4 major sleep “regressions” (progressions) and how to help your baby sleep during them.
Infant development is fascinating to witness, and to study. After many years of working with babies and toddlers, and reading about developmental stages, I have come to understand that what we call sleep regressions, are really sleep developments. When young children develop new skills, or have a growth spurt, their behavior often regresses. There is an adjustment phase as they grow, and this is when there is often a time of disorganization or regression.
Here are a few developmental guidelines to keep in mind as your child grows:
Development has a pattern. Time tables may vary, and individual styles exist, but the developmental process is universal.
Development is uneven. For every two steps forward, there is one step back.
Development does not equate to more mature behavior, until the new skill is mastered.
Development is enhanced by maximizing strengths.
Development necessitates making mistakes.
The 4 month sleep progression:
The first 3 months of a baby’s life outside the womb are filled with new experiences. They are continuing to grow at a tremendous rate, and all the major systems of the body are still maturing. This is a time when everything is in flux, and babies need constant care and support so they can thrive and grow.
By 3 months, a baby is starting to form patterns to their eating and sleeping and are able to stay awake for longer periods of time. They can usually bring their hands to the midline of the body, and to their mouth, and can start to lift up their heads when on their tummies. The circadian rhythm, which regulates the sleep/wake cycle, starts to shift and adjust to a more mature pattern.
Between 3.5-4.5 months babies often become more restless when put down for naps and for bedtime, and often wake many times a night. This is the dreaded 4 month sleep regression. If you can, it’s helpful to re-frame it so you see it for what it is: your baby is developing! This is the 4 month sleep progression.
What can be so challenging about this time is knowing how to help your baby (and yourself) through this developmental change. What usually works to get your baby to sleep (nursing/feeding, rocking, holding, patting) often doesn’t work as well anymore, and the whole process can take much longer. Transferring a sleeping baby from your arms to the crib becomes more difficult as they are more aware now, and can tell the difference between your arms and the mattress.
What to do:
This is the time to start creating sleep associations that let your baby know that sleep is coming. Create a calm and consistent nap time and bedtime routine. You want to do each step in the same sequence so your baby begins to see the pattern and knows what to expect.
Do less to get your baby to sleep and let them do more to try and settle themselves. You don’t have to leave your baby to cry hysterically, but putting your baby down to move and squirm and find their own way into sleep is the intention.
Babies this age often are more stimulated by contact with you and will want to stay engaged. Putting them down to move allows them to release energy and work on the skills needed to settle. These skills are head turning, body turning, face rubbing, hands to the mouth, leg kicking, making sounds and fussing.
When your baby wakes through the night, wait a minute before you respond to give them some time to try and settle themselves. You don’t have to leave your baby to cry for long, but by waiting you are giving them a chance to try and go back to sleep on their own.
By 4 months, babies are often distracted eaters and will make up for what they aren't taking in during the day with more frequent feeds at night. Try and get into a pattern of feeding your baby after naps in a darkened room, so they have the opportunity to eat more.
The 9 month sleep progression:
There are many developmental changes that happen between 4-9 months (rolling, sitting, crawling, sometimes standing, babbling, eating solid food, to name a few), but 9 months is often when a baby who has been sleeping well goes through another sleep shift.
This one is often caused by separation anxiety. Babies this age are usually able to move away from their parents by crawling or cruising, and with this development often comes more clinginess and worry about being left.
What to do:
Spend time during the day playing peek-a-boo games. You are helping your child learn about object permanence, which means they are learning that even if they can’t see something, they know it is there.
Spend time just sitting on the floor in one place and let them crawl away and come back to you. This allows them to explore leaving you, knowing that they can come back and you will still be there.
Let them know when you are going to leave. Don’t sneak away. Be matter of fact about it, and say something like “I’m going to the store. Nana is here with you. I’ll be back soon.” Even if you are just going to the bathroom let your child know that you will be back. They may still cry, but they will learn that you go away and you come back.
When you put your baby down for sleep, say goodnight to everything in the room and let them know that it will all be there when they wake up. Let them know you will be there when they wake up too.
This is a good time to offer a “lovey” for your baby to hold while in bed. Make sure it is not too big or has anything that can be pulled off. Don’t use a blanket, as you don’t want a lovey that can cover a baby’s face.
If your baby wakes during the night, wait a minute before you respond and then go in and say “It’s still sleeping time. I’ll see you in the morning. You are safe. Go back to sleep.”
The 12-18 month sleep progression:
This sleep adjustment is often caused by a developmental shift in language and in becoming upright through standing and learning to walk. Toddlers in this age group can become restless sleepers as they learn these new developmental skills. Some babies are so driven to walk they are on their feet and cruising the crib before they are even really awake! It is a very strong drive, to stand and walk, so it can take a few days before a toddler will settle back to sleeping well once they have learned this skill.
This is also a time when language starts to explode and toddlers are often acquiring new words every day. Language gives children a greater ability to communicate. They are learning the power of words like “No!” New language means lots of new thoughts and ideas and this can make for more challenging sleep.
What to do:
Toddlers in this age group often drop to one nap a day. If your baby is resisting their second nap you might want to shift the first nap to midday and make bedtime a little earlier.
Make sure your toddler is getting plenty of time to move their body before sleep. Time outside and time in free play is important for releasing energy before sleep.
Be sure your toddler is eating enough during the day so they are not hungry at night. Once kids are walking they are often burning more calories and may not want to stop to eat. They may wake up hungry during the night. Offer a before bed snack so you know your little one can go all night without eating.
Spend time winding down before bedtime so the transition isn’t too abrupt. Try not to have your toddler in front of a screen before bedtime, as that can make it harder for them to go to sleep.
Be sure there isn’t anything in your child’s bed that is keeping them awake and be sure they can’t climb out of their crib or pull on anything while standing in their crib.
If your toddler wakes during the night, wait a minute before you respond. Often, if you go in too quickly your child will call you back in as soon as you leave. They are figuring out that yelling for you gets you to come in even if they don’t really need anything.
The 2 year sleep progression:
Children this age often go on a “nap strike”. They fight naps and will stay awake for a long time before falling asleep, if they even do. You might think your child no longer needs a nap, but that is rarely the case.
This is an age when children are often saying no to everything. Even things they want! And naps are not on the want list.
What to do:
Continue to offer a “rest time”. It’s best to put your toddler down at the same time everyday, ideally after lunch.
Let them know that it is rest time and don’t get into a power struggle around whether they are going to sleep or not.
Have a consistent rest time routine that includes a book and a little snuggle, close the blinds and turn on a sound machine (if you use one).
You can use an “Ok To Wake” clock at this age to help your toddler see when they can get up.
Be sure the room is toddler proof, and they can’t leave the room on their own, if they are no longer in a crib.
Give your child some time to play quietly on their own in their room for 10/15 minutes.
Then go in and say “have a good rest. I’ll see you after.”
If your child refuses to fall asleep after an hour of resting, then get them up and plan for an early bedtime (around 6:30/7pm).
Know that they will likely be cranky through the afternoon. Try and spend time outside and offer a bath before bed. Water play can help a child get ready for sleep.
Know that transitions from one activity to the next are often where conflicts occur. Try and give a few minutes’ warning before you go on to the next activity. Say something like “It will be time to get ready for your rest soon. Let me know what book you want to read before you rest.”
Sleep progressions can be challenging times. Try and remember that your child is going through a developmental growth spurt and needs extra support and a calm parent to navigate the choppy waters of change. The more you can stay steady for your child the more likely it will be that they will sail through these transitions more easily. And know that you can reach out for help. I’d be happy to support you through your child’s sleep development!
Disclaimer: Elizabeth Green's Early Parenting Sleep Consultations and written materials are for educational purposes only and are not meant as medical advice. All spoken and written information is to be used at each parents' discretion.