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Getting through sleep regression

The sleep cycle was going so well, you had your routine and you finally felt comfortable with your way of doing things. Then, all of a sudden – for no apparent reason, your child started experiencing disrupted sleep. 

And now you don’t know what to do ...

sound familiar?

Well, let me tell you…this is a perfectly normal phase, and a healthy sign of development. And you will get through it!

However, sleep ‘regression’ - by name, doesn’t help parents manage their perception of what’s going on at this time. Hindered sleep is not really a regression at all. 

Sleep regression generally happens at around 4, 8 and 18 months. But babies do this in their own time. It can be at any age – up until they are preschoolers.

Let’s keep in mind that sleep regression is a healthy sign that your baby is progressing, and that you are doing an amazing job! You just need to be empowered with the science behind your babies new sleep patterns, so you can manage and restore restful and restorative sleep for you and your little one.

What is sleep regression?

You’ll be pleased to hear that sleep regression is a biological process linked to sleep cycles. 

Sleep cycles happen throughout the night and generally last for 1-2 hours. Each cycle ends with a mini wake-up. This mini wake-up happens to me and you, but as adults we have the skills and tools we need to put ourselves back to sleep; we are not even aware that we’ve woken up. Baby on the other hand is still learning and developing.

It’s the developing that leads baby into a sleep regression.

4 months sleep regression

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll remember my tips on how to get your baby to settle in the night and the importance of the circadian clock.

The circadian clock is the body’s built in timer, and it controls the timing of sleep. It is coordinated with day and night, or more importantly - light and dark. You’re probably familiar with the importance of getting plenty of light in the day and the impact that a dark room can make to our sleep quality. That’s all down to melatonin development, which, with cortisol also helps coordinate the circadian clock. Cortisol is what helps keep us awake - and melatonin increases throughout the day - making us feel sleepy. 


The important part where regression is concerned, is that in babies, the circadian clock begins to emerge between 12-16 weeks. So, the 4 month sleep regression is right on time with this major development in their sleep cycles.

What you could say is that your little one isn’t sleeping ‘like a baby’ anymore. They’re developing a new, more permanent sleep rhythm. A rhythm that is a bit closer to yours.

Knowing that this is a biological process should be reassuring for you - you’ve not done anything wrong, nothing is amiss, baby is developing healthily - hurrah! 

That being said, this is a tough time for all involved, because sleep is precious.

What you can do

● Continue to help baby sleep as you were before - whatever works for you and baby is fine - rocking, soothing, swaddling, nursing. 

● Remember that light and dark coordinate the circadian rhythm. Try and get outdoors in the day and darken the room at night. Like you, baby will start to find it more difficult to sleep in a lighter room.

● At this stage, they do need your help getting back to sleep as they negotiate their new-found circadian rhythm. It will come, and baby will sleep again in around 3 weeks.

8 month sleep regression

This is a pretty incredible time when it comes to development. Babies are learning amazing things - they’re crawling, pulling themselves up, starting to speak and understand language. They’re getting into all types of mischief!

At this age your young one is making huge developmental leaps. Trust me; they’re not really regressing at all. Just imagine how all of those physical and mental changes might affect brain development and therefore sleep.

You can relate, right? Got a lot on at work? Sleep suffers. Go to bed late after a long day? You might find yourself thinking about all the jobs you have or haven’t finished. When our brains are occupied, our sleep cycle can suffer.

At 8 months there’s a lot going on and there might also be a change in the sleep schedule. As your baby continues to develop and grow they will start to drop naps in the day, and sleeping less in the day means that their night time routine becomes a little off-balance.

The good news is, like any new challenge with a child, the 8 month sleep cycle is just a phase and it generally lasts about 3 – 6 weeks. 

What you can do

Support baby through this time, in any way that works for the two of you, as they adapt once again. This might be rocking, soothing, cuddling, swaddling, nursing – whatever you’ve done in the past and whatever you’re both comfortable with is probably worth trying again, as baby figures this phase out.

As always, try and keep a consistent and calming routine around sleep.

Remember that baby has done a lot of developing and that gaining awareness. They might be suffering some separation anxiety so be prepared for some protesting.

18 month sleep regression

This phase can be a tricky one because instead of a baby, you’ve got an independent-toddler on your hands.

Just like the 4 month and 8 month regression there have been some developmental leaps. It’s likely that naps have decreased, which also throws the sleep cycle off-kilter for a while. 

The circadian rhythm is still developing. At 18 months baby is sleeping less in the day. They’re probably taking one nap and that’s a big transition to make. So you can end up with a very upset toddler who is very grumpy and very tired from their lack of naps, but they still can’t fall asleep at night.

It can be a difficult time for all involved. 

What you can do

● Remember where your child is at developmentally. They have a good idea of what’s going on around them. Separation anxiety is highly likely to factor in at this stage, so protesting is to be expected.

● To help with separation anxiety you can give your child extra special-time in their bedroom. Let them play there and associate their sleep-space as a safe area for them to be. It’s important that they’re comfortable in that space.

● Be mindful that there could be other things at play that disrupt sleep, like teething.

● Consistency could not be more important now. Your toddler is smart, so sleep, or at least settling down for the night, needs to non-negotiable. It could be confusing if the sleep schedule changes each night.

● The sleep routine can be softened for your little one through active participation. They can help put themselves to bed by making simple decisions – like a choice of two pyjamas or the soft toy they want to take to bed. 

Supporting your child through the different stages of sleep is a challenge - there’s so much at play. And much of it is linked to biological process that most people don’t understand - we’re not all sleep coaches! And let’s face it, approaching these challenges when you’re sleep deprived yourself makes it even more difficult.

This is just a phase, and you will get through. But if you need help, some reassurance or just a vent- please reach out. I’m here if you need me.

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