Sleep regression in babies and toddlers

Sleep regression in babies and toddlers

What is sleep regression?

Just when you're starting to get real sleep again, it happens – your child reverts to waking frequently at night, has a hard time going to sleep, or gets up at odd hours and refuses to go back to bed. This is called sleep regression, and many young children experience it.

Generally speaking, sleep regression describes temporary periods when babies or young children don't sleep as well as they have in the past. It's not a scientific or medical term, but you may hear it from parents, sleep consultants, and even pediatricians.

Sleep pattern changes are normal as kids grow and develop – and they're often temporary. That said, many people suspect that sleep regression can be brought on by a change in your child's routine (like a vacation) or an approaching developmental milestone (like learning to crawl, stand, or walk, or starting to potty train).

Sleep regression often passes on its own, but it can mean that you have more work to do to help your child learn to sleep well. For some, this means trying sleep training.

When will my child go through sleep regression?

Not all children go through sleep regression – some babies start sleeping easily at night and never look back. However, parents commonly report problems with their child's sleep patterns at 4 months, 9 months, and 1 year old.

Sleep regression can happen any time during the baby and toddler years, except during the newborn period. That's because newborn sleep patterns are naturally erratic. During the first 3 months of life, it's normal for your baby to sleep for 1 to 4 hours at a time and wake frequently during the night to eat.

Between 3 and 5 months old, babies usually start to sleep more during the night and have longer stretches of sleep – about 5 to 6 hours at a time – but will still wake often. Babies typically learn to sleep through the night when they're 6 to 9 months old, but this varies depending on your child and whether you emphasize good sleep habits.

What causes sleep regression?

Your child's sleep habits can change – and appear to take a step backward – for many reasons. Possible explanations for sleep regression include:

  • Sleep shifts: Between 3 and 6 months old, most babies adjust their sleep patterns to be awake more during the day and asleep for longer periods at night. Their sleep cycles start to become more like an adult's in how they alternate between light sleep and deep sleep. But as your baby shifts between sleep stages, she may wake and not be able to get herself back to sleep. (Adults and older children also wake during the night for this reason, but usually fall back asleep immediately.)
  • Milestones: Parents often report sleep regression around when their baby is learning a new skill, such as rolling over, crawling, or standing. Some experts say this may happen because babies are so preoccupied with learning the skill they want to practice it all the time, even at night. Also, if your baby has learned to stand, she may try to do this in her crib when she wakes and then cry because she doesn't yet know how to get back down.
  • Environment changes: Small changes in your baby's surroundings can affect how well he sleeps. Shifts in the weather could affect the temperature in your baby's room, making him uncomfortable at night. Or perhaps a neighbor's outdoor light is shining into his room and keeping him up.
  • Separation anxiety: Between 6 and 12 months old, your baby begins to understand she's separate from you and may become anxious when you or your partner leaves the room. This separation anxiety typically peaks around 10 to 18 months old and fades by age 2. Your baby may cry out for you in the middle of the night, try to climb out of her crib, or want to sleep in your bed. Separation anxiety, though trying, is a normal part of your child's emotional development.
  • Changes in routine: Perhaps you went on vacation and your baby stayed up later than normal. Or your child has been sick and become used to you checking on her at night and rocking or soothing her to sleep. Any changes to your child's regular routine – or a time change – can temporarily throw off her sleeping patterns.

Should I be worried if my child isn't sleeping well?

Typically, no. Fluctuations in sleep patterns are completely normal during the first few years of life. Also, just because someone else's child sleeps through the night at 6 months doesn't mean your baby will. Some children wake more easily than others or have a harder time establishing a regular sleep-wake cycle.

However, sleep difficulties sometimes happen because of an underlying health issue. If your child is older than 6 months and regularly wakes several times a night, let your child's doctor know. She can make sure there's nothing wrong and offer you guidance on sleep training if necessary.

Health problems to look out for include:

  • Illness: A fever or pain from an ear infection, upset stomach, or teething can keep your baby up at night.
  • Sleep apnea: If your baby struggles to breathe while he's sleeping, it could be a sign of sleep apnea. It's normal for babies under 6 months to have irregular breathing and to pause for 5 to 10 seconds between breaths. But if your baby is breathing or snoring loudly, stops breathing for 20 seconds or longer, or wakes up gagging and choking, consult his doctor immediately.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux: If your child is frequently vomiting or spitting up large amounts of milk, or wakes up screaming in pain, she may have gastroesophageal reflux disease. This happens when the valve connecting the esophagus to the stomach isn't working properly and pushes your baby's acidic stomach contents back up into her mouth. She may need medical treatment.

How can I help my child sleep well again?

If your child is at least 4 months old and having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, you may want to consider sleep training. You can choose between cry it out, no tears, and fading methods.

Here are some other ways to get your child's sleep back on track:

If your toddler complains or calls out during the night, wait a bit before you respond. Reassure him that you're there, even when you're out of sight, and remind him it's time to go to sleep.

  • Have a bedtime routine: If you haven't yet, start a predictable and soothing bedtime routine with your baby. This could be a bath, putting pajamas on, and reading a picture book or singing a song before kissing good night. Making an emotional connection with your child at bedtime helps him feel secure and ready for sleep.
  • Put your baby in the crib when she's awake: Try not to let your baby fall asleep while she's eating, being rocked, or in your bed. Instead, put her in the crib when she's drowsy but not yet asleep so that she falls asleep by herself. The goal is for her to learn to soothe herself to sleep, so you won't need to help her with this each time she wakes up.
  • Don't encourage bad habits: If you rush to check on your older baby immediately every time he cries, feed him or rock him back to sleep, or bring him into bed with you, he'll soon rely on this to go back to sleep. By 4 months, it's okay to let your baby cry for a short period to see if he'll settle back down on his own. If you need to go to him, pat him soothingly on the back instead of picking him up. Leave the room when he's calm but still awake.
  • Make nighttime boring: Teach your baby that nighttime isn't a party. If you have to change or feed your baby at night, do it quickly and without fuss. Keep the activities quiet and matter-of-fact. If possible, keep the lights turned low. And make sure you give your baby lots of attention during the day so he learns that daytime is playtime!
  • Stay consistent: Try to stick to your bedtime routine and sleep guidelines, even during difficult periods. Make sure your partner and any babysitters or family caregivers know the routine and guidelines as well. If your child gets off track because of illness or another interruption, get back to the routine as soon as possible.
  • Wean off nighttime feedings: Between 4 and 6 months old, most babies get enough calories during the day and can go through the night without eating. If you think your child is ready, try to wean her off night feedings over a period of about 2 weeks.
  • Make sure your child is comfortable: Check that the temperature isn't too hot or cold in your baby's room. Be aware of outside noises or lights that may be keeping your baby up. Try using a white noise machine or fan to drown out other noises. Use dark shades to keep light out. If your older baby or child is uneasy about the dark, though, it's fine to use a nightlight or let light from the hallway spill into his room.
  • Help your child with ups and downs: If your child recently learned to stand up, she may have trouble getting back down. She may also cry for help at night after standing up in her crib. During the day, help her practice getting down by supporting her as you press firmly against the back of her knees until they buckle.
  • Offer a lovey: Many older babies and toddlers like to cuddle with a blanket or soft toy when they go to bed. But don't put loveys in the crib until your child is at least 1 year old, because they can be a suffocation hazard.
  • Stay calm: Try to be understanding, even when your child's sleep behavior is frustrating. If you get nervous, angry, or upset, you could make the sleep problems worse. Staying relaxed will help calm your child as well.

I'm so tired! How do I cope with my child's sleep regression?

It can be stressful and exhausting when your child wakes frequently during the night or doesn't go to sleep easily. It's especially hard when you've gotten used to easier nights and are suddenly back in the land of the sleep-deprived.

These tips can help:

  • Nap when you can: If you're home during the day, try to nap when your baby naps so you get more sleep. If you're at work, you may be able to take a power nap during lunch in your car or an unused office.
  • Manage sleep deprivation: If naps aren't possible, look into ways to cope with your lack of sleep during the day. There's no substitute for good zz's, of course, but you can make your fatigue a little more manageable.
  • Keep things in perspective: Remember, your child's sleep regression is temporary. Most children return to good sleep patterns within a few days, weeks, or, at the most, months.
  • Ask for help: Share nighttime (and daytime) baby duty with your partner so you can both get at least some sleep. Talk to other parents about your child's sleep challenges and make a plan of action. Ask your child's doctor for advice on how to improve your child's sleep. If this doesn't work, consider hiring a sleep consultant to help you find solutions.

Watch the video: Is My Babys Separation Anxiety Causing Sleep Problems? (January 2022).

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