Is Your Baby’s Sleep Regression Keeping You Up At Night?

by | Sep 17, 2020

Certified sleep consultant Petro Thamm takes a look at sleep regression – why your baby’s sleep patterns sometimes regress, what to do about it, and when you should be worried by it.

There is nothing more rewarding for a parent than when you finally feel as though you’ve won the no-sleep battle with your children. Once you become accustomed to getting more shut-eye, it’s terrible to suddenly have to once again get up five times a night. Sleep regression is a real concern for parents, and understandably so. When should you worry? What is the reason behind it, and when should you seek professional help?

What is sleep regression?
Sleep regression refers to the behavioural changes in babies or toddlers who have been sleeping through the night, when they begin waking up frequently at night again. First and foremost it’s important to understand that there is no such thing as a definite sleep regression at a certain age, as with development milestones, as each child’s sleep needs and sleep processes are unique. Just as there are averages for children in terms of development (when they will sit, when they will walk, etc.), it is possible that children will experience sleep regression or some change in their sleep routines at different stages in their lives.

Is sleep regression normal?
A sudden change in your child’s sleeping habits is completely normal and can be expected. I always tell parents that one bad night is no reason to panic; neither is two; in fact, neither is three. It’s only when you get to between four and seven days of a similar pattern that you should start to consider a definite underlying cause.

Why does sleep regression occur?
The ironic thing about sleep regression is that often it’s not the child who regresses, but the parents. For example, the baby has been happily sleeping through without drinking milk (he is 11 months old and a good weight), when he suddenly wakes up at night and the parent responds by feeding him. In the next 24 hours the baby will drink less milk and then wake up again the following night, now wanting the feed (as our metabolic rhythms also influence our sleep and awake cycles), and before you know it you have a “sleep-regressed” baby when in fact it was you who fed him unnecessarily.

Aside from parental influence, there are a few reasons why sleep regressions occur. The most important reason is a developmental one. There is so much going on in a baby’s brain and concerning the child’s development. When a baby starts sitting, crawling, walking, etc. the massive new stimulatory input very often causes a baby to wake up.

Digestive reasons are also highly influential on sleep regression when a baby is young. If he suddenly starts solids, or is introduced to iron-rich food for the first time, or anything that might cause the digestive system to adapt, it may cause him to be uncomfortable and then wake up.

Nap transitioning also causes a baby to regress at night. When a baby suddenly needs two naps and not three, or one nap and not two, and Mom does not follow baby’s prompts and understands when this needs to happen, it may very well cause him to wake up.

Does sleep regression occur at a certain age?
Sleep regression could happen as a response to any change to the baby’s internal or external environment. The regression that I have seen most in my practice is what we call the 18-month sleep regression – which can happen at 17 or 19 months as well. It’s typically when a baby transitions from babyhood to toddlerdom. Developmentally, the big jump nearly always causes little ones to start testing the boundaries.

They become toddlers in full force, and if parents don’t stick to their sleep routines, these little ones will regress at a rapid pace. (But once again, it might not be the baby who regresses too much, but rather the parents who promote the regression.)

Another more common occurrence of sleep regression is when the baby becomes more mobile, especially between the four to six-month mark; when babies generally learn to turn over, but cannot always roll back. This very often causes babies to get themselves in uncomfortable positions at night, then wake up and need the parent to help them out.

Could teething be the reason for the sleep regression?
I have the same philosophy with teething as with any other milestone – each child teethes differently. However, parents should stick with what they usually would have done even before the teething and regression. An early bedtime with a set bedtime routine could very well be the consistency your child needs to get over the disruption in sleep habits.

How do I handle regression?
My best advice for dealing with regression is this: stick to your guns. Don’t make assumptions about his behaviour – just because your toddler is resisting bedtime does not mean you need to make bedtime later.

Also watch for other cues: Is your baby really experiencing a sleep regression or was he just more stimulated today and didn’t nap properly? A sleep regression will usually be accompanied by more daytime crankiness, and increased hunger during the day as well.

Perhaps the best thing to remember about sleep regressions is that these occurrences are temporary, usually lasting about two to three weeks. Your toddler or baby may be a bit more snuggly, needy, or sleep-resistant during this time, but follow your gut, don’t change the rules, and they will bounce back quickly.
If all else fails, contact a qualified sleep consultant to assess the situation with you and suggest necessary changes or help you implement a step-by-step game plan.