Why Do Babies Have Sleep Regressions?

Why Do Babies Have Sleep Regressions?

Why is your gorgeous, innocent baby suddenly trying to kill you? Let’s explore regressions — why do babies have sleep regressions and how can you survive them?

We love our babies so much. We do everything for them, we buy them all manner of ridiculous toys and clothes that they’ll outgrow or grow bored of in mere minutes. We’re devoted parents. 

Why, then, does it feel like our babies are actively trying to kill us through sleep deprivation? And why, just when you think you’ve got a handle on this baby sleep thing, does it all go to pot? Why is your angelic little cherub suddenly waking up every two hours again? Why are you having to relive the newborn days? Why are you up at 2am searching weird things on Google about whether you can give your baby sleepy-time tea?

A sleep regression might be the culprit. Sleep regressions were a lovely little treasure I wasn’t told about before becoming a mum, but they’re very real. The good news is, sleep regressions are normal. The bad news is, being ‘normal’ doesn’t always offer a lot of solace when you’ve not slept more than three hours in a row for a few weeks!

Let’s explore — what are sleep regressions? Why do babies have sleep regressions and can we stop them?

If you’re here reading this, I have a feeling you might like this other post: Popular sleep training methods (and what worked for us)

What is a Sleep Regression?

A sleep regression is defined as a period of time (typically between two and four weeks) of unsettled sleep. During this time, babies who normally sleep well suddenly have trouble settling down. They start waking up during the night and sometimes resist naps. It’s a temporary setback, you’ll be happy to know, but during this time babies are generally harder to settle or calm. If you’re experiencing a sleep regression, you have my sympathy. They’re exhausting, they can be frustrating — but they will pass with time! But why do babies have sleep regressions at all?

Why do Babies Have Sleep Regressions?

Sleep regressions can be triggered by a number of factors, including developmental and physical milestones. Learning to roll over, crawl, sit up, walk or talk can prompt sleep regression. But they are also linked to unpredictable factors, like disruptions in daily routines, or illnesses.

Essentially, babies have sleep regressions for a number of reasons, and the reasons behind each sleep regression will vary depending on your baby, their circumstances and their age. Some sleep regressions are more complicated than others — for example, the dreaded four-month sleep regression is particularly frustrating as they appear to come out of nowhere. But this regression is actually linked to an important development, which will be discussed below.

Signs of a Sleep Regression

As we all know, every baby is different, but here are some common signs of a sleep regression:

  • Increase in appetite
  • Increased fussiness
  • Frequent night waking
  • Having trouble falling asleep at night, or for naps
  • Resisting naps
  • Increased clinginess

What Age Do Babies Have Sleep Regressions?

So when can you expect your lovely baby to become a terrible sleeper? Check out the table below for the most common sleep regressions.

AgeCause of Sleep Regression
4 MonthsTeething, growth spurts, excitement relating to rolling over and permanent changes to your baby’s sleep cycle cause a perfect storm and a momentous sleep regression.
6 MonthsGrowth spurts and developmental changes such as sitting up for the first time generally cause a regression at this age.
8-10 MonthsMost babies begin crawling or standing at this age (although some do so earlier or later) and this can prompt a regression. Separation anxiety can also cause regression at this time.
12 MonthsYour baby is likely taking his or her first steps! This is a big milestone that can cause temporary setbacks with sleep.
18 MonthsLanguage explosions often happen around this time, as does increased separation anxiety and a desire for more independence.
24 MonthsThis sleep regression is a little more complicated. This regression can be prompted by nightmares or night terrors, as well as language development and a desire to test the limits — as well as a fear of the dark.

The Four-Month Sleep Regression

Almost all babies experience a sleep regression between the ages of 8 weeks and 5 months. This sleep regression is caused by permanent changes to the baby’s sleep cycle. As crazy as it sounds, your tiny baby is starting to have sleep cycles more like an adult’s. They’re starting to transition to four stages of sleep and suddenly, they spend more time in a lighter stage of sleep. This means they’re more likely to wake up at sudden noises or changes in their environment. 

We all wake up during the night — it’s just most of us don’t remember it, as we’ve learned to put ourselves back to sleep immediately. Your baby hasn’t developed this ability yet, so when he or she wakes up, they have trouble getting back to sleep — which is why you’re experiencing a lack of sleep, too!

This killer of a sleep regression, just when you thought you might be getting your nights back, can last 2-3 weeks. Or, if your baby is anything like my baby, the four-month sleep regression might move swiftly into the next regression! The good news is, this sleep regression is a sign that your baby is developing and growing up healthily.

Check out this post, where 25+ fellow parents share their best parenting advice

Do Sleep Regressions Affect Naps?

We’ve all heard ‘nap when your baby naps’ — but this is much easier said than done when your little one is going through a sleep regression. Sleep regressions can certainly affect naps, too. Babies might have shorter naps, they might be harder to settle or they might fight naps altogether.

Factors that Affect Sleep Regressions

There are a number of factors that can prompt a sleep regression. In fact, the more you read about sleep regressions, the more the list grows! Here are just a few to be aware of:

  • Teething pain
  • Changes to daily routines (like starting at a nursery)
  • A growth spurt — this can make babies very hungry!
  • A new developmental milestone
  • A cold, or other illness

How Long Do Sleep Regressions Last?

Sleep regressions in babies usually last a maximum of six weeks. Your baby just needs time to adjust — whether they’re mastering a new milestone or recovering from a bug. How long the regression lasts will depend on your baby and the cause of the regression. 

Can I Prevent Sleep Regressions?

Unfortunately, nothing can be done to prevent sleep regressions in babies! They’re a normal part of babyhood. The good news is, it will pass, and even though it might not seem like it at the time, your baby will definitely sleep through the night again one day. It’s highly unlikely your fifteen-year-old will wake up three times a night for breastmilk!

Coping Mechanisms for Sleep Regressions

While you can’t avoid sleep regressions entirely, there are a few coping mechanisms that might just keep you sane and keep you going:

  • Avoid letting your baby get overtired — when babies are overtired, it can be harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep. Learn your baby’s sleeping cues (yawning, eye-rubbing, far-off stares).
  • Fill your baby up! They’re most likely going through a growth spurt and they’ll be ravenous. And a full tummy will help them sleep.
  • Try to keep the bedtime routine consistent to offer stability and to get your baby accustomed to ‘the way things are’. Babies are smarter than we think they are and they can understand routine from quite an early age. For most families, bath, bottle (or boob) and book works really well. From an early age, my husband has sung the same four nursery rhymes to our son, in the same order, just before bed.
  • Don’t immediately rush in when you hear your baby crying! Leave them for a couple of minutes — sometimes babies fuss ever so slightly before they fall back to sleep. Most parents know the difference between a lazy whinge and a panicked cry, so if it’s the former, give it some time.
  • When you check on your baby, keep the lights off and don’t talk to your baby. You are the most exciting thing in the world to them (aside from Iggle Piggle, possibly) and if you start engaging with them, they might think it’s play time.
  • Give your baby lots of love and hugs during the day to help with any separation anxiety. 
  • Consider a white noise machine for a younger baby — it’s one of those baby hacks that actually seem to work! They can help your baby to tune out noises in their environment and the white noise reminds babies of the noises in the womb.
  • Lots of parents swear by baby sleep sacks to ease fussiness and to help babies get back to sleep.
  • Do lots of reading! The more you know about sleep regressions, the more prepared and armed you’ll feel. There are a lot of parenting books out there that cover this topic, including The Wonder Weeks by Hetty Van de Rijt, Frans Plooij and Xaiea Plas-Plooij.
  • As for help — if you need a few hours for your own wellbeing and mental health, ask a friend or a family member to take care of your baby for a few hours. I’m sure there’ll be at least one eager volunteer!
  • Remember that it’s a phase. Don’t be too hard on yourself — you’ve not caused this sleep regression. It’ll pass in its own time. And there’ll be plenty of time to exact your revenge when your baby is trying to sleep in as a teenager.

One thought on “Why Do Babies Have Sleep Regressions?

  1. Very informative post! I remember my little siblings going through these stages when they were little, especially the teething phase! That was quite a time lol as they didn’t like to sleep much.

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