6 Month Sleep Regression: What It Is & How To Survive
It’ll pass. Here’s how to help it on its way.
By now, your 6 month old should be smiling at you, giggling with you, playing with toys, maybe even sleeping through the night. If they haven’t hit that glorious milestone just yet, they’re surely sleeping much better than they did in the newborn days — unless they’ve hit a 6 month sleep regression. For some families, right around 6 months of age, baby sleep takes a turn for the worse. Why is my 6 month old not sleeping well anymore? you wonder, as you rush into their room at all hours of the night, or following an unusually short nap. Is the 6 month sleep regression a myth? Or is that what’s going on with your 6 month old who is suddenly refusing to let you get the rest you so badly need?
What is the 6 month sleep regression?
“The concept of sleep regression hasn’t been established within the scientific pediatric sleep community,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Super, an associate professor of pediatrics and clinical pediatric sleep physician at Oregon Health Sciences University. So, the term ‘sleep regression,’ is not a scientific term. Rather, it’s a popular term for what happens when a baby who has been sleeping well suddenly starts having a harder time. “My kid was sleeping great. Now they’re not. What do we call that? I think ‘sleep regression’ can be a useful term [for that phenomenon],” says Dr. Craig Canapari, a pediatrician and director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center. Whether the issue is increased night wakings, crummy naps, early wake ups, or all of the above, if baby sleep takes a nose dive — and there’s no obvious illness to blame — that’s what most people mean when they talk about a baby that’s having a sleep regression. “Not every child is going to have sleep problems at a particular age,” explains Alexis Dubief, baby sleep expert and author of Precious Little Sleep. The 6 month sleep regression is simply a sleep regression that happens to occur around 6 months of age.
Potential causes of a sleep regression around 6 months of age
There may be a couple of things at play if your 6 month old baby is suddenly not sleeping as well as they had been before. In order to address the issue, it may be helpful to figure out the root cause. “There are some documented sleep disruptions with major gross motor skill development: Primarily pulling to standing, crawling and walking,” Dubief explains. “Babies will be super clingy and cranky, or a baby who was falling asleep in five minutes might yell at you for 15 at bedtime. Then, two days later, they're crawling.” At six months old, it’s possible your baby is working on crawling.
However, it is more likely that their sleep needs have shifted, and they may need a slightly later bedtime, or be ready to drop a nap. “When we think about regressions, maybe it’s just normal infant sleep development that your baby’s not supposed to be sleeping as much as you potentially thought,” Super says. “As you get older, you need to be awake longer before sleep,” adds Dubief.
At 6 months old, most babies need about 12 - 15 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, a decline since their newborn days. “For kids older than 6 months, if they’re napping three times a day, they may give up their third nap anytime between 6 and 15 months,” says Canapari. “Naps are so frustrating, because there’s an incredible range of variability in terms of how much kids nap when they nap, how many naps they've even take during a day and when they make these changes.” If you suspect your baby is ready to drop a nap, Dubief suggests you try a new nap schedule for a few days. “If a schedule change is going to have an impact, it”s fairly quick,” she said. “For babies younger than 6 months, after three days it should be pretty clear if the change has worked or not.”
Signs that your baby is in a sleep regression
A sleep regression is usually something that parents are aware of on a visceral, painful level. You’ll probably know if one is happening, say Canapari and Super, because a sleep regression is marked by exhausting change in your baby’s normal sleep patterns. A sleep regression is typically marked by things like:
- Your baby is waking multiple times in night, more than they were before
- They’re more clingy or fussy, than usual
- Your baby appears to be working on a new skill
- They’re fighting naps, or skipping some of them all together
- They’re sleeping less at night, or waking earlier than they were
How long does the 6 month sleep regression last?
Any true sleep regression will be short-lived, whether it is caused by baby learning a new skill like walking or crawling, or by the need to drop a nap. A sleep regression that’s not caused by illness should only last “a couple of days, less than a week,” says Canapari. “If a sleep regression is lasting longer than a week, reach out for some help,” Super says. “We don't want parents to suffer alone, and we don't want them to get bad information. We can pinpoint things and hopefully improve things.” As you wait for it to pass, maintain good “sleep hygiene,” by following the same healthy baby sleep practices as ever. They include, according to Super:
- Have a consistent bedtime routine
- Have a consistent bedtime
- Have a healthy baby bedtime, this is typically on the early side
- Put your baby in the crib while they’re still awake
A 6 month sleep regression may mean it is time to consider sleep training
“There are people who are successfully still bouncing or rocking babies to sleep at 6 months,” says Dubief. “But, when the pattern emerges of waking up every hour and a half, all night long, and the only thing that fixes it is whatever you were doing at bedtime, the answer is we need to establish independent sleep.” If your baby has been struggling with nights and seems to be in a regression, it may be time to consider your bedtime routine and look for what Super calls “sleep onset associations that are maladaptive.” When a family comes to her with a 6 month old in a sleep regression — night wakings, fighting bedtime, and so on — “I like to ask what’s going on at bedtime. What's happening with sleep habits? Ideally, you should be saying ‘goodnight, I love you’ and leaving the room so you're not reinforcing those potentially maladaptive associations.”
As for figuring out what those sleep onset associations might be, Dubief says that you simply need to stop doing that thing that you do — be it rocking, bouncing or nursing them to sleep — to soothe your baby to sleep (or to an extremely drowsy state) at bedtime “because that is now a classic sleep onset association issue.” Once your baby learns to fall asleep independently, Dubief says, typically “all of those night wakings disappear.”
There are many approaches to sleep training, but developmentally speaking, a 6-month-old should be capable of soothing themselves to sleep if they are placed in the crib awake at a healthy baby bedtime. “Definitely trying to give them the opportunity to figure it out on their own is my approach,” Super explains. “Every parent is different, but you can feel confident that [sleep training] is safe from a developmental perspective.”
Self-care matters: How to survive the 6 month sleep regression
Don’t feel that you need to run to your child at every night waking, or the moment they fuss when they’re supposed to be napping. “Just chill out. Don’t run in there at the first thing,” Canapari says. “I tell parents to turn your monitor down low. A brief cry out, or your kid babbling a little bit? That doesn't need your attention. If they're scared I think it's appropriate to console your child, but you can let it play out a little bit.”
Have compassion for yourself as you muddle through a few exhausted days, and lean on your partner, family and friends as much as you can. If your baby is in the 6 month sleep regression, know that it should only last a few days. Any longer, and it’s time to tap in your family’s pediatrician for help and guidance, as well as to rule out any other complications. Most of all, try to simply hang in there. “I try to tell parents is that this won’t last forever,” Super says. “It definitely feels like that at 3 in the morning when you are trying to get your baby down, but this particular phase will not last forever.”
Hirshkowitz M, Whiton K, (2015) National Sleep Foundation's sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29073412/
Dr. Elizabeth Super, an associate professor of pediatrics and clinical pediatric sleep physician at Oregon Health Sciences University.
Dr. Craig Canapari, a pediatrician and director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center.
Alexis Dubief, baby sleep expert and author of Precious Little Sleep.