Babies and sleep regressions: how to survive them

Diane Pawsey is a maternity nurse and holistic sleep coach. She offers home consultations, as well as Skype or telephone consultations helping families throughout the UK and overseas.

What are Sleep regressions?!
If you are a parent or you work with children, you have most likely heard about sleep regressions. In this article, I will try to explain what is going on.

Developmental changes
Children are constantly changing, growing, adapting and learning. Each child reaches their milestones at different rate, for example not every baby sits up at the same age. When children are learning, their brain is processing a lot of new information. Research has shown when a baby has spent time in the day practicing a new skill, say crawling, their brain is still active when they go to bed. This can be why your child finds it difficult to settle at night while they ponder their newfound super power and even practice it in their cot! The part of the brain they have been using the most, in this case gross motor skills, is still firing and lighting up like a firework show even after they go to sleep.

Amazing, right!?

What will happen during a sleep regression?

I donʼt really like term regression, and in fact, there is no scientific evidence to back up sleep regressions! There is plenty of evidence about development, and also about how a babyʼs sleep matures and evolves. What parents usually notice is that their babyʼs sleep suddenly changes. They might notice any of the following:

  • Refusal to nap
  • Waking soon after falling asleep
  • Resistance to fall asleep at bedtime
  • More night waking
  • Waking up early in the morning
  • Waking up seeming tired still

Itʼs often a combination of all these things. As frustrating and worrying as it is, I can assure you that your baby hasnʼt lost the ability to sleep, itʼs just sleep isnʼt a priority for your little one during this developmental leap.

When do regressions typically occur?
Sleep distributions can occur at any time of developmental change. There are, of course, some well-known times around 4-5 months and 8 months.

4-5 month regression
As a newborn, your baby transitioned from awake to asleep via REM (dreaming) sleep. The brain activity during REM sleep is very similar to the activity during wakefulness, and babies often fall asleep easily – whether in your arms, during a feed, or with a little bit of movement.

Their sleep cycle is also quite short, and they simply alternate between REM sleep and deep sleep. As their sleep cycle matures, they transition from awake to asleep via a completely new state of sleep that they have not experienced before – light sleep. Itʼs a type of non-REM sleep, and may well feel quite unfamiliar to your baby. For this reason, it seems that many babies suddenly struggle to ‘switch offʼ and go to sleep. 4-5 month old babies are often distractible, stimulated by their environment, eager to interact and learn, and find new experiences, places and people exciting. At this age babies are learning a huge amount, cooing, smiling more and perhaps rolling.

Also they are starting to be able to stay awake between naps for longer now, typically having 4 naps per day. During any phase of development, babies may seem unsettled, and will need more support to enable them to sleep. In truth all of us have times we can’t sleep due to studying, stress or excitement. These different emotional states can have us all laying in bed for hours waiting for our minds to switch off. However, itʼs only a phase in our life, and your little one’s too. We donʼt lose the ability to sleep and helping them with good sleeping habits now will help them to cope with all of these states throughout life.

8-month regression
At this age, babies are babbling, probably learning to stand with some help, crawl, clapping hands, waving and lots of other new tricks. If your 7-9 month old baby has suddenly become fretful when you leave to go to the bathroom, or answer the doorbell, chances are separation anxiety is to blame.

Around this time you may need to drop the last nap of the day. This typically occurs around 8-9 months. Remember to make the lunchtime nap a bit longer and the bedtime a bit earlier, or youʼll end up with an overtired baby by bedtime, and you may get sleep resistance due to excessive tiredness.

How to help your baby during sleep regressions?
Focus on the things you can help you baby with as itʼs easy to feel out of control at this time.

  • Keep calm. Babies pick up on our vibes! Itʼs understandable that you find bedtime and nap times stressful if they have suddenly become a challenge. Remember it’s temporary.
  • Re-evaluate your naps. Does your little one need to drop a nap? Watch your babyʼs individual tired cues and try to be responsive to them.
  • Maintain your predictable, positive and calming routines.
  • Stick with whatever worked before...donʼt switch things up.

If naps have shortened, stay close to your baby so you can help them transition between sleep cycles. You could lay a hand on them as they stir and guide them back to sleep. You could consider using white noise with babies under 6 months, and pink noise with babies over 6 months. Studies have shown pink noise promotes deep sleep.

How long do sleep regressions last?
Sleep regressions last between 7-10 days, on average. During this stressful time parents contact me after trying numerous methods to settle their baby, because what they did before has no soothing effect anymore. My advise during this unsettled time is to stay consistent in your response. Studies have shown it can take 2-3 weeks to form a habit, so try not to switch things up. Stick to what your baby knows, weather thatʼs rocking or patting them to sleep. Then once the developmental leap has ended they will fall back into their sleeping patterns more quickly.

Sleep regressions can cause parents a lot of stress. But sometimes the fear of one can be worse than the experience. Try to stay calm, and remember that all phases eventually come to an end.

Useful tools: The Wonder Weeks App gives you a week by week insight into your baby's developmental stage.

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