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What is a baby sleep regression?
A baby sleep regression is a short period of disrupted, ANNOYING sleep patterns in a baby or toddler . During a sleep regression, a baby or child who previously slept well may start waking up more frequently at night or have difficulty falling asleep. A baby sleep regression typically occurs during specific ages and developmental milestones. They can be quite challenging if you have no idea how to navigate them.
Don’t worry, friends. As a pediatric sleep consultant with TONS of experience with sleep regressions, I’ve got you covered.
In this blog post, I will discuss:
- the most common ages for a baby sleep regression to occur;
- the common causes of these specific sleep regressions; and
- how to navigate these sleep regressions when they arrive!
What are the common causes of sleep regressions?
Baby sleep regressions are often triggered by developmental milestones and significant changes in the baby’s physical or cognitive abilities. Alternatively, some of them are caused by behavioural factors. Each specific sleep regression has its own unique triggers.
What are the most common ages for a baby sleep regression?
While individual variations exist, here are the approximate ages at which a baby sleep regression tends to occur:
- 4 months
- 8-10 months
- 18 months
- 24 months
The 4-Month Regression
Around the 4-month mark, many babies experience what is famously known as the dreaded 4-month sleep regression. This regression is marked by some major disruptions to your baby’s sleep patterns. Suddenly, your amazing sleeper has started fighting sleep time, is experiencing more night wakings, and is taking shorter naps.
This regression is caused by *permanent* neurological changes to your baby’s sleep patterns. Your baby is transitioning from newborn sleep patterns to more adult-like sleep cycles. When your baby reaches this stage, he’s now cycling in and out of deep sleep and light sleep, just like we do.
Again, this stage signifies a permanent change in your baby’s sleep habits as they grow older. He’s not going back to sleeping like a newborn!
This neurological change can trigger this sleep regression for several reasons:
- If your baby has been relying on sleep associations to fall asleep, he may suddenly need assistance to fall back asleep at the end of his 45-minute sleep cycle.
- A typical baby’s sleep cycle is around 45 minutes long and primarily consists of light, REM sleep. When your baby starts cycling in and out of deep and light sleep, this can cause your baby to wake frequently throughout the night at the end of that sleep cycle and struggle to fall back asleep independently.
- At this stage, your baby is significantly more aware of their environment and surroundings. These advancements can make it more challenging for him to settle down and fall sleep.
**If your baby or toddler cannot fall asleep by themselves, is giving you TONS of sleep trouble, but you have NO idea how to fix the problem, watch my FREE sleep masterclass below!**
The 8-10 month regression
The 8-10 month sleep regression is also marked by some major sleep disruptions, such as bedtime resistance, nightwakings, and short naps. These disruptions are also caused by significant brain development and changes in your baby. That being said, the specifics of this regression are still very different from what causes the 4-month regression.
This regression is primarily caused by the gross motor development many babies go through in the 8-10 month range. These skills include crawling, scootching, sitting up, and standing up. It’s very common for babies to struggle to sleep when they’re developing a new skill. How can we expect them to sleep when practicing this new skill is so much fun? It’s an exciting time for your baby!
At this age, babies are also beginning to comprehend language. This is extremely exciting and stimulating for your baby. With so much activity and brain development happening, it’s much harder for them to settle down and sleep well.
And lastly, it’s very common for babies in 8-10 month range to transition to a 2-nap schedule, which can cause a regression. This is because of the unavoidable overtiredness your baby often experiences when dropping a nap.
The 18-month regression
Another well-known baby sleep regression occurs with younger toddlers ages 16-20 months, also known as the 18 month regression. While this toddler sleep regression causes similar sleep disruptions as the other ones, the cause of this regression is MUCH more behavioural.
See, toddlers in this age range are exploring boundaries by asserting their independence and autonomy. They want to see what happens when they push back and say “no!” This newfound desire to explore boundaries, including their sleep routines, often leads to bedtime battles and challenges with falling asleep and staying asleep.
Separation anxiety is another factor that often contributes to this sleep regression. By the 18 month mark, toddlers are often more aware of being away from their parents. As a result, you might have more clinginess and a reluctance to be alone when it’s bedtime.
And lastly, toddlers in the 18 month range typically experience a leap in language development. Their growing ability to express themselves and understand language can lead to increased nighttime chatter and a more active mind during sleep.
The 24 month regression
The 24-month baby sleep regression typically takes place with toddlers ages 2-3. This regression is caused by various factors related to your toddler’s development and changing needs. While not every child experiences a distinct 24-month regression, some common factors contribute to sleep disruptions around this age.
Similar to their 18 month-old counterparts, 2-year-olds are known for testing boundaries and asserting their independence. This newfound autonomy can lead to bedtime battles, as toddlers may want more control over their routines. The difference between the 2 year-olds and the 18 month-olds in this department is that the 2 year-olds are WAY more experienced and sophisticated when it comes to tantrums and testing boundaries.
Another factor that’s unique to the 2 year sleep regression is that toddlers this age may start developing a vivid imagination. This newfound creativity can bring about imaginary fears or anxieties, making it challenging for them to settle down at bedtime.
How to survive a baby sleep regression- by ages
Surviving your baby’s sleep regression can be challenging! But with patience, flexibility, and a few strategies, you CAN navigate this temporary phase smoothly.
That being said, each sleep regression is different and requires slightly different approaches. Here’s how I specifically recommend addressing each sleep regression:
Surviving the 4-month regression
With most sleep regressions, a return to normalcy can be expected within a few days, up to 1-2 weeks, provided your baby had healthy sleep habits previously. However, the 4-month sleep regression is different. Unfortunately, this isn’t a phase that naturally resolves with time. Remember- the big changes to your baby’s sleep patterns that caused this regression are PERMANENT. This is why “waiting it out” is likely not going to get you anywhere.
Rather, the first step I ALWAYS recommend with the four-month sleep regression is to explore sleep training options. Teaching your baby how to fall asleep independently will give him the tools to connect his sleep cycles so that he can learn to put himself BACK to sleep on his own. This way, your baby can sleep longer periods, stay asleep throughout the night and only wake up to eat!
Now, I know what you might be thinking…aren’t 4 month-olds too young for sleep training?
NOPE. 4 month-olds ARE old enough.
This doesn’t mean they’re ready to drop ALL night feeds. Many 4 month-olds still need 1-2 night feeds until they get a bit older. And the good news is that you can always sleep train your baby while respecting any nighttime nutritional needs they might have.
Now, this ALSO doesn’t mean you’ll need to leave your baby to cry-it-out. There are other approaches you can explore that allow you to support and comfort your baby as she learns these new skills.
In addition to sleep training, I also recommend ensuring your little one is napping frequently and that they don’t have too much awake time throughout the day. 4 month-olds can only be up for a short period of time of time before becoming overtired- usually about 90 minutes. Respecting their daytime sleep needs is very important.
**If you are unsure how much sleep your little one needs, grab a copy of my FREE sleep chart!**
Surviving the 8-10 month regression
The 8-10 month sleep regression is definitely not fun. That being said, having the right action plan can help you weather this storm as quickly and easily as possible.
Here’s how I recommend approaching this regression:
- Stick to your consistent wind-down routines and continue to put your baby down awake. New sleep habits can form in a matter of days. Now is NOT the time to start introducing sleep associations such as rocking or nursing your baby to sleep or resorting to co-sleeping if this isn’t something you want long-term. Stick with your good sleep habits as best you can.
- Monitor your baby’s food and milk intake. There’s often a growth spurt around this age, which can cause extra nightwakings. Ensure your little one is being offered solid food 3 times a day in addition to their milk.
- Give your baby lots of opportunities to practice any new skill they’re working on.
- Maintain a consistent and calming bedtime routine. Establishing predictable pre-sleep activities signals to your baby that it’s time to wind down.
- Don’t assume your baby is teething for weeks on end.
- Adjust your baby’s nap schedule, if needed. Most babies by this age have transitioned from 3 naps to 2 naps, so make sure you’re respecting your little one’s daytime sleep needs. Otherwise, she could become very overtired, which can cause all sorts of nighttime sleep difficulties.
That being said, don’t assume all of your baby’s sleep problems are due to this regression. If your baby wasn’t sleeping well beforehand, it’s unlikely this regression is the root cause of your current sleep problems. Waking up more than 1-2 times a night is excessive, even during this regression. If frequent nightwakings are an ongoing issue with your 8-10 month old, you probably have a lingering sleep problem you’ll want to address asap.
Surviving the 18 month regression
Because the 18 month sleep regression is primarily behavioural, your most important steps are to: 1) stay calm; 2) don’t overreact; and 3) don’t give into his shenanigans. As a toddler, he’s MUCH more aware and independent. As a result, he’s going to test the boundaries to see what happens if he pushes back and says “no!”
Now don’t get me wrong. With toddlers, we’re always picking and choosing our battles. But anything to do with sleep is a battle you want to pick. So this means:
- keep your bedtime routine consistent and don’t veer from it; and
- continue to put your toddler down awake (if he is sleep trained).
Your toddler might need extra comfort during this toddler sleep regression– that’s fine. Feel free to introduce a comfort object, such as a soft toy or blanket, to provide a sense of security for your toddler.
And if your toddler is experiencing separation anxiety, always offer extra reassurance at bedtime. Gradual exposure to short periods alone during the day can help alleviate anxiety at night.
Just don’t introduce new sleep associations that may become challenging to break. New sleep habits can form very quickly!
And lastly, adjust your toddler’s nap schedule if needed. Most toddlers have transitioned from 2 naps to 1 nap by 18 months of age. An incorrect nap schedule or a nap that’s too short may affect nighttime sleep if your toddler is overtired.
Surviving the 24 month regression
Because this toddler sleep regression is behavioural, similar to the 18-month regression, my main recommendations are the same: Don’t introduce new sleep crutches you don’t want in the long run!
Your 2 year-old’s increased language skills, imagination, and assertiveness can make implementing this advice easier said than done. 2 year-olds are EXPERTS at throwing tantrums if they don’t get what they want. Remaining consistent with your routines and sleep habits is even MORE important.
That being said, here are some additional tips to help you navigate this stage:
- Maintain your consistent bedtime routine. You may have to place some age-appropriate limits to this routine, such as a set number of bedtime stories and songs. This helps prevent your toddler from delaying bedtime by demanding “one more book!” or “one more song!”
- DO NOT transition your toddler to a bed unless he’s jumping out of the crib and it’s not possible for him to safely sleep there. His sleep struggles will WORSEN by prematurely moving him to a bed. Suddenly, your sleep-refusing toddler can ALSO leave the room whenever he pleases! Avoid that situation like the plague 🙂
- Encourage independence by allowing your toddler to participate in simple bedtime choices, such as selecting a bedtime story or choosing pajamas. This can help them feel a sense of control.
- Review and adjust your toddler’s nap schedule. On the one hand, short or inconsistent naps can cause overtiredness. On the other hand, 3-hour naps at this age are usually too long and can lead to bedtime battles for the opposite reason- he’s not tired enough! Most 2-year-olds need approximately 2 hours of naps. Keep that in mind.
- Introduce a comfort object, such as a soft toy or blanket. This provides a sense of security for your toddler.
One VERY important final note about ANY sleep regression…
Before assuming that your little one’s poor sleep is caused by a baby or toddler sleep regression, ask yourself the following question:
**What was my little one’s sleep like BEFORE this regression hit?**
For example, if your 8 month-old baby was a champion sleeper beforehand and suddenly started taking a long time to fall asleep when he was learning to crawl, that’s one thing.
But if your baby’s or toddler’s sleep has only ever been mediocre at the best of times (and pretty darn crappy at the worst of times), your little one likely had some underlying sleep problems BEFORE this regression hit. And these challenges were simply worsened by this sleep regression.
If this is the case, a “baby sleep regression” can happen to little ones of ANY ages!
I STRONGLY recommend looking at your baby’s sleep habits to see where there’s room for improvement. By introducing healthy sleep routines, you’re providing your baby or toddler the tools he needs to always sleep like a champ- even if he’s going ACTUALLY through a sleep regression 🙂
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Other baby and child sleep resources
Nap Training Guide: How to Sleep Train your Baby for Naps
When can my baby sleep through the night without a feeding?
Baby Sleepy Cues and the Truth about What They Mean
Pacifiers- The Good, the Bad, and When to Use Them
How to help a sick baby or child sleep