What is sleep regression?

Sleep regression [referred to as “a sleep regression”] is a period of time (1-6 weeks) where sleep becomes a bit ‘wobbly’ and might result in difficulty in getting to sleep, with more frequent times awake due to shorter sleep. Your baby may have been sleeping for long periods and now might wake up after 40 minutes and although grizzly and looking tired, is unable to get more sleep.

When we look at the enormous amount of change that takes place in the first 2 years of a baby’s life, it’s not surprising our little ones have periods where they are unsettled, fussy and clingy and cry more than usual. We’ve all heard of the term growth spurt, right? Well, think of a sleep regression as a growth spurt in your baby’s brain.

Sleep regressions are not all doom and gloom as you might suspect, because they get a pretty bad wrap!   People have often heard of (and dread) the 4, 9, 12 and even 18-month regression, however, they are surprised to hear that there is a very valid, developmental reason.

sleep regression

What causes a sleep regression?

Lots of things! Developmental milestones can affect the way your baby feels and perceives their big wide world. Developmental milestones can be divided into different categories such as:

  • Emotional, e.g. separation anxiety
  • Physical, e.g. rolling, crawling, walking
  • Neurological milestones

The Wonder Weeks

Psychologists Franz Plooij and Hetty Van Der Rit have written a fantastic book called “The Wonder Weeks“. The Dutch researchers observed hundreds of children over many years and noticed similar behaviours at various ages, which helped them to identify critical periods of normal development that babies go through. Because babies process information during their sleep – circulation to their brain almost doubles during REM (rapid eye movement) or light sleep – they can have difficulty falling asleep and shifting from light to deep sleep. This can explain why they might suddenly have shorter periods of sleep and become unable to link sleep cycles. Identifying these “wonder weeks” or leaps helps to give parents and caregivers an understanding of what their little one might be experiencing and this ultimately helps us to provide the comfort and reassurance our little ones need at this somewhat challenging and unsettling time.

Other causes for sleep to regress

It’s easy to put sleep disruption down to a “sleep regression” or “leap”, however, I encourage parents to firstly eliminate other possible contributing factors.  As well as emotional, physical and neurological changes, there are other things that can affect your baby’s sleep such as travel (especially different time zones), a new sibling, moving house, and too little or too much daytime sleep.

Also, growth spurts can see an increased demand for food and might increase night wakings. Illness is also a possibility – teething symptoms, viruses, ear infections, or urinary tract infections (UTIs).  It’s important to look for signs of being unwell. Is your baby eating less / more than normal? How many dirty/wet nappies is your baby producing per day?  How has their behaviour changed?  Do they have a temperature?  And so on.  Always seek advice from your GP or Paediatrician if you’re concerned.

How can I help my baby through a sleep regression?

  • Try not to panic! These are normal periods of healthy development
  • Lots of cuddles during the day and fill up their love tank
  • Avoid too much change and stimulation
  • Offer a calm evening routine so your baby is relaxed with a warm bath and massage (if they like it)
  • Ensure your baby gets enough daytime sleep in order to sleep well at night, even if this means a ride in the pram/car
  • Go through some comforting steps to see what it is that your baby needs, i.e. verbal reassurance / a cuddle / a feed
  • Consider using/re-using white noise at sleep times to help them keep calm
  • Fresh air, especially in the late afternoon, as it helps them sleep in the evening

And Lastly…   When dealing with Sleep Regressions, OBSERVE your baby.  What do they like? Every baby is unique and from the opportunities made available to them, they will make their own choices to develop their skills, as they feel ready. Your little one might like to focus on music and sounds, while others will be determined to conquer rolling.

They will choose what they want to explore more, based on their own inclinations and experiences. If you offer a variety of positive experiences to them and respect their choices, you are creating a confident little human that can follow their own desires and what makes them happy from a very young age.

While it’s easy to focus on visible milestones like rolling, there are so many other milestones that we simply can’t see. Follow your baby’s lead and tune in to what they show an interest in and give them more of it!

If you would more information about sleep regression and how I can help, contact [email protected] or call on 0400 476 776 or contact me here.


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