Most parents know all too well the struggles of getting a good night’s sleep.
It can be even more of a challenge when babies go through a period of sleep regression, where regular bedtime patterns change and nighttime wakings are frequent.
Here, we’re going to go over what to expect when it comes to sleep regressions in babies and the best ways to get bedtime back on track.
Why Is Sleep Important for Babies?
Sleep is a vital part of early childhood development. As your baby sleeps, its brain and body undergo substantial growth and changes. Without sleep, a child may show stunted development in both mental and physical faculties.
Babies and toddlers who get plenty of sleep tend to function better during the day. They're better at paying attention and focusing, making it easier to learn during the day for developing minds.
A Healthy Sleep Cycle
Just like adults, children have a circadian rhythm that determines their sleeping and waking cycle. While every child is different, you can usually gauge how much sleep a baby needs by its age.
0 to 3 Months
Newborns spend most of their time sleeping as their bodies go through rapid developmental changes. A newborn baby should be sleeping anywhere between 14 and 17 hours per day.
This schedule usually gets broken up into daytime naps and nighttime sleep sessions with feedings every two to three hours.
4 to 11 Months
At this age, infants need less sleep and can stay awake for more extended periods during the day. Between four and eleven months, babies generally sleep between 12 and 15 hours per day.
At four months, infants typically take three naps a day, but this number typically drops to two naps per day by eleven months.
1 to 2 Years
By one year old, children start falling into a more adult sleeping pattern. Most toddlers this age will only take one nap per day and sleep through the night.
One to two-year-olds should be getting around 11 to 14 hours of sleep daily. It’s crucial that parents keep up with their toddler’s changing sleep needs, as napping too long or too late can disrupt sleep at night.
What Is Baby Sleep Regression?
Many sleepless parents ask the question: What is baby sleep regression?
Sleep regression occurs when an otherwise healthy baby experiences a period of sleep deprivation.
Often, these babies have no history of abnormal sleep habits. Many new parents are surprised when their infant suddenly begins refusing sleep, fussing at bedtime, or waking up frequently in the night.
You can usually differentiate a sleep regression from other forms of sleep disruption by the timing. Most babies experience sleep regression at specific milestones, particularly the four, eight, and eighteen-month mark.
Sleep regression is temporary for infants and toddlers, usually lasting between three and six weeks before settling into a normal routine.
Why Do Sleep Regressions Happen?
Sleep regression is often the result of the stress of developmental changes on a young mind and body.
Active toddlers are more likely to sleep additional hours during the day, leading to disturbances at night. A newly active mind also leads to waking and periods of sleep deprivation.
Changes in napping and sleep needs can also lead to a regression. As infants grow, they require less sleep and stay awake for longer periods at a time, affecting both their napping and nighttime schedules.
While they can be exhausting and frustrating for parents, sleep regression in infants is not a cause for concern. It’s a perfectly natural part of development that affects almost every child at some point in their younger years.
Sleep Regressions in Infants
Plenty of parents complain of newborns and infants going through sleep regressions, sometimes more than once. Disrupted sleep is an entirely natural part of development, and in most cases, is nothing to worry about.
While every baby is different, there are a few ages during which sleep regression is standard amongst infants.
Newborns tend to have fairly straightforward sleep patterns, sleeping as much as sixteen hours a day. However, this all changes around the age of three to four months.
Many children experience their first sleep regression at this point as their permanent, adult sleep cycle begins to take hold. They begin to experience REM sleep for the first time, which helps in learning and memory.
Babies will sleep less during the night, often napping at odd hours during the day to compensate. They may also be more irritable or fussy than usual during waking hours.
This pattern occurs because babies are more likely to wake each time they cycle out of REM sleep. It usually takes about two to three weeks for babies to adjust to their new sleep cycle and remain down for the night.
Eight months is another common milestone when it comes to infant sleep cycles. At this age, babies are going through physical and mental milestones that can leave them cranky and exhausted.
Eight-month-olds are often learning to scoot, crawl, and stand while their communication skills sharpen. A busy mind and hours of daily activity can disturb normal sleep patterns, making it more of a challenge for babies to fall and stay asleep.
The fact that kids are awake for longer during the day at this age can also impact both napping and bedtime schedules. While most newborns and infants take around three naps per day, babies generally settle into a twice-per-day napping pattern by eight months.
Sleep regression is common at eight months, but it can occur slightly later in development in some children. Some babies experience a development-fueled sleep regression at nine or ten months of age.
At eleven to twelve months, some babies undergo a further sleep regression. While less common than regressions at four and eight months, sleep regression may occur around eleven months in children who have difficulty napping.
At this age, babies may attempt to transition from two naps a day to just one. Parents may be tempted to see this as a step closer to an adult sleep cycle, but this isn’t usually the case. Most babies aren’t ready to cut back to a single nap a day until fifteen to eighteen months.
If your child starts exhibiting signs of sleep regression at eleven months, it's best to treat it as temporary. Most children will return to their twice-a-day nap schedule in a matter of weeks.
Parents should encourage napping as a healthy habit, as eleven-month-olds need around fourteen hours of sleep daily for healthy development.
Some babies experience a sleep regression at around fifteen months, often when they’re first learning to walk.
Babies who can stand, walk, and escape from their crib are more likely to wake in the night. However, most sleep issues at fifteen months stem more from scheduling than development.
At fifteen months, most children are finalizing their adult sleep schedule. This is the age where babies transition from two naps a day down to just one.
They require fewer hours of sleep, and so kids who nap too much during the day may find themselves waking up at odd hours of the night.
Sleep Regressions in Toddlers
Sleep regressions don’t just happen in young babies and infants. Toddlers also commonly experience sleep regression, typically around eighteen months.
However, some parents see sleeping issues as late as two years. It can be more of a challenge to deal with sleep regressions in toddlers, as they’re louder and more advanced than their younger counterparts.
At 18 months, toddlers are just starting to gain their first taste of independence. They’re learning to walk, talk, and interact in meaningful ways with the world around them.
As many parents know all too well, toddlers can even start forming opinions around this age – it’s when the dreaded response of “No!” begins to surface.
As they gain independence, toddlers begin to take more control of their own sleep schedule. They may even start to push boundaries and experiment to see whether they can get away with skipping naps or vying for a later bedtime.
Toddlers also commonly experience separation anxiety around this age. Even during events as mundane as naptime or bedtime, they may become upset when left alone in their room.
Toddlers may find it difficult to fall asleep, or they may outright refuse. Separation anxiety also makes it more likely that a child wakes in the middle of the night in distress.
Finally, teething may be responsible for 18-month-olds who are having trouble staying down at night. The pain may make it hard for young kids to fall asleep and stay asleep. Teething can also affect eating patterns, resulting in late-night hunger pangs.
In young children, it’s usually relatively easy to root out the cause of disrupted sleep patterns. For most infants and toddlers, sleep regressions will stop on their own after a couple of weeks.
However, by the time a child reaches age two, sleep cycles become more complicated. There may be several different issues behind sleep regressions at this age.
At two years old, kids are accomplishing milestones that may be pressuring or stressful to them. Issues such as potty training or transitioning to a bigger bed can keep young children up at night, leading to sleep deprivation.
Two years is also the age where most children begin to have their very first dreams. These can be confusing or alarming to some children and may wake them up in the middle of a deep nap or at night.
Some two-year-olds experience nightmares or night terrors, which can lead to real and lasting sleep issues.
How to Handle Sleep Regressions
Sleep regressions often begin as early as three to four months, and they can deprive everyone in the household of the sleep they need. Parents who have to stay up tending to their child each night often have trouble functioning at work or in the home the following day.
Knowing how to handle sleep regressions at different ages is key to avoiding sleep deprivation, regardless of whether you're a new or experienced parent.
The best way to navigate a sleep regression with infants and young children is by encouraging healthy sleep habits.
Enforce a strict bedtime routine every night and avoid deviating from the schedule whenever possible. It can help to wind down with activities such as brushing teeth or reading a bedtime story.
If you’re having persistent problems with nighttime wakings, it may be because your baby is hungry or has a dirty diaper. To prevent sleep disruptions, you should make sure that you feed and clean your baby before bed.
It’s also important to dress them in appropriate pajamas for the environment to not get too hot or too cold.
Many parents choose to comfort their babies before bed to help them sleep better. Snuggling and rocking help to keep babies warm and calm while providing skin-to-skin contact.
It mimics the soothing motion of their mother moving back when they were living in utero, helping them drift to sleep.
It's a good idea to begin sleep training at a young age. Not only can this help to improve sleep quality, but it makes it easier to deal with sleep regressions when they occur. Parents can try a couple of different training methods to help their baby sleep through the night.
The Ferber Method
Also known as “Check and Console,” the Ferber Method encourages babies to fall asleep on their own in their crib. Once a baby is down, parents soothe it to sleep with singing, gentle words, or light massaging, but don’t pick it up or feed it.
As their baby falls asleep, parents should check in at regular intervals. Gradually, the time between visits increases until the baby falls asleep. If it happens to wake up during the night, parents should repeat this process of checking in and soothing their baby.
It takes about a week of sleep training with the Ferber method before parents start seeing results. Once babies know what to expect, they should require less soothing and fall asleep more quickly on their own.
The Extinction Method, or “Cry It Out,” is a sleep training technique that helps to discourage crying in fussy infants.
According to this method, parents who comfort a crying infant after they awaken only reinforce the behavior. Parents should ignore crying if they want to discourage it at bedtime.
The Full Extinction method has long been a controversial training technique. While some parents believe it will discourage crying, others worry that it will erode their baby’s trust and lead to bonding issues.
Some parents compromise by checking in on their infant for feedings or once or twice after midnight.
The Chair Method
Out of all the sleep training techniques, the chair method can be the most difficult for parents to master. It requires discipline and consistency, potentially for weeks at a time. It can also take up a decent chunk of a parent’s evening.
According to the Chair Method, simply having a parent present can be enough to soothe a baby to sleep.
Parents should begin by sitting in a chair close to the crib until their infant falls asleep, repeating the process each subsequent night. As the baby becomes a better sleeper, parents can begin moving the chair further from the crib. Eventually, the chair will move out of the room, leaving babies to fall asleep independently.
This sleep training technique is another controversial method. It encourages parents to be present as their child falls asleep but not to interact. Doing this can be confusing and upsetting for a baby who may not understand why their caregiver suddenly ignores them.
The Pick Up, Put Down Method
While similar to the Chair Method, this sleep training technique is more widely accepted as a healthy practice for both parents and child.
Parents stay in the room until their baby falls asleep, but instead of sitting in a chair, they offer comfort in the form of picking up their baby briefly, shushing it, or massaging its belly.
The Pick Up, Put Down method works best with newborns and young infants. While having a parent present can be comforting at this age, older toddlers may find it distracting.
Another person in the room can keep them awake, alert, and too excited to sleep.
Parents who have bedtime routines or rituals for their children may want to practice the Routine Fading method. Over time, it means less parental involvement in the bedtime process and more independence for growing toddlers.
Over the next few weeks, gradually reduce the time you spend comforting and soothing your baby before bed. Use the same methods that your child is used to, such as holding, massaging, or shushing, but shave off a minute or so each night that they successfully go down for bed.
Eventually, they won’t require any help to drift off to sleep.
While a sleep regression period might seem endless to some, it’s important to remember that the changes are temporary. After a few weeks to a couple of months, a healthy baby will settle back into a regular sleep schedule.
Knowing when to expect sleep regressions in infants can help you handle the issue head-on while keeping the frustration and exhaustion to a minimum.