How to deal with sleep regressions (and are they real?)

Ahhh the dreaded sleep regressions! I am sure you have heard about them, or experienced them yourself. I often get asked if they are real and if babies’ sleep really gets affected. Well I believe it does!

When a baby goes through a developmental leap – and that can mean changes in physical, emotional or social development – often their sleep can be disrupted. These leaps generally happen around the same ages, give or take a few weeks. Babies go through the most amazing period of development in the first 12 months of their lives. They are learning new skills all the time, so you can understand why things like sleep can go haywire every now and then.

The first big leap seems to happen around the 8 to 10 week mark when babies who have usually been sleeping quite well during the day, start to shorten their day sleeps and start to sleep for just one sleep cycle – anywhere between 30 to 45 minutes. This leap is the first one that can really affect their sleep. At this age, babies are generally noticing things around them more. They also start to sleep a bit differently during the day to night, so their sleep is not as deep and they have cycles of lighter and deeper sleep.

The next big sleep regression is the 4 month regression. This disruption causes the night time sleep to go pear-shaped. Babies who were sleeping well overnight will often start to wake more often than they had. This regression is about babies really wanting to engage with their environment and those around them. This leads to them being a bit more distracted when feeding during the day, which as a consequence, they tend to snack. Snacking then leads to waking more frequently during the night to make up for the milk they didn’t have during the day. This regression can also be a kick on from catnapping. Babies will get more overtired if they are catnapping during the day and eventually their night sleep will be affected.

Once these early regressions have passed, they move quickly to the next! This happens around 6 months. Babies’ sleep cycles at night now become cemented and they have the same sleep-cycle pattern as they will for most of their lives. This big change, plus a lot of development around mobility – rolling and trying to move more – can cause more disturbances to their sleep. If they have a sleep association, like a dummy or being rocked to sleep in your arms, these become cemented and babies will really become reliant upon them. This means they can wake more at night, expecting that association to help them back to sleep.

After this, a lot of the regressions will be about physical development. When a baby starts to crawl, or just before they have mastered this skill, their sleep can go off. This also happens around the time they are starting to walk, or just before.

Finally, the biggest regression in the first 12 months usually starts around 10 to 12 months. This is when separation anxiety can start in some babies. Separation anxiety is a normal stage of a child’s emotional development. This starts when babies begin to understand that objects and people exist even when they’re not present – a concept called object permanence. Separation anxiety can cause some babies to start to want a parent with them when they fall asleep at night. If this happens then they expect them to be there when they wake overnight; if they aren’t then they will call out or cry until that parent appears.

All of these regressions will pass over time. My advice on the best way to deal with regressions is to not go backwards from where you are. Therefore, if your baby is starting to wake more often during the night and is only having one feed a night, rather than introduce more night feeding, I would try to resettle them. This means the baby won’t get reliant on the extra feed and once the regression/leap has passed they should go back to sleeping the way they were prior to the leap.

If your child has been going off to sleep by themselves, then I would try to continue this. You can certainly go in and out reassuring them, but try to continue to be out of the room when they fall asleep.

If you have had to introduce new things to deal with the regression, as soon as you feel you child has passed it, then try to drop those new associations as quickly as you can. Finally, always remember that they will pass!

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.