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?

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 didn’t even realize you were doing something ‘wrong’. It sounds ‘scientific’ too, as though the person advising you has done their 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 blocks, 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 (perceiving distance)

As babies approach any new developmental phase, their perception of the world changes. For instance, at around six months, your baby will start to perceive distance. This means that as you walk away, your little one 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).

Although these milestones 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 – blood 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. They may also go on feeding binges as their tiny brains are having a growth spurt, just as baby bodies have growth spurts.

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 skills. All of this adds up to a very busy little brain that finds it difficult to switch off.

At this age, babies may also be distracted when feeding during the day, so can often ‘reverse cycle’ and feed more effectively at night when stimulation is reduced and night milk has more ‘calming’ chemistry.

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.

Looking for gentle, respectful ways to help your baby (and you) sleep without compromising breastfeeding or the beautiful bond between you and your little one? See my book Sleeping Like a Baby (it’s available on Audible too, if you don’t have time to read). You can download the first chapter FREE HERE.

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.

Your baby 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, Mum of five and best selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying, Parenting By Heart and Toddler Tactics.  

“Tonight my husband commented “What have you done with my stressed
out wife? She’s vanished.” So he thanks you too 🙂 Your book has been a
profound blessing.” Warmest regards Karen (mother of a three year old)



baby not sleepingbaby settlingbaby sleepbaby sleep trainingcontrolled cryingPinky McKaysleep regressionsleeping like a babywakeful baby
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  • Joanne

    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

      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.

    • Angela

      YES!!! I’m in the same situation now!! It hit at 9 months and we are at 15now and I have yet to get a non wakeful night. I’m loosing it!!! Any hope in my future. I see this was from 2014…when did your little one start sleeping again?? Help!!

  • Anna

    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!

  • rebecca

    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!!!

  • Mindy

    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

      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

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

      • Hero

        What a hateful thing to take the time to post!

      • New Mommy

        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.

        • blipe

          Don’t encourage a troll, people. Ignore.

      • Formerly Baby "Free"

        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

      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

      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

        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.

        • Roberta

          Not to be rude, but this is actually really horrible advice and it was ill advised if your doctor to recommend this. Babies should be fed on demand at that age. It is EXTREMELY normal for a breastfeed baby to be hungry in the middle of the night because breastmilk digests so quickly. Regardless of how much they’re eating during the day, that milk will not sustain them through the night. Their digestive systems are not mature yet and therefore their eating patterns cannot be compared to an adults. It is not at all recommended to night wean a baby under the age of one year old. After a year you can start to night wean if you choose to, but before then it’s just not logical. Please, anyone reading this comment trying to find a way to get more sleep, PLEASE do your own research first! Again, this is NOT recommended and it’s not healthy and can be detrimental and have the opposite effect you’re looking for. If baby is waking up hungry and not being fed that baby certainly isn’t going to sleep well.

      • Nicole

        Thank you as well for this post! I am going to try that tonight with my little one. at 16 weeks she has started the sleep regression and I do nurse her back to sleep every time. So hopefully stopping this will greatly help!

    • austinsmom

      Gosh, I feel for you dear. My boy is about to be 18 months and he sleeps better now, with the exception of some random nights. But earlier on it was brutal! I never appreciated being able to sleep until I became a Mom. Anyway, I did notice that making a few adjustments helped me. Room temperature (sometimes it was too hot, sometimes too cold), humidifier (sometimes I needed it, but sometimes I did not), swaddle (it started becoming a problem, so I got a ZipadeeZip instead), diaper (i needed a better quality, so he would not get wet)…the list goes on. I think patience and sites like this one, where you can get answers are key. I hope you get the rest you need. I send good sleepy vibes your way 😉

  • Sarah

    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

      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

      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

      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.

  • Nicole

    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

      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

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

  • amber

    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.

    • anonymommy

      Actually it was very patronizing and that is exactly how she meant it. I’m also disgusted with parents who pass judgment and write condescending articles. Though, big surprise, lactation nurses typically are very high and mighty and preachy and condescending anyway. I gained nothing positive from this article and I did read it. The whole thing. 3 times. Looking to make sure this lady wasn’t serious but she was definitely not joking. So…. Safe to say she meant it in a superior, holier than thou way. No parent has the answers or “knows” not even some nurse passing judgment on parents for a living. I’m only sad that reading this worthless article means I wasted 1 minute of my life I will never get back.

      • mommytothree

        Woman, you rock. You took the words right out of my mouth.

  • CURSE YOU, NEPTUNE! | the mom cha-rod

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    probably did, the internet will be a lot more useful than ever before.

    • Jennie

      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!

  • Jennie

    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?

    • NewMama

      I absolutely love your comment! I really don’t understand this push to get babies to be in their own room and own bed. They are babies and have spent a huge part of their existence in comfortable womb and attached to mom. I personally love bed sharing and take all the necessary precautions to ensure my son is safe. I welcome the idea of sleep progression because it gives me comfort my son is on the right developmental path and I will be snuggled up right next to him to help make the transition easier.

  • Lindsey

    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.

    • Sleepless in Shanghai

      We do a mixture of bed-sharing and a floor bed. She goes to bed in her room and comes to ours when she wakes up. Sometimes she cries first and sometimes she just walks in, but the last week has been insane! She is waking up crying and hysterical when she is in our bed. She wants to climb out of bed. I let her out of the bed so I could maybe follow her and try to figure out what she wants, but she just wonders and cries. She pushes me away and doesn’t want me to pick her up. She eventually settles down with a bottle of warm water, but she won’t take the bottle when she first wakes. I don’t know what is going on…. Any one else having (or had) this problem? Did anything work? Any insight? I am more worried about her than I am my sleep… Although, more sleep would be nice (of course).

  • Amy

    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

  • Alli

    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?

  • Emmsy

    Actually the definition of ‘sleeping through the night’ for an 18mo is 11 hours. 5 hours applies to newborns. Doesn’t give me a lot of faith in your advice if you can’t read your sources properly.

  • Sarah

    For the love if all things holy…I’m texting this in a dark room nursing my child. Why is your font so small ??? Why is your text light gray? I couldn’t read this article. And I’m sorry if this has typos cause I can’t even see this text I’m typing on your off white background with ligtt gray text. Text color is easy to change this in wordpress. Know your audience. You want to preach about children sleeping … Make it easier for tired mommies to read with mobile friendly text pleae.

  • Hannah

    Pinky, I love your articles and comments from like minded parents. My little girl is turning one and we have always had her co-sleep in our bed or in a cot against our bed. It’s was just so much easier and the only way she would sleep as a baby with bad reflux and being 5 weeks early she just wanted to be with us. At about 6 months I thought we had conquered sleeping in the cot them 8 months hit and we became permanent co sleeping parents (thank goodness we have a king size bed). Now at almost 12 months old I have a baby who content lay sleeps through the night (12-13hrs) rather than my friends babies who sleep in a cot in their own room and are awake 3-4 times a night.

    Your article helps remind me of the parent I want to be. I want a healthy, happy baby who feels secure not a baby who is forced into her own bed and wakes up scared every night as she is alone. Maybe lazy parents here too!!!

  • JennaV

    The crying it out method was just ruining me and my hubby! I finally tried the Zipadee-Zip and was super skeptical that it would even work since literally nothing else had and to my utter shock, she slept 12 hours the first night in it! The Zipadee-Zip ( is where I found it) gave her the security to be able to sleep swaddle free which means I SLEPT TOO!!! Thank goodness for this thing!

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  • Jess

    Despite your good article, you are missing an important thing: SOLUTION! My 10 months old suddenly screaming and crying when we put him down in his cot since 2 weeks ago. At a point where he will wake up at 3 in the morning and screaming cryinh does not want to go back to sleep unless he is in my arms and it takes him at least 30 minutes to go back to sleep. I know that his skills are PROGRESSING, but his sleep is definitely REGRESSING at a point where I am very exhausted atm. Fyi, he used to sleep through the night. Any solution please???

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  • Helen

    Holy heck! I had no idea that the topic of sleep was so fraught with angst and judgement. I enjoyed Pinky’s article very much, as a grandma of 4, mother of 4 (very restless sleepers), and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. Imo, there is no such thing as sleep regression. Babies have sleep patterns that change from time to time, and that’s just the way it is. Length of stretches of sound sleep stopped being a goal after I discovered bedsharing. Pinky was not trying to present a solution; that would take a whole other article or two, and probably written by someone else. My husband was always a very light sleeper, easily woken by any noise, and I just assumed our children were just like him. Btw, he slept GREAT as a baby, CIO early on and left in his crib for 12 hours, which is what his mother expected. She was a teacher, after all, and she had done her research in the books of the day. I read the old blue Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, and it described my first baby perfectly. After a few months of patiently siting up to feed him every two hours, and then him sleeping 8 hours at night for a few weeks, we went on a family trip and he slept with me for two weeks. I just continued on, after we returned home, because it suited us very well.

  • Sleepless

    I needed this article. I’ve had barely any sleep in the last 5 days and any waking moment I have when my 6 month old goes for her 45 min naps….I am constantly searching for an answer to help my baby sleep. Prior to this she was a great sleeper, down early for 7 hours, an early AM feed then back for a further 3-5 hours. I am going batty…I can’t wait for this regression to pass. Until then I will comfort and love my growing little girl.

  • Cherie

    I think if you sleep with your baby and toddler and never make a big deal about bed times most of the time you won’t have to worry about regressions or not. They’ll just wake off and on, you feed them and then you all back to sleep. We never had any problems. But we never thought that getting up every couple hours or so was wrong. Just a normal part of raising our children.

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  • Chari

    Just a note, if you would like more on this subject, look up T Brazelton’s Touchpoints, this developmental “baby doc” has identified these developmental ponts in time and has a super book on it.

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  • Insulted parent

    What an insulting article. We’re not worried by our baby’s 18 week sleep regression but it is useful to know it’s a normal phase babies go through.
    I hadn’t come across your site before but do you have any qualifications in this area? I’m not sure what an “international board certified” lactation consultant means but it wouldn’t appear to have anything to do with infant brain development.

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  • Blake

    We should start calling it the 4 month sleep Progression!

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