When your good sleeper starts fighting bedtime or waking at night, you might feel like your child is regressing. The common phrase for this phenomenon is sleep regression. But the name is misleading — this so-called regression is often a sign your child is making a developmental leap.
Although sleep regression is a normal part of growing up, it’s not easy for parents. When your kiddo suddenly wakes up at night, you get less sleep.
Rest assured that sleep regression stages are usually brief — resolving within two to three weeks. Plus, you can help your child get back to good sleeping habits.
What Is Sleep Regression and Why Does it Happen?
If your child is going through a sleep regression, they may:
- Wake in the night when they didn’t wake before.
- Suddenly start resisting nap time.
- Wake up earlier from their nap or in the morning.
- Cry more than usual when you leave the room at nap or bedtime.
- Delay their sleeping time when they didn’t before.
Sleep regressions usually involve a developmental milestone like learning a new skill. For example, a four-month-old might fight sleep because they’ve become smart enough to realize their caregiver can hear them. A nine-month-old may want to practice their new trick of pulling themselves up in the crib.
Sleep regression can also be a sign of teething or an illness. Or, it can happen because of anxiety or excitement over a new life change, like a new daycare.
A toddler may be afraid to sleep because their imagination is continuing to develop and they’re worried about bad guys, ghosts, or monsters now that they understand stories.
Sleep regression stages: Are there typical times that sleep regression happens?
Sleep training guidelines cite various ages as being more likely for sleep regression. The first sleep regression happens around four months, but children develop at different rates. You might escape the ‘four-month’ sleep regression but find your five-month-old keeps waking up at night.
From there, your child might go through several more sleep regressions. You may notice sleep regressions routinely every 3 to 6 months. Or, your child may have sleep regressions randomly, say at four months, a year, and then 2.5 years.
Generally, multiple sleep regression stages occur in the first three years. Of course, school-age children and even teenagers can suddenly have problems sleeping. In older kids, sleep issues are usually due to anxiety or schedule changes, not developmental reasons.
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How to Deal with Sleep Regression in Babies
For babies, it’s vital to establish sleep time routines and stick to them, even during a sleep regression.
Put your baby in their crib when they’re drowsy
Sleep regressions often happen around four months because babies lose the ability to sleep anywhere. They start noticing the world around them and must learn how to sleep independently.
Parents can teach babies to self-soothe by putting them in their crib when they’re sleepy but not asleep. If your baby starts rubbing their eyes, put them to bed, even if it’s a little earlier than when they would usually sleep. Try to avoid letting your baby fall asleep in the stroller or car.
Watch wake windows
Pay attention to the baby’s wake windows — the average time they’ll be able to stay awake. Not every baby will hit these numbers exactly at each age, but use them as approximations and adjust as needed.
- A four-month-old should be awake for only 90 to 100 minutes and take three naps.
- A seven-month-old should have 130 to 200 minutes of wake time and take two naps.
- A one-year-old may stay up for 200 to 240 minutes of wake time and only need one nap.
Establish naptime and bedtime routines
As your baby ages, you’ll need to help them get into sleepy time mode with a bedtime routine. Turn the lights low, close the blinds, and keep their environment quiet. Try a noise machine to drown out other noises.
Before their nap, read them a story and sing a lullaby. For the nighttime routine, you may want to add a bath. By doing the sleep routine in the same order every time, you’re training their brains to get ready for sleep.
Avoid short-term fixes
Rocking your baby or feeding them to sleep may make them sleep faster in the short term. But you could be making it more difficult for your child to sleep independently, even after the sleep regression period has ended.
Some parents may decide to sleep train during a regression. Most experts agree that the cry-it-out method is appropriate to try for babies around four months old.
Graduated extinction sleep training is an option if a baby is struggling and hearing them cry is emotionally difficult. With this method, you check on your child, patting and reassuring them, but put a longer and longer window between checks.
Tips for Dealing with Sleep Regression in Toddlers
As your toddler learns and grows, they get excited about the new things they’re learning. They might need more time to wind down at night.
Give toddlers some control
Toddlers like to exercise control. If they resist bedtime routines, you can get buy-in by letting them make some choices.
For example, they can choose which “stuffy” to sleep with or which book to read. If a child is suddenly afraid of the dark, you can bring in a night light. They can choose to have it on or off.
If your toddler is going through a sleep regression, they might lie down and want to practice their ABCs before falling asleep. A developmental growth spurt could mean that their brain is extra active, even as they get in bed.
You can give your toddler more time to wind down by starting the routine and putting them to bed earlier.
An earlier bedtime also helps toddlers who become a fit of energy at the end of the day. Counterintuitively, this behavior is a sign that they’re overtired. It’s due to a spike in the stress hormone cortisol, which also leads to more night wakings and earlier morning wake-ups.
Get active during the day
If your toddler tries to delay bedtime, they might have extra energy. You can tire your toddler out for sleep by bringing them to the park or your local community gym. Playing with other kids will also help keep their brains stimulated and use up their mental energy.
When Sleep Regression Doesn’t Get Better
If your child is still fighting sleep after a couple of weeks, they could be ready to drop a nap. An older baby might only need one nap. A three-year-old might need to drop their nap altogether.
See their pediatrician if your efforts aren’t helping or you’re worried your child isn’t getting enough sleep. The doctor can make sure there isn’t a medical issue causing poor sleep, like reflux, an infection, or sleep apnea. They can also recommend specific strategies to help based on your routine and your child’s development stage.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Healthy sleep habits: How many hours does your child need. Link
Colleen de Bellefonds. What is sleep regression? WhatToExpect. Link
Jennifer Kelly Geddes. What is sleep regression in toddlers. WhatToExpect. Link
Julie Knapp. Four toddler sleep regressions and how to deal with them. Parents. Link
Dr. Jodi Mindell. What is a sleep regression? Pediatric Sleep Council. Link
Dr. Judith Owens. behavioral sleep problems in children. UpToDate. Link
Amber LoRe and Dr. Gina M. Jansheski. 18-month sleep regression: What causes it and what to do? Huckleberry. Link.
4 month old sleep schedule: Bedtime and nap schedule. Huckleberry. Link.
7 month old sleep schedule: Bedtime and nap schedule. Huckleberry. Link.
12 month / 1 year old sleep schedule: Bedtime and nap schedule. Huckleberry. Link.
Connect with UPMC
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.