Overview of Baby Sleep Regression
You may have a baby who has been sleeping through the night from early on. You hear other parents talk about how little sleep they are getting, and you consider yourself lucky that your precious little angel is so easy to coax to sleep. Then, out of nowhere, your little dreamer is waking every hour on the hour throughout the entire night! And, naps? Forget about it! Not unless your baby is being held, rendering you unable to get anything done around the home, or even get some much-needed rest yourself.
What happened? It could be the dreaded infant sleep regression. Though it sounds like an old wives tale, infant sleep regression is in fact very real.
Sleep regression is a temporary interruption to a baby's current sleep habits causing frequent night wakings and fussiness. Even babies who are great sleepers can fall victim to this Rest Bandit. Sleep regression is typically an indication of upcoming developmental and/or growth milestones in your baby, so while it isn't ideal for everyone's rest, it is a natural part of infant development. It could be a sign that something big is in store for your baby and just around the corner. Talking, crawling, walking: these are all milestones that can be associated with sleep regression.
While babies are notorious for going through these trialing periods multiple times within their first year of life, sleep regression actually lasts well into the toddler years. More great news, right? Toddlers have sleep regressions in the form of nightmares, which makes sense if you think about it. A majority toddler and pre-schooler milestones are concentrated on cognitive or brain development, whereas infant milestones are more growth and physical ability centered in the 18 months.
Sleep regression does not discriminate. If you've been fortunate enough to have a great sleeper thus far, know that at some point this little sneak might break into your home, day or night. I did not have the fortune of having great sleepers, and it felt like my two children’s infancies were a constant state of sleep regression. I survived. You will too. I'll tell you how, too.
But first, understanding how sleep regression affects your infant requires being able to identify the different stages of sleep. All people, no matter their age, go through the same stages within a sleep cycle. Ideally, we all go through the cycle multiple times per night for the optimum restoration of our brains. It is important to note that the sleep patterns of a newborn baby are different from a 4-month-old, a 6-month-old, toddler, adolescent, and adult.
Stages of Sleep
The sleep stages are broken down into 2 categories: REM and Non-REM. I will go into more detail about each of these categories below, but generally, the sleep cycle is as follows:
We begin, of course, awake and then move into Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, Stage 4, REM, Repeat...
The first four stages in the sleep cycle are called non-REM stages. You get progressively deeper into sleep as you move through each stage. The fourth stage of sleep is the deepest stage in the cycle.
After you have completed stage 4 in the non-REM stages of the sleep cycle, you move into the REM sleep stage. Though it is the last stage in the cycle, it is actually a state of light sleep.
REM is an acronym for "rapid eye movement" (and also a great band from the 90s). This is the stage where most dreaming occurs. The parts of the brain associated with learning grow during REM. Infants spend about 50% of their sleep cycles in this stage, and daytime naps are mostly REM sleep. Newborn infants start the sleep cycle in REM instead of non-REM, which comes with maturity.
During REM sleep, your eyes and eyelids flutter due to brain activity. Your body twitches and sometimes audible sounds are made. It can be pretty freaky to watch someone sleeping in this state, and many times their eyes will open completely, looking as if they are fully awake.
Sleep regression by months and age
You may wonder if there is some way to predict when a sleep regression might happen. There are definitely some ideas out there about when a parent might expect to see the shift in sleep patterns.
Based on what we know about what causes sleep regression, the first predictor coincides with the times that the average baby is due to reach certain milestones. For example, most babies are able to sit up unassisted around 6 months-of-age. Walking is a bit more personal, and typically can be expected in a window between 9 and 18 months-of-age. During those times, a parent might begin to experience frequent night wakings.
By months old
This formula predicts when a potential sleep regression might happen using hard and fast infant ages by months. According to this predictor, you can expect sleep regressions at 2-6 weeks after birth, 4 months, 10 months, and 18 months-of-age.
This formula predicts when a potential sleep regression might happen down to the week. According to the Dutch husband and wife team that created this predictor, there are 10 exact "Wonder Weeks" when sleep regression is due to make an appearance. Wonder weeks charts are widely available by searching the web (there are even phone apps).
Does teething cause sleep regression?
Night waking and fussiness due to teething is different from a true sleep regression. This is because it's a physical discomfort that causes night waking, not an actual milestone. In a cruel twist to a sleep-deprived parent, teeth and sleep regression can be happening at the same time. You might wonder how you can tell the difference. To decode the culprit of your baby's nighttime tears, simply compare baby's daytime behavior. If your baby is happy during the day and only fussy at night, its most likely a regression. Fussiness both at night and during the daytime can indicate teething, as well as other things such as illness or overstimulation.
Survive baby sleep regression with these tips
Get as much rest as you can WHEN you can
Whether you’re a working mom or you stay at home with your baby, it is important for both you and your partner to get as much sleep as you can, WHEN you can. Some ideas to maximize the sleep you:
- Nap when baby naps
- Have an older sibling? Put him in daycare or parents day out or have a friend or family member watch him or her.
- Have someone watch the baby during the day so you can catch up on sleep
- Divide and conquer: trade shifts with your partner at night. Some sort of combination of I take the first part of the night and you take the second is helpful.
- Create a support system for yourself and growing baby
- Let things give where they can. This means something different to everyone. Can you scale back your hours or project loads at work for a while? Does your house really need to be pristine with home-cooked meals every night and seasonal decor?
Now is definitely the time to simply survive, and avoid trying to create new habits that will stick because they might not stick. For example, if you’re nursing and looking to wean, sleep regression times might not be the best time. In fact, nursing for comfort is a big part of how the baby gets through these sleep regressions, as well as you!
This Too Shall Pass
Know that though it may seem like this will last forever, it won't. This is true about all of the challenges of having a young child. The days (and nights) are long, but the years really go by fast. Everything about a growing baby is seasonal. Clothes, stages, phases, likes, dislikes; they are always changing and then changing again. Do what you can to get through the tough times, and hold on to what is good about this season of your life: parenthood.
Take Developmental Age Into Consideration
Is your baby only a couple of weeks old and experiencing his or her first sleep regression? Wear your baby! The benefits of this are double: as your baby will get some much-needed comfort, and Mom (or Dad) can get a few things done around the house or take a nap. Does your baby take a pacifier? Keep a stash of them near the crib (I highly suggest purchasing the glow in the dark binkies from personal experience). If you have an older baby comfort him or her by rocking, singing a favorite song, giving a favorite stuffed animal or "lovey", etc. You can use where your baby is at developmentally to your advantage.
Sleep regression is a natural part of a baby’s development. Though it can cause temporary disturbances in the lives of a baby and his or her parents, these phases don’t last forever and signify big milestones for baby up ahead,
Take care of yourself first and baby will be taken care of as a byproduct, Get rest and support where and when you are able. Hang in there, You’ve got this!