Sleep Regression 101—Plus, Tips & Tricks To Help
Help is on the way
When your kid starts sleeping through the night—or at least most of it—you may breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, after months of middle-of-the-night feedings, waking to calm their cries, and battling sleep deprivation, you can both get some solid Zzzs. But, if you’re a parent of a baby or toddler experiencing sleep regression, just when you think you’ve developed a routine and restful nights have become the norm, WABAM! Out of nowhere, you get hit with sudden sleep setbacks, ranging from your kid refusing to go to sleep to them having difficulty catching some shut eye or staying asleep when they do. And it’s not just your little one who’s struggling to snooze—your nightly escapes to dreamland suddenly become disrupted too.
Despite sleep regression being a temporary intrusion in your lives, we know how crestfallen, frustrated, and even guilty it can make you feel—not to mention tired. That’s why we’re here to help. First and foremost, know that it’s not your fault—sleep regression is a normal bump in the road to development for many children. Then, keep reading to learn all about sleep regression in babies and toddlers. We’re discussing what sleep regression is, potential causes behind it, as well as tips on how to fix sleep regression.
What Is Sleep Regression?
As you’ve likely witnessed, developmental milestones in infants and toddlers take place in rapid succession. One day your little one is adorable yet stoic, the next they're giving you a big chubby, gummy smile! Same with going from breast- or bottle-feeding them to being in deadlocked negotiations with a picky eater. Changes in kids happen quickly—and they don’t always equal progress. Sometimes, they go in reverse, like with sleep regression.
Your child sleeping all night long may have been an achievement that you thought you’d both nailed—only to once again have trouble getting them to bed (or keeping them there). Try not to be discouraged or let feelings of guilt sneak in. Sleep regression in babies and toddlers is a common—and short-term—occurrence. Although the timing and level of disruption varies widely kid to kid, it’s a normal part of their development, and there are things you can do to help get your child back on track. But, first, let’s go over when it tends to occur and what causes sleep regression in the first place.
What Age Does Sleep Regression Start?
There’s no specific age that sleep regression tends to make an appearance. It can occur as early as when they’re 4 months old or pop up throughout both babyhood and toddlerhood. Babies and toddlers who were good sleepers all of a sudden have trouble getting to or staying asleep. They may start making a fuss when bedtime approaches. Or, they may wake up during the night and not be able to soothe themselves back to sleep. Be aware that your child may experience sleep regression at different points in their development—at varying levels, frequency, and duration—but, remember, this is normal and temporary, albeit disruptive.
What Causes Sleep Regression?
The biology of sleep is still a bit of a mystery, even for the people that study it. So, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes sleep regression. However, it does tend to occur during significant times of growth, development, and/or change in your child’s life. Other sleep regression triggers may be when your kid is teething, stressed out, sick, on vacation with the fam, or when you’re switching up their routine.
Physiologically, infant sleep regression may be brought on by the rapid development of their brain and nervous system. The more they’re aware of their environment—like sunlight, eating, wind, and other stimuli they come across in their day to day—the more neural connections are made. This may rattle their sleep patterns. Ditto with the simple fact that, starting around 4 months old, your baby doesn’t need as much sleep as they did when they were newborn—and their sleep becomes lighter, less like the deep snooze of a new infant and more like that of an adult. Hence, why they wake up and cry more.
Mommy Pro Tip: Learn all about what different types of cries mean, so you can help decode what your little one is trying to tell you.
As your child grows into a toddler, at around 18 months or so, they’ve made enormous strides in their development. They communicate and move around better—the latter of which can make them restless at bedtime. And their cognitive, reasoning, and thought processes are more mature. With these developments, they have more emotional depth, which definitely has its perks, like your kid showing you extra affection. But with them also comes the potential for stressful feelings such as separation anxiety. When all these developments converge, it’s no wonder your little one’s sleep may be affected.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Sleep Regression?
While sleep regression in kids is common, it’s not a foregone conclusion. We all have a rough night here and there. So, try not to make a rush judgement on whether or not your child is experiencing sleep regression if they have trouble sleeping once in a while. (You should always consult your pediatrician for their official diagnosis.) That said, there are common hallmarks of this kiddy setback.
First off, you may notice bedtime becoming anything but peaceful. Your child may get fussy or staunchly resist hitting the hay—more than usual. If you happen to get them into bed, they may become clingier and cry when you try to leave the room. They may also have trouble settling in and falling asleep. Waking up with increased frequency during the night—and/or becoming more upset and harder to calm down when they do—are also symptoms of sleep regression. And, like anyone who doesn’t get enough sleep, they may take more naps during the day and snooze for longer periods of time when they finally do konk out.
Mommy Pro Tip: If gas is the culprit keeping your baby up, you can help relieve it with Infants’ Mylicon Gas Relief Drops in our dye-free or original formulas. They work quickly to break gas bubbles down to help your little one naturally release them. For an older kid, aged 2 to 11, Children’s Mylicon Multi-Symptom Tummy Relief can help. The chewable tablets soothe multiple tummy troubles, including gas and bloating, as well as acid buildup, indigestion, and discomfort from overeating.
How Long Does Sleep Regression Last?
Thankfully, nothing lasts forever—even sleep regression. Though be prepared for the possibility that it will make more than one appearance in your kid’s childhood, especially if they’ve struggled with it before. Every child’s sleep regression is unique, so there’s no foolproof way to predict how long it will last. Generally, however, it doesn’t last too long, and will usually resolve on its own. Your kid will usually get back to getting a good night’s sleep in a few days or weeks. If the improvement in their sleep regression plateaus at any point, of course, expect it to last a wee bit longer.
The amount of time sleep regression lasts also depends on the underlying cause(s), as well as your child’s stage of development. We have some good news, though: You can help make its recurrence less likely by instilling some healthy sleep habits in your little one—they’ll also help protect your kid against other sleep issues down the road.
How Can You Help or Fix Sleep Regression?
As with many things in life, practice makes perfect—or as close to perfect as possible. Luckily, there’s nothing complicated about good sleep practices. It may just take some time to get in the habit and see an improvement in your child’s sleep regression.
Mommy Pro Tip: Along with the below, you can keep track of your kid’s sleep habits and the issues they’re having with this handy chart. Then, share your findings with your pediatrician if you have any concerns.
Keep them active during the day: While you don’t want to exhaust your child (overtired kids tend to resist sleeping), keeping them active during the day and ensuring they get some natural daylight can help set their circadian rhythm, which regulates their alertness and sleepiness.
Don’t let them go to bed hungry: This one is pretty straightforward: A hungry kid is a restless kid. Make sure they have plenty to eat throughout their day to avoid hunger keeping them up at night. And, resist the urge to feed them substantial amounts of food right before you put them down for bed. This can create a food-sleep association, which can exacerbate their sleep issues by interfering with their ability to soothe themselves to sleep. Instead, feed them a little while before tucking them in. If they still have one or two feedings overnight, no worries. As long as you’re not feeding them every time they go to sleep, they shouldn’t interfere.
Create a consistent bedtime routine: Kids benefit from routines in all aspects of their lives—bedtime included. Get them ready by doing activities to wind them down in the same order every day. These could include bathtime, feeding time or a healthy snack, and brushing their teeth (if they have them). Then, change their diaper or have them use the potty, read a book, and lay them down or tuck them in.
Put them to sleep when they’re drowsy, but not yet asleep: It may seem intuitive to put your child to bed if they fall asleep, but this can also make it harder for them to learn to self-soothe themself to bed. Instead, when they start dozing off, head for the nursery. Signs that they’re sleepy may include rubbing their eyes, batting at their ears, or being fussy. Take them as your cues. This will help them get back to sleep on their own if they wake up in the middle of the night.
Let them cry it out: We know, this one can be unpleasant for you both. But letting your kid have a good cry, rather than immediately running to help calm them down, can also help them learn to soothe themself to sleep. However, we’re not promoting cruelty. Feel free to check on them—just give it a minute to see if they’ll calm themself down, and avoid picking them up or rocking them, as this can cause them to be dependent on you to fall asleep. Of course, if this one is too uncomfortable and upsetting for you both, skip it. Sleep training methods should remain within your comfort zone.
Create a sleeping oasis: As mentioned, from the time your child is about 4 months old, they start becoming more aware of their surroundings. Great for brain development—not so great when trying to catch some Zzzs. Try to reduce any distractions by making sure their environment is dark (although a nightlight is OK) and as quiet as possible. You might want to try enlisting the help of a fan or white noise machine to help lull them to sleep.
Don’t neglect yourself: A happy parent often equals a happy kid. Avoid letting your own self-care fall by the wayside. When they do fall asleep, leave the dishes and laundry for later, and catch some rest yourself. Try not to blame yourself for your little one’s sleep regression—it’s a common and natural occurrence. And, remember, it can take time for them to develop stable sleep patterns. So, do your best to keep your expectations in check. Sleep regression may not have a set duration, but try to remind yourself that it’s only temporary and will resolve.
Yet, if you notice any physical symptoms that sleep regression or other disturbances may be causing your child, especially a poor appetite, slowed growth or weight gain, abnormal breathing, or changes in their pee-pee or poop, definitely tell your pediatrician about them. Otherwise, try the above techniques, and hopefully you and your child will both be happily snoozing in no time again.
Next: Looking for another way to calm your child down before bedtime? Learn the surprising mind and body benefits of massage and how to give your kid one yourself.