So your baby/toddler is sleeping great, and you’re feeling pretty smug. But all of a sudden, seemingly for no reason at all, they are waking up again in the night; struggling to fall asleep at night; taking short naps or refusing naps; feeding and fussing more...or all of the above! If nothing else has changed, and you find your child fits roughly into one of the age groups below, then it’s definitely likely that you are experiencing a sleep regression. For the lucky ones, sleep regressions may last only a few days or a week; but they can last up to a month or even six weeks. Either way, they are temporary (well, all except the 4-month regression) so it helps to understand what’s going on with your little one and how to help them through whilst balancing promotion of their independent sleep skills as best as possible.
The 4-month sleep regression is often a talking point at baby groups, and catches out those parents who have been enjoying good sleep from their baby. Many babies struggle terribly with this regression, as their sleep patterns change permanently to become more similar to those of adults. This means that they experience more periods of light sleep; take a while to get into a deep sleep, and are more likely to wake during the night (many, many times!).
Early mornings are common; naps might go to pot too, and your baby may become fussy and overtired. Give your baby a few weeks to adjust. Some easy-going babies will settle into the new rhythm, but many babies need some help at this point.
So what can you do about it? If you haven’t paid too much attention to sleep before now, then it’s time to focus. Ensure your baby is getting enough daytime sleep (sometimes this may mean motion naps, or naps on laps are more necessary for a little while). Make sure they are feeding well during the day to minimise hunger as much as possible at night (they will still likely need one to three night feeds at this age). Create a good bedtime routine that helps them to wind down and prepare for sleep. Ensure the sleep environment is optimal (dark; good temperature; white noise). If your baby is not falling asleep in their cot at bedtime (i.e. you are feeding/rocking/holding to sleep) then this is very likely preventing them from getting back to sleep when they naturally wake in the night. You can gently work on helping them to fall asleep without your help, when you and your baby are ready to take that step and at a pace that feels right.
These regressions are often linked to developmental milestones (physical, cognitive or emotional); separation anxiety kicking in; and the transition from three to two naps. You can help your child to work through some of this by allowing them to practise their skills often during the day (particularly in the afternoon). At night time, if you find they keep getting up in the cot or getting stuck in various positions, then during the day help them to learn how to move themselves into different positions. It can be a frustrating time, but there isn’t much more you can do. With the separation anxiety kicking in, make sure you engage in lots of quality play and cuddle time in your child’s room and cot whilst they are awake. Make sure their room is not just for sleep, and that they are not left in their cot as a safe place whilst you get on with a chore. During the day, you can play peekaboo-style games and pop in and out of the room to help your child to understand that you can leave but you will always come back.
Many children go through a sleep regression at 18 months (or even as early as 16 months) that can interrupt naps, bedtime and night sleep. This can be quite a trying time and is linked to your child becoming more independent and wilful, and consequently testing the boundaries. Many children also have another spike in separation anxiety at this time. Sometimes, some additional sleep work will be needed to work through this period. This may include increasing daytime communication, working on boundary-setting during the day, and adjusting the bedtime routine. I highly recommend Janet Lansbury’s work as a great tool for positive parenting; respectful boundary setting; dealing with your child’s big emotions, and communicating with your child.
This sleep regression can, again, be linked to boundary testing and separation anxiety but may also be further aggravated by potty training, an early move to a toddler bed, a new baby, night time fears, etc. Your child may also be able to stay awake longer, so daytime routines may need adjusting. Again, communication with your child is vital at this stage.