daughter has spent the last couple of nights seemingly not wanting to sleep all of a sudden. Every other `regression` so far has never been as bad and we know that her gums are bothering her.
    But this morning, I’ve had 2hrs sleep. Popping in and out of bed non stop all night, she would only sleep on me. The minute she wasn’t in contact with me, BOOM! Wide awake. Saying that, she’s 6m and we’ve been told it won’t be long until she starts talking, she’s attempting to crawl (albeit backwards) and she’s just started rolling off her tummy now. I feel a lot better about my lack of sleep thanks to you and this article. Thank you!!!

  5. Mindy Says Reply

    My 15 month old daughter has NEVER slept through the night. Not once in her life. She wakes up 4 to 6 times every night. She’s breastfed, but so was her older sister who slept decently well from fairly early on. It’s extremely frustrating. It’s very hard to function with too little sleep for well over a year now.

    • babyfree Says Reply

      Then don’t have kids. It’s not required. Why have another if it annoys you? You’re no hero for popping out a fetus.

      • Machu Picchu Says Reply

        Sorry but your post is not helpful. If you are “baby frew” why are you on here??

      • Hero Says Reply

        What a hateful thing to take the time to post!

      • New Mommy Says Reply

        Baby Free,
        You will never understand the complexity if parenthood until you yourself go through it. It baffles my mind everyday how ignorant and oblivious I was to the struggles of parents until having my first baby 4 months ago. It is amazing how it has changed me. I look at my daughter sometimes and cry because I am so grateful to have her. Parenting is extremely hard work – but so worth it. We are not complaining about being parents on this site, we are just sharing our experiences and looking for support. I hope one day you are blessed with the joys and struggles of your own child so that you will become enlightened as I have through this experience. The is no greater joy in life that I have known thus far.

      • Formerly Baby "Free" Says Reply

        You know, for years I was very adamant that I would NEVER have children. I am one of 8 siblings who all have children so I was very informed of what it entailed but I had no special admiration for people who did – if they made the choice to have kids, then they could deal with it, right? Right.

        However, NEVER once did I make comments like your’s or anything similarly disrespectful. Just as I never appreciated parents ramming it down my throat that my life wouldn’t be complete/fulfilled/worth living, etc until I’d had a child, I also don’t appreciate childless people commenting on forums such as this – especially when they have nothing worthwhile to add.

        No one was writing to you to complain, so keep your disrespect for something that deserves it.

    • Brittaney Says Reply

      I am in the same boat with my 18 month old. While I don’t have answers, know that you are not alone! I COMPLETELY understand.

    • Kristen E Says Reply

      Are you offering feedings through the night by chance? I, too, breastfeed and went through a period when my daughter was 4 or 5 months old until she was 9 months old where she was up early every single night 2-4 times per night. After talking with my pediatrician I agreed that she shouldn’t actually be hungry through the night because she ate well during the day. Rather I believe I had created the eating habit for her because I got to the point where it was easier just to nurse her quickly so I could get back to sleep. Our peds suggested doing everything EXCEPT feeding to teach her feedings wouldn’t occur at night. She would get music, her pacifier, patted, rocked, etc. but she didn’t nurse. I kid you not it only took 3-4 nights of doing this and she re-learned to self-soothe. She’s 13 months now and sleeps like a teenager :) Best of luck!

      • Sam L Says Reply

        Kirsten E. Thank you so much for your post…I think it will greatly help out with the issues I have been having with my 13 month old.

  6. Sarah Says Reply

    My daughter is EBF and she is 10 months old and has always woken up every 2 hours and still to this day is waking up every 2 hours….. Am i doing something wrong?

    • Marie Says Reply

      Sarah,
      It’s common for babies to wake often, even at 10 months. Some are just better sleepers than others. My 14 month old still wakes up on average about 3 times a night. He either wants to nurse or be comforted back to sleep. It will get better with time. Hang in there!

    • Mariana Says Reply

      Sarah my 17 month old has nerver and i mean never slept through the nite. I often feel like im doing something wrong … I breast fed until just two months ago. she needs me to fall asleep and then still wakes . its rough and kicking my butt….. so you are not alone….

    • lisa Says Reply

      She’s big enough at 10 months that she isn’t hungry. She may associate you worth sleep Anne you need to break that association.

  7. Nicole Says Reply

    This article is totally patronizing, just like every other article on sleep I’ve read. Isn’t it possible to be encouraging without insulting our intelligence as parents?

    • Emily Says Reply

      Agreed. Don’t insult my intelligence because I believe one thing or another. I definitely won’t be coming back to this site for parenting advice.

    • Karen Says Reply

      I agree. Luckily the patronizing tone was not continued throughout the ENTIRE article or the message may have been lost completely.

  8. amber Says Reply

    Actually I don’t think she meant to be patronizing at all. Didn’t you read the article? Shes trying to change your word usage because it connates negativity. When in fact what’s going on is positive. I find reading articles like these are very helpful during the challenges of raising our children. When you look at things in a positive manner it helps to not be overwhelmed or stressed with the situation. Words are thoughts are very powerful. I enjoyed this article.

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    • Jennie Says Reply

      TRY COSLEEPING!!!! my 17 week old slept in 2 hour intervals for,the first two months of her life in her crib, I could not get her to sleep any longer. At her two month shots she screamed for 8 hours straight and was having some breathing spasms that night so I decided to boot my husband out of bed and put Sabrina in with me to keep an eye on her that night, well to much of my surprise she slept for 6 hours straight. I thought it was a fluke because she was so tired so I tried it again the next night, 8 hours! She progressed to sleeping 10-12 hours (i wake her for a dream feed about 10:30-11pm before I go to bed) and she sleeps all night, until 8-930 am, I usually wake her! I have learned quite a bit about her sleeping since we have been sleeping together, babies wake quite a bit in the night but if you catch her before she’s actually “awake” by patting her back she will go back to sleep… Your baby just wants to be next to you, they are not ready to be alone yet, I sleep on my side facing her and she’s on her side facing me, I snug my arm around her bum so my hand is on her back. She’s comforted, I feel better that she’s next to me. It feels natural! I was deathly terrified to cosleep at first bf western countries have made mothers so afraid bc of sids, but if you read up on it it’s actually recommended by quite a few paediatricians. If my daughter goes through a sleeping regression/progression I’ll be right by her side to comfort her!

  12. Jennie Says Reply

    Sorry, just wanted to add. My daughter reaches out for me about ten times per night, I feel her stir, she reaches oit for me then settles herself. Just think, if you little baby is alone in her crib reaching for someone who isn’t there, that must be terrifying for them. Could maybe contributing to the regression?

  13. Lindsey Says Reply

    My son (second baby) will be four months next week. He was consistently sleeping from 10-4 and 4-9 every night, in his crib, since he was a month old and then bam! All the sudden he’s up every hour crying and wants to nurse back to sleep. I’m really at a loss of what to do here, I don’t think he’s really hungry because he nurses for 3-5 minutes and is asleep, I think it’s more comfort than hunger but I’m still nt going to deny him a nursing session.
    I’m very scared because my oldest son was a terrible sleeper, the kid could have won medals for how horrible he was He was up every hour to two hours until he was 19 months old and I’m scared of that happening again. I need some tips. No offense to anyone but I’m not a mom who can let them CIO and I’m not a huge fan of cosleeping so I’d appreciate some advise/tips if anyone has them.

  14. Amy Says Reply

    Ugh Lindsey, I feel your pain!!
    My son will be 4 months in a couple days, and is waking up all the time, and it terrigies me, because my now 8 year old daughter was the same…and still has sleep issues.
    o need some advice i am sooo exhausted

  15. Alli Says Reply

    Perfect timing. My just about to turn 4 month old daughter has been doing this this week. The only problem with the article is it doesn’t suggest what you can do about it without falling into an ‘accidental parenting’ trap. When they’re so unsettled you find yourself doing anything to get them to sleep! So when their sleep does go pear shaped – what do u suggest we do?

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