Getting babies and young children to sleep is one of parenting’s greatest challenges. But, there is advice and methods that will help you and your little ones deal with those times when routine goes out of the window and a good night’s rest seems like a thing of the past.
To help solve your sleep regression problems we talked to parenting expert and author Sarah Ockwell-Smith, trained psychologist and author of The Gentle Sleep Book, and paediatric sleep consultant Francesca Beauchamp, who has specialised in baby and toddler sleep regression for 15 years. Here they answer your most important questions:
What is baby sleep regression?
‘Sleep regression is a phase where a baby suddenly stops sleeping as they were previously,’ explains Francesca Beauchamp. There are particular age ranges when sleep regression is likely to occur: 1-4 weeks, 3-4 months, and 8-9 months. Toddlers and young children can also go through sleep regressions.
‘We often make the mistake of thinking that baby sleep is linear,’ says Sarah Ockwell-Smith. New parents easily assume that their baby’s sleep ‘starts off really bad then gets progressively better. Until at some point it becomes “good” like that of an adult. The trouble is, life doesn’t work like that.’ Ockwell-Smith likens it to a rollercoaster with ‘peaks when you feel rested and then lots of big dips, just when you begin to think you have the whole sleep thing sorted.’
Children go through many phases, but sleep is probably is the most pressing issue. ‘If everybody is sleep deprived,’ says Ockwell-Smith, ‘it’s much harder to cope with challenging behaviour in the daytime.’ Beauchamp agrees: ‘There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a torture tactic: it is brutal!’
Why does sleep regression happen?
Sleep regression can start for the following reasons:
- New psychological developmental phase
- New physical phase, such as rolling over or crawling
- Growth spurt
- Pain, such as teething
- Sickness, such as a cold or cough
- Unfamiliar routine, such as going on holiday, moving home, or the primary carer returning to work
- Starting eating solids
‘What’s important to remember is that adults don’t always sleep particularly well,’ says Sarah Ockwell-Smith. ‘We often wake at night and our sleep gets disturbed by different things. So why would babies be any different?’
What age do babies have sleep regression?
Sleep regression happens most often at a time of change or upheaval. This can happen any time in a baby’s short life, but it tends to happen at one of the following four stages:
4-week sleep regression
After four weeks, babies have begun to adjust to life outside of the womb, feeding patterns and the difference between day and night. A slight sleep regression can therefore happen at this time. ‘Babies usually sleep well in the first few days after birth. This lulls parents into a false sense of security,’ says Ockwell-Smith. ‘But the huge transition babies make from being inside the womb is a crazy difference and understandably impacts their sleep.’
‘Babies are born needing A LOT of sleep,’ explains Beauchamp. ‘They develop rapidly. It’s all about feed, sleep, repeat! At 2-3 weeks babies also have a growth spurt. This can rouse them from sleep due to hunger. This is a normal phase in baby development.’
4-month sleep regression
Four months is the dreaded sleep regression. ‘Most parents have heard of before they even have their baby,’ says Francesca Beauchamp. ‘It’s when most new clients get in touch with me!’
‘At four months, babies are much more aware and alert,’ explains Sarah Ockwell-Smith. ‘However, control over their bodies is still quite poor. This inability to get hold of a toy they want, move towards you, or out of an uncomfortable position is very frustrating. It seems to cause a negative impact on their sleep.’
Learning sleep cycles also has a big impact on babies at 4 months. ‘Younger babies drift relatively easily through sleep cycles,’ says Beauchamp. ‘But at four months they have conscious, awake time between cycles. This means your baby will now have distinct stages of sleep and will have to go through light sleep before entering deep sleep. This causes tears and grizzling while they learn how to drift back off and sleep through cycles.’
Sleep training can be very helpful at this point. At four months babies are old enough to learn new sleep techniques, but they haven’t got into difficult habits yet. Controlled crying or spaced soothing is very effective, or read our guide which explains some of the most popular sleep training techniques.
Do all babies have a 4-month sleep regression?
Not all babies have this sleep regression. Every baby has their own sleep challenges and habits, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ rule when it comes to sleep. Because the 4-month sleep regression is so infamous, it can be at the forefront of parent’s minds. Your baby might just have an occasional bad night’s sleep at 4-months; try to avoid immediately worrying that it’s a serious sleep regression when it could just be a blip in their routine.
8-month sleep regression
As an experienced parenting coach Sarah Ockwell-Smith has discovered that the ‘most common age for poor sleep in the first year is between 8-10 months.’ This will come as a surprise for many parents who dread the four month mark but ‘scientific research has found that the best sleep in the first year happens at around 3-4 months and that at nine months sleep is usually significantly worse. This really goes against the whole idea of it getting better as the baby grows.’
One of the main issues is that there’s an enduring belief that, by this point, babies should be sleeping through the night. Some parents will also see it as ‘problematic if babies are still having night feeds’ even though studies have shown that many babies of this age still require several milk feeds during the night.
Then there’s the issue of separation anxiety. Babies don’t have any concept of time, meaning ‘that every time you leave the room they feel abandoned and scared that you’ll never return.’ An additional problem is that this period often coincides with the end of maternity leave, so your baby will be dealing with being apart from you in the day and dealing with a new environment such as a nursery or childminder. To top it off it’s prime teething time. ‘Basically, if you have an eight, nine or ten month old don’t expect much sleep,’ says Ockwell-Smith.
Beauchamp agrees that this stage is one of great cognitive leap when your child will be in the wide-awake club with no signs whatsoever that they are going back to sleep. Beauchamp cites several calls from mums at 2am saying they’ve looked at the monitor and seen their baby staring into space but this, she says, ‘is completely normal, even if it does look a bit eerie!’
Beauchamp’s advice? ‘Unless they’re distressed leave them to it. If they’re crawling round their cot happily or sitting, they’ll eventually go back to sleep on their own.’ In fact, Beauchamp suggests that if a parent were to go and see their child ‘it can be counterproductive and rouse them from a sleep they may go back into on their own.’
Why do toddlers go through sleep regressions?
‘There are three common stages, rather than specific ages, that cause toddler and preschooler sleep regresses,’ explains Ockwell-Smith. ‘When they potty train, when they start preschool or nursery, and when a new sibling arrives. All of these disturb a child’s status quo, can leave them feeling anxious and upset, and tend to disrupt regular bedtime routines.’
Beauchamp agrees that these regressions are as a result of ‘big changes in little lives that can come on suddenly and out of nowhere.’ When this happens ‘it’s really important to validate your child’s feelings. Offer lots of love, cuddles and praise during waking hours and keep bedtime straightforward and calm. You may have to stay with them a little while longer (holding hands for example, but with no other interaction) whilst they drop off, just until they get back in the saddle.’
Parents are never really free of sleep regressions, admits Ockwell-Smith. ‘They continue to happen all the way through to, and including, adulthood. Anything that disrupts daily routine, or leaves a child or adult in pain, scared or stressed, has the potential to negatively impact sleep.’
What are the signs of sleep regression?
Sleep regression is several consecutive nights of broken sleep. One or two occasional bad nights is usually just part of a normal sleeping pattern as your baby learns to settle themselves. Other signs may be increased fussiness, less daytime naps, decreased appetite and multiple wakes in the night for several nights in a row.
How can I cure sleep regression?
You won’t be able to stop sleep regression entirely, but you can help your baby through it more quickly. Surviving sleep regression is all about being patient and kind to yourself and your baby. It may feel like a gruelling time, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Try some of these simple sleep regression techniques:
1. Give your baby full feeds during the day
Ensure your baby takes full feeds throughout the day, and especially before bed and the all-important dream feed. If you find your baby is distracted or not feeding well, try feeding in a quieter room away from distractions. Allow yourself plenty of time and avoid multitasking whilst feeding to ensure your baby is calm and feeds well. Read our guide to the 12 best nursing pillows to make bottle or breastfeeding more comfortable.
2. Keep calm and take rest when you can
Your rest is as important as the babies at times like this. Ask for help: if a partner or trusted friend can watch the baby whilst you catch up on sleep during the day you will feel more able to deal with disruption in the night. Go to sleep as early as you can once the baby is in bed so you can have some undisturbed sleep before they wake. Also try to avoid making too many social or work plans during this time, as you will need to conserve your energy.
3. Establish a bedtime routine
If you aren’t already, put your baby to bed at the same time each night. A 4-month old baby should be settled in their cot by 7pm. A good bedtime routine might include singing the same gentle songs, closing the curtains, dim the lights, giving baby a gentle bath or massage, putting them in their pyjamas, and giving them the evening feed about 6.30pm. You can use of these 12 best sleep aids to create relaxing background white noise or music. Start the bedtime routine about 6pm or when they give you tired cues like grizzling or rubbing their eyes. Try some of these 9 rules for a successful bedtime routine in our baby sleep guide.
4. Establish a daytime napping routine
If you aren’t already, try to get your baby into regular nap times throughout the day. Their last nap should finish before 5pm so they are tired before bed. Read our ultimate sleep guide for more tips on napping and sleeping at night. ‘A good routine will breed sleep organically,’ reassures Francesca Beauchamp. ‘A baby in a routine is better placed to deal with a regression phase.’
5. Avoid making sudden changes
Sleep regression often happens because of physical, developmental or environmental changes. Don’t feel like you have to suddenly change everything you’ve been doing, as this will only create more unsettled feelings for you and the baby. If you’d like to start a nap or bedtime routine, start so gradually so you both become more accustomed.
Should you try sleep training during a sleep regression?
Some experts advise against using new sleep training techniques during a sleep regression. Since the baby’s sleep patterns have been thrown off kilter through change in routine or a developmental phase they’re going through, they might not be at their most receptive. However you can still use gentle techniques mentioned above to soothe your baby and help them get back to sleep.
How long does sleep regression last?
Sleep regression usually passes naturally after 2-8 weeks. ‘If you can, be patient,’ says Sarah Ockwell-Smith. ‘Most sleep regressions will pass naturally without you doing anything.’ Every baby is different, so try not to hold onto expectations about how your baby ‘should’ be behaving. Just as babies go through phases to learn to crawl, talk or eat, sleep is another process with lots of ups and downs.
Expert sleep regression tips to remember:
Sarah Ockwell-Smith has these three tips to help parents cope:
- Realise that sleep regression is normal.
- Regressions are almost always not the fault of the parents and anything they have or have not done.
- Sleep is a rollercoaster, not a straight upward line.