Sleep regression in babies and children: what it is and how to manage it

Getting babies and young children to sleep and stay asleep 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.

We talked to parenting expert and author Sarah Ockwell-Smith, who has a degree in psychology and has written 10 books about parenting, and paediatric sleep consultant Francesca Beauchamp, who has 15 years experience working exclusively with babies and toddlers, about how to manage times when the naps stop or and the night-waking starts, much to the frustration of exhausted parents.

Credit: Sarah Ockwell-Smith and Francesca Beauchamp

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 some particular ages when these phases are more likely to occur: 1-4 weeks, 3-4 months, and 8-9 months. Toddlers and young children also go through sleep regressions.

‘We often make the mistake of thinking that baby sleep is linear,’ says Sarah Ockwell-Smith, meaning that new parents 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 as 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,’ adds Ockwell-Smith, because if ‘everybody is sleep deprived, it makes it 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 do sleep regressions happen?

There are numerous reasons for sleep regressions. These include: pain, sickness, teething, learning a new skill such as rolling over or crawling, going on holiday, moving home, or the primary carer returning to work. Contrary to popular belief, starting your baby on solids can also be disruptive, explains Ockwell-Smith, because ‘the huge change usually means it gets worse for a bit after solids are introduced.

‘What’s important to remember is that adults don’t sleep particularly well. We often wake at night and our sleep gets disturbed by different things so why would babies be any different?’

The most common sleep regression periods

1-4 weeks:

‘Babies are born needing A LOT of sleep,’ says Beauchamp. ‘They develop rapidly and it’s all about feed, sleep, repeat!’ Then, just as parents are getting used to the new arrival ‘the baby becomes less sleepy and more fussy. At around 2-3 weeks babies have a growth spurt and this can rouse them from sleep, due to hunger. This is a normal phase in baby development.

‘Babies usually sleep well in the first few days after birth and this really lulls parents into a false sense of security,’ says Ockwell-Smith. But let’s not forget the ‘huge transition babies make from being inside the womb.’ Suddenly, after the birth, they’re on their own. So, when parents put them down to sleep ‘it’s a crazy difference and understandably one that impacts their sleep.’

3-4 months:

This period is a very common time for sleep regression. For Beauchamp, her clients tend to book her when their babies are four months old ‘as this is the dreaded regression most parents have heard of before they even have their baby!’

Beauchamp’s work as a paediatric sleep consultant has led her to call this time ‘an infamous period. It’s a huge change for babies but it can be overcome.’ Younger babies ‘drift relatively easily through sleep cycles but at 4 months they have conscious awake time through cycles. This means your baby will now have distinct stages of sleep and will have to go through light sleep to enter deep sleep. This sometimes causes tears and grizzling while they learn how to drift back off and sleep through cycles.’

At this stage, adds Ockwell-Smith, ‘babies are much more aware and alert. However, control over their bodies is still quite poor. This inability to get hold of a toy they want, or to move towards you, or out of an uncomfortable position, is very frustrating and seems to cause a negative impact on their sleep.’

8-9 months:

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 9 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’s. To top it off it’s prime teething time. ‘Basically, if you have an 8, 9 or 10 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 looks 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.’

Credit: Mayte Torres/Getty Images

Why do toddlers and older children 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.’

Expert tips for dealing with sleep regressions

Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s tips for helping parents cope:

  • Realise that it’s normal. Sleep is a rollercoaster, not a nice straight upward line. Regressions are almost always NOT the fault of the parents and anything they have or have not done.
  • If you can, be patient. Most sleep regressions will pass naturally, without you doing anything. Usually they last from 2-8 weeks.
  • Try to not make any changes. A lot of parents panic when sleep regresses and start changing bedtime routines, buying new sleep gadgets, and so on. However, this is the worst thing you can do. The key is to keep things the same; this provides the stability that your child needs.

Francesca Beauchamp recommends that, from the age of 6 months, start to ‘introduce clever tactics in the form of positive sleep cues, age appropriate routine, nap gaps to prevent over and under-tiredness, and keeping the approach to nap and bedtimes consistent. A good routine will breed sleep organically and a baby in a routine is better placed to deal with a regression phase.’