The What, When, Why, and How of Sleep Regressions

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READING TIME: 4 min.

If your child suddenly stopped sleeping well, or even if they NEVER did, you probably ran across the four-month, eight-month, ten-month, one year, or even eighteen-month sleep regression in the depths of Googling “why won’t my baby sleep well.” And while sometimes the information you find may help justify your child’s sleep struggles, it can be a bit deceiving. 

Help for Sleep Regressions

The four-month sleep regression is actually the ONLY biologically regression. And, it’s actually a PROgression of sorts. You see, around the four-month mark, your baby goes from having two stages in their sleep cycle (deep sleep and REM) to having the four that we have as adults. So, that bad news is, this isn’t temporary! Your baby will continue to have the full stages of their sleep cycle for the rest of their life. 

sleep regression

The reason this causes a sleep regression is that your baby now spends MUCH more time in the lighter stages of sleep, because the new stages of sleep are just that, very light. With more time spent in light stages of sleep each sleep cycle, your baby is much more likely to wake up…from the garbage truck driving by, the doorbell ringing, the dog barking, your TV, or even their own noises as they sleep. 

For a baby who doesn’t have independent sleep skills, meaning they can go from awake to asleep all by themselves, this can wreak havoc on sleep for child and parent alike. Because you now have a situation where baby is waking MORE, but doesn’t know HOW to put themselves back to sleep. I see this all the time in my work. Parents and babies are equally exhausted, because they’re feeding or rocking their child back to sleep ALL NIGHT LONG (in the hardest cases, after every single sleep cycle — about 45-60 minutes). 

Now that we’ve covered that one, I want you to know that ALL other sleep regressions are tied to developmental milestones or phases. They get coined the eight or ten-month sleep regression, for example, but there isn’t anything biologically going on with sleep in these cases. 

But, around the times your child is working on a new skill, or about to be, parents will often see disruption in their child’s sleep. Research has even recorded these sleep disruptions. You see, it is SUPER exciting to your child when they learn and master a new skill, so they want to practice ALL THE TIME. What better place to do so than while they are left alone in their crib! And, even if they aren’t physically practicing, their brains are on fire, creating these new brain pathways associated with this new skill. All of these can mean some temporary trouble with sleep. 

For these sleep regressions, my number one recommendation as a Pediatric Sleep Specialist is LOTS of daytime practice. Help your child to master this new skill during the day, so they are less inclined to practice at bedtime, or upon waking at 3 am. 

Insider’s tip: while all milestones can disrupt sleep, rolling and standing can be sleep-sabotaging milestones! So keep an eye out for your child starting to work on those skills and spend 3-4 minutes, 2-4 times a day practicing these skills with them. I hear countless stories about babies falling peacefully asleep only to roll to their bellies and get stuck and upset, needing their parents to come to roll them over….and this can go on all night long. When learning to stand, your goal is to teach your child to safely go from sitting to kneeling to lying, so you know they CAN lie down to go to sleep when they are ready, as I’ve seen many families get stuck in a baby’s “game” of standing up 17 times at bedtime because they love the attention of mama coming back in to lay them down…..and that definitely doesn’t help baby get the sleep they need!

sleep regressions

Milestones are a super fun part of watching your child grow, but the not-so-fun side is the possible regression in sleep as they go through them.

These tips will help you navigate your child’s sleep and get everyone in your family the rest they need to thrive!

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Hilliary grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, but has lived in many places across the U.S., settling in Dallas in 2018 with her husband and (now) two sons. She is a Certified Pediatric Sleep Specialist and Family Coach, and owner of Tranquil Beginnings. Prior to this, she spent much of her professional career working to improve the lives of children and families, utilizing her education in psychology, social work, and nonprofit management and fundraising to provide care for children, support little ones with developmental disabilities, teach trauma informed yoga and mindfulness to youth who have suffered Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and raise money for healthcare systems and mid-sized nonprofits. When she isn't changing families' lives through her work, she can be found enjoying the city's kid-friendly activities, working her way through Dallas' culinary scene, exploring the outdoors, practicing yoga, and enjoying live music!

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