Perhaps you’ve heard of the dreaded sleep regression. Or maybe you’ve heard, “The 4 month sleep regression is a myth!” and it makes you SO ANGRY because you know better. You’re living through it and you’re exhausted.
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It goes like this: You and your child had gotten into a predictable sleep routine. Maybe he was sleeping all night, maybe he wasn’t (and that’s okay! No, really.), but you at least knew what to expect.
Then all of the sudden, his sleep drastically changes for the worse.
You spend a few hours just trying to get this kid to go to bed.
He’s waking up, fussing, multiple times in the middle of the night, and it’s really hard to get him to go back to sleep.
Or he’s waking up in the middle of the night and singing and chatting and it just makes you want to stab your eyes out (Note: The Evidence-Based Mommy does not condone stabbing your own eyes, or anyone else’s eyes, out).
Why do sleep regressions happen? What do you do about them? How do you survive, and when will it just end?
(Want to just skip straight to sleep regression survival tips? Follow the jump here).
Table of Contents
What is a sleep regression?
A sleep regression is simply when your child’s sleep pattern changes, usually for the worse. It’s not related to being sick or teething, and you can’t see a real “reason” for the change.
Your child may suddenly struggle to go to sleep when she used not to. When our oldest was about eighteen months (not that she ever slept well for the first 2.5 years of her life, but that’s another story), she went through a phase where it took her literally an hour or two, every single night, to go to sleep. It was absolutely maddening. (BTW: My daughter is now 7 and is super easy to get to bed and stays there all night.)
Maybe your baby will sleep, but only if you’re holding them. As soon as you put them down, they fuss.
Or your baby may wake in the middle of the night and stay awake for an hour (so infuriating!). Usually when this behavior is part of a sleep regression, your baby isn’t fussy, she’s actually happy. She may start babbling or even try to walk around in her crib or in your bed!
RELATED: Bed sharing with baby – How to do it safely
Sometimes sleep regressions involve your child waking up early instead. She may wake up at 4:30 every morning for a week or two. And once she’s up, nothing will get her back to sleep.
Often, sleep regressions will coincide with cluster feeding, where it feels like your baby is feeding constantly. This may not always be the case, though.
Why do sleep regressions happen?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say a sleep regression is a myth. I would say, however, the phrase sleep regression is a misnomer.
Believe it or not, your four month old isn’t trying to ruin your life all of the sudden. She is going through a mental or physical growth spurt, and it’s disrupting her sleep.
Let me explain: Have you ever gotten a new job or started a new hobby that really excites you? Or even just been looking forward to an event, like your wedding or a vacation?
Aren’t you so excited sometimes that you just can’t sleep, no matter how hard you try?
That’s what’s happening with your baby. The new mental and physical leaps she is learning are just so exciting that she can’t sleep. Understandable, but really frustrating for you.
When to expect sleep regressions
Because these mental and physical leaps in children are fairly predictable, you can also predict when sleep regressions are likely to happen.
4 month sleep regression survival tips
The first sleep regression (and the one that takes parents by surprise the most) is the four month sleep regression. At this age, your child is becoming more aware of the world around him (that’s why he’s suddenly becoming much less focused when you’re trying to feed him!). All this new information and new stimulus makes it a lot harder for your little one to sleep.
I’ll be honest, the 4 month sleep regression hits pretty hard. Your baby might be up seemingly all night for a week or two. But he eventually settles down into a new routine.
UPDATE 5/20: My new baby is now four months old and we went through his first sleep regression. I wanted to chronicle the transformation while it’s fresh.
It was exhausting for a few days, but it did get better after about a week. But afterwards, he’s making new little coos and sounds! In fact, my little guy started saying “Mama.” And he’s batting at toys more and picking things up. It’s super exciting and adorable.
Have you been breastfeeding, but in the back of your mind you’re still worried whether your baby is eating enough? Or are you afraid that the real reason he’s not sleeping is that he’s not getting enough to eat (which, rest assured, is likely not the case)?
Then get my breastfeeding checklist that tells you EXACTLY how to be confident in continuing your nursing relationship!
UPDATE 7/20: A final problem I’ve noticed – Your little one might finally outgrow that swaddle blanket that you’ve been trying to make work for as long as you can (I’ve been there). That’s why I LOVE the Sleeping Baby Zipadee Zip swaddle transition blanket.
While your child’s arms aren’t held close like they are in a swaddle, your baby will have his arms inside the little blanket (and look like a tiny adorable starfish!). Seriously, this blanket was a life-saver for us when our youngest was about 5.5 months old. Plus, they come in a variety of cute patterns.
One more note: Dear Aunt Sally or some other well-meaning person (even an old-school pediatrician!) may tell you to add rice cereal to a bottle to “keep their tummies full so they’ll sleep longer.” Just… no. This is no longer recommended, and it can even be a choking hazard.
6 month sleep regression
Once again, changes in your child’s development can cause sleep disruption. Some babies drop from three naps to two during this stage. This makes bedtime hard, because you either end up with a really late third nap and then a kid who never wants to go down for the night, or you only have two naps and a fussy baby who needs to go to sleep by like 5:30. But then he wakes up early because he went to sleep early and the roller coaster starts all over again.
What causes the six month regression? Plenty of things!
For one, your child is becoming more sociable. He wants to babble, smile, and play with everyone he meets.
They may even be starting to say his first word or two! And after three kids, I’ve noticed that major upticks in verbal development are always accompanied by sleep regressions.
Plus, your child may be starting solid foods, starting to roll over, or plenty of other new skills. These developments can add up to staying up all night.
RELATED: Baby led weaning – why you’ll never have to buy jarred baby food
8-10 month sleep regression
Yep, you read that right. This one is called the 8-10 month sleep regression or the 8, 9, and 10 month sleep regression. It can last anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks.
But on the other hand, there’s so many exciting things about this stage!
I’ll be honest, I think babies are at optimal cuteness at nine months. Your child is learning to crawl, maybe to walk (!), and continuing to pick up new words.
Unfortunately, the price you pay for this explosive development is a lack of sleep. You may wake in the middle of the night to hear your baby singing. Or she may be up on all fours, rocking back in forth (preparation for crawling!).
Or you may even find her in her crib to see that she’s pulled herself up to stand at the side!
Even though the 8-10 month sleep regression feels relentless, especially when you’re in the middle of it, it won’t last forever.
12 month sleep regression
Wait, didn’t we just get through a different sleep regression?
Fortunately, the 12 month sleep regression is only a week or two long. It’s related to continued development like picking up a word or two, starting to walk, and other fun new skills.
Many babies drop from two naps to one during this time. This change will also affect their bedtime for the night, which may in turn cause them to wake earlier in the morning.
18 month sleep regression
The eighteen month sleep regression may be the hardest one (sorry). Your child is a full blown toddler, and she is ready to assert what authority she has on the world.
That authority is limited, but you know what she can control?
Refusing to go to sleep.
Yep, your feisty little one wants to have some power. A normal and healthy need for toddlers, but one that makes nap time and bed time really difficult. It’s likely you’ll go through a week or two of her yelling, screaming, and fighting bed time with everything she’s got.
Find ways to side-step power struggles during the day, and hopefully your little one will be a bit more willing to comply with bedtime.
2 year sleep regression
We just went through this sleep regression with my son (hence the inspiration to write this post).
And having just gone through it, it’s really fresh in my memory.
My little guy is gaining new words and little phrases every day. He’s starting to respond more to my questions with yeses and noes, and he’s really developing a sense of self, of likes and dislikes.
If I’ve picked him up when he doesn’t want it, he fusses and says “Down!”
If he can’t retrieve an object he wants, he tells me “Stuck!” to ask for help.
And bedtime is another thing he just doesn’t want. And he’s willing to let me know it.
The sleep regression was so frustrating too, because I had just finally gotten him to sleep through the night about a month before, and then this happens.
But you know what?
He slept all night last night in his own bed (win!). There’s hope for you too!
At this age, short mindfulness activities and bedtime meditations can become helpful for your toddler (and they’re a game changer for you too, by the way). Check out this free trial of Headspace for some of my favorite mindfulness tools for me and my kids.
How to cope with sleep regressions
I suspect this is what you really want to know from this article.
But I’ll be honest, you may be disappointed by (mad at?) my answer. Hear me out though.
Usually, when we’re so desperate for answers, we want someone to tell us how to “fix” our child. We hope we can sleep train the behavior out of them, or give them a pill that will fix them, or something to make it just stop.
But with kids, that’s just not how it works.
Instead of lying to you (which I honestly think would get me more popularity points) about how to end sleep regressions, I’m going to tell you four ways to cope so you can be your best in spite of them.
1. Stop calling it a sleep regression.
I know, I’ve been using that phrase this whole time. But try this:
Instead of saying, “My baby is going through a sleep regression,” say, “My baby is going through a growth spurt.” See how that changes things?
Be mindful of all the exciting change he’s going through. Even when my little guy wasn’t sleeping last week, my husband and I commented on all the new words he was starting to say.
“Love you (swoon!)”
This label change from “sleep regression” to “growth spurt” may seem pointless, but the reframe makes a huge difference in your attitude.
So remember, this isn’t a “regression.” Your child isn’t going backwards.
He’s transitioning to newer and bigger things.
2. Help your baby transition out of a swaddle.
Was your baby sleeping like a dream in a swaddle, but no longer fits in it and now is waking up over and over? This transition is so painful! That’s why I love the Zipadee Zip.
I recently discovered the Sleeping Baby Zipadee Zip and it has truly been a life saver. Like, I can’t describe how much I love the it.
My little guy finally became too big for his swaddle blanket a month or so ago, and he’s the type who can’t stay asleep without it. I was beginning to worry about what we were going to do, but I got two Zipadee Zips (and the swaddle strap to help him transition from the feeling of being tightly wrapped).
After that, we had no problem. He sleeps fine in his new little blanket, and he also looks like an adorable tiny starfish with his arms tucked in. I love it.
Make sure you check out the miracle that is the Zipadee Zip.
3. Don’t use rice cereal to try to “fill their tummy.”
Dear Aunt Sally may tell you, “When you were 8 weeks old we put some rice cereal in your bottle to keep you asleep.”
Since then, we’ve learned a lot about baby’s digestive system. For one thing, the CDC recommends waiting until at least 6 months to start solids. In addition, we’ve found that rice cereal actually doesn’t help babies sleep better.
RELATED: Should I skip rice cereal? Dangers from arsenic
4. Shut out the negativity.
When you’re exhausted, people notice. And lots of people will give well-meaning but useless (and even damaging!) advice.
You have to make that child do what you tell him.
You need to just leave him to cry-it-out.
If you don’t teach your child to obey now, he’ll run all over you when he’s older.
If you let him sleep with you, you’ll never get that boy out of your bed.
Do yourself a favor. Smile and nod, thank them for their input, and promptly forget everything they say.
Or if you’re feeling extra feisty, tell them to shove it up their nose. Your choice.
RELATED: Bedsharing with baby – How to do so safely
5. Remember you and your partner are a team.
Want to know when my husband and I bicker most?
When we’re both exhausted.
It’s so easy to let every little thing your partner does annoy you when you’re tired (like, you know, when your kid is won’t let you sleep).
It took my husband and me a few years, but we finally learned that turning against each other during this time simply isn’t productive.
We take turns trying to settle the baby. Sometimes, if my son will sleep a little with me but still wakes up a lot, my husband and I just sleep separate for a few nights. He can at least get a little sleep then.
In fact, when our daughters were a toddler and an infant, we had a month or two where he slept with my oldest and I slept with the baby.
Ideal? No. But we did what we had to do, and I’m happy to report we now have our own bed to ourselves again (mostly).
6. Just go to bed early.
Seriously. After a night or two of poor sleep from your baby, do yourself a favor and just go to bed at eight o’clock. You can expect to be woken up throughout the night, so you may as well prepare.
Sleep is going to be more restorative for you than Netflix binging anyways.
7. Remember this won’t last forever.
I know you may not believe me right now, but even the longest sleep regressions don’t last forever. Six weeks seems like an eternity when you’re running on zero sleep, but it will get better.
Conclusions on sleep regressions, er, transitions…
I hope you have a new outlook on your child’s development. And if you don’t because you’re just so tired that this isn’t resonating (which I totally get), pin this article for later. Make it through this week or two until your little one cuts you some slack. Go to bed early until it gets better.
After that, come back and read this again (seriously!). You’ll receive the message better when you feel better.
And then, when the next “sleep regression” comes around (and it will), you’ll be better prepared.