Sleep Regressions: What They Are, When They Happen & Survival Tips
How to get back on track when your baby’s sleep goes haywire.
New parents and frequent internet searches go together like, well, all things that are inextricably entwined. The new parent learning curve is steep, and it feels even steeper because you’re completely, totally exhausted in a way that you’ve never been before. A few months pass, and little by little, the baby (and you) start sleeping more. An hour at at time becomes two, then three, and if you’re lucky, maybe even five or six hours at a time by the time you get to the 10-week mark. You mention to another parent that you’re finally starting to feel better and (if they’re mean) they say something like “just wait, the 4 month sleep regression is coming for you, and it’s going to be awful.” You rush home to frantically search “sleep regressions,” and fall down an internet rabbit hole of warnings about the 4 month sleep regression, the 6 month sleep regression, the 8 month sleep regression (or is it the 9 month sleep regression) — wait, is there a sleep regression every single month?. Your head is spinning with dread-filled thoughts about baby sleep, circadian rhythms, and the prospect of monthly sleep regressions. Friend, just stop and breathe. It’s going to be OK. Sleep regressions are not guaranteed to happen, if they do they should be very short-lived. You can survive them. For this absolutely essential question of new parenthood survival, we went straight to the very best pediatric sleep specialists in the country and asked them to walk us through all of our most burning toddler-and-baby sleep regression questions, including:
- What sleep regressions are, and if they’re even really a ‘thing’
- What ages sleep regressions typically happen
- What causes a sleep regression (hint: It’s not your fault)
- How long sleep regressions last
- How to survive a sleep regression
What is a sleep regression?
When your baby’s sleep has been reliable and suddenly goes a bit off the rails — whether they’re waking up in the night again after sleeping through the night, having trouble falling asleep at bedtime or waking earlier — it can send you into a panic spiral. Every parent has been there. But the idea that there are set times when every baby will absolutely experience a sleep regression at 4 months, 6 months, or 8 months, is a myth. “I think the mythology of the sleep regression in parenting is huge, and the message is that it’s coming for you. There’s nothing you can do about it. You're gonna suffer for weeks and it sucks to be you,” says Alexis Dubief, infant sleep expert and author of Precious Little Sleep, a popular baby sleep guide. “I'm over here saying none of this is true.”
This doesn’t mean that your baby’s sleep needs won’t change over time as they grow in a non-linear way. “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. “The problem is the idea that these are set periods of time where your kid is going to start sleeping worse,” Canapari explains.
“The concept of sleep regression hasn't been established within the scientific pediatric sleep community,” agrees Dr. Elizabeth Super, an associate professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health Sciences University.
So, while occasional sleep disruption — or a change in their normal sleep routine — is common for all babies and toddlers, it does not fall at particular, predictable, set times. So, parents should try not to waste energy dreading a particular sleep regression that may never arrive, Canapari says. “I think of a regression as being like a hiccup,” he explains. “Everyone is entitled to a bad night of sleep once in a while, even you...a few bad nights in a row does not mean that you need to totally panic.”
Common sleep regression ages
So, when do sleep regressions happen? Every baby is different, Super says. “The developmental progression for infant sleep is really diverse,” she adds. “There’s not one trajectory, and that's because sleep itself is so multifactorial. There can be impacts from socioeconomic status, temperament of the infant, temperament of the parents. Parenting style can all play a part in the progression and development of infant sleep habits.” But, Super, Canapari and Dubief agree there are big developmental things that typically happen around the following ages that could disrupt your baby’s sleep schedule for a few days:
However, Canapari reminds parents that every baby hits milestones at their own pace, so these ages are truly just ballparks, and there’s no rule or evidence that developmental milestones are always accompanied by sleep disruption. Again, every baby is different. While its normal to worry about losing precious rest — particularly if your baby is finally sleeping through the night — try not to let anyone convince you that every baby absolutely will experience a sleep regression.
What causes baby sleep regressions?
While your child’s sleep can be disrupted by many things — illness, travel, changing family circumstances — a sleep disruption that is not attributable to illness may sometimes be attributed to developmental changes. Perhaps your baby is working on learning to walk, or to pull up to standing. Or, maybe their sleep needs have changed, and they need to drop down from four naps a day to three naps a day (a common cause of the 4 month sleep regression.) “In terms of what's happening developmentally in the brain, there's so much we know that's happening in the first year of life,” says Super. “If your baby’s gaining a lot of these amazing developmental skills, sleep might backtrack a little bit.”
Occasional, short-lived sleep disruption, even in a sleep-trained baby, is normal and expected, and should pass on its own without much parental intervention, Canapari says. “Your child’s brain is exploding in the first year of life. They're constantly changing. They're learning new skills all the time. They're forming billions of neural connections. It's a time of massive growth and change,” Dubief agrees. “In my own experience working with thousands and thousands of families, major gross motor skill development is associated with typically one additional night waking.”
Use your baby’s well-child visits to discuss sleep habits with your family’s health care provider, too. “I like to really put sleep in a developmental context. For example, at that four month well-child visit, talk about what's happening developmentally. ‘My child's starting to roll, is that affecting their sleep?’”
All of the experts Romper spoke with also agree that a sleep regression is often indicative of the need to evaluate your child’s sleep needs. A sleep regression can be caused by the simple fact that it’s time for Baby to drop a nap, or have a slightly later bedtime.
How long do sleep regressions last?
Sleep regressions should only last “a couple days, less than a week,” Canapari explains. If something’s going on for more than a week, Super encourages families to talk to their pediatrician. “It could be that they are sick, it could be something that parents are doing something within the bedtime or sleep routine that they can hash out with their pediatrician,” she says. “As pediatricians, we want to hear about something like that, and especially if it's disrupting the family sleep.”
Classic signs your baby is in a sleep regression
Often, by the time you’ve pieced together the fact that your baby or toddler is having a sleep regression, it’s nearly over. But if you’re still in the “is this is a sleep regression?” phase, here are a few classic, tell-tale signs of sleep regression, according our experts:
- Increased night waking
- Earlier morning wake up
- Difficulty falling asleep at bedtime
All of these are signs that it’s time to “get curious” about your baby’s sleep patterns and habits, says Dubief. “This is fixable,” Dubief says. Ask yourself “what is not working for your child?” She advises parents take a close look at routines, and — as long as there is no illness at play — the answer is almost always there.
“It’s a time to look at your habits,” agrees Canapri. “Maybe we need to start being a little bit stricter. Have we gotten into the habit of helping our child fall asleep again? Sometimes this can happen after you take a vacation and you share a room with your child. Your child has an illness and you bring them into your bed. If you want to accelerate getting back to normal, I think it's worth revisiting your bedtime routines.”
If your child slept through the night before, they will sleep through the night again, and probably sooner than you think.
Another thing to think about is sleep duration, he adds. “We know that there's a huge amount of variability in how much sleep individual children need, and that this number, whatever it is, is going to reduce over time.”
Sleep regression survival tips from the best pediatric sleep experts
“Sometimes these things just have an element of randomness to them, which is really not how we want it to be. We want to impose order on a chaotic world,” Canapari says. “But, it’s like the weather. Take care of yourself. Try not to be too angry with yourself, or your spouse, or your child. It should pass pretty quickly. The practices that got you here are gonna carry you. If your child slept through the night before, they will sleep through the night again, and probably sooner than you think.”
- “If what was working doesn’t look like it’s working, experiment a little,” suggests Dubief. Often, she says, a sleep regression or sleep disruption can indicate the need to drop a nap or move bedtime slightly later.
- Rule out illness. “Studies suggest that kids under 5 are sick 30% of the time,” says Dubief. So yes, illness could very much be the culprit. Once that is resolved, sleep should return to normal.
- “Ask for help if you have a partner,” Super suggests. If you need a break from the stress of it all, ask your partner to do bedtime, or handle night wakings.
- Look for what Dubief calls any “sneaky lingering sleep associations.” This means anything that may be interfering with your baby or toddler’s ability to fall asleep without your help — if you are rocking, soothing or feeding them to sleep, and they’re over 3 months old, that may be the issue.
- Prioritize sleep — yours and your child’s. “Really saying no to social obligations, and saying gosh, my child, we have to keep that 7:00 p.m. bedtime. Trying to prioritize sleep sometimes can make things a little bit simpler,” Super suggests.
- Evaluate your expectations. Are they reasonable for your baby’s age? “Sleep is not always linear. But, the trend line should be positive. When I work with parents of younger babies, I talk about 80%,” Dubief explains. “80% of the time, naps should be OK. 20% of the time, you're going to have a sh*t nap day. 80% of the time, they're going to sleep until 3 a.m. before their first feeding. And 20% of the time they're gonna wake up more, because babies. That’s not a bug. That's a feature.”
- Trust your instincts, and try to not rush to your child at every little noise. “I think you, as a parent, know when your child really needs you. And so if your child is sick, that kind of fussing in the middle of the night is going to be different.”
- Ask yourself what's going on at bedtime? “What's happening with sleep habits? Ideally you, you should be saying goodnight, I love you, and leaving the room,” Super reminds.
- “You don't have to rush in the first second they cry out,” Canapari says. “Just chill out. Don't run in there at the first thing. A kid that's been sleeping well, I tell parents, “Turn your monitor down low.’”
- Panic, if you can help it. “What tools do you have to pause?” Dubief asks parents who are dealing with sleep issues. “Any breathing exercise is great,” suggests Dubief. “Get your heart rate down. 90% of parenting is realizing you cannot control them. You can only control yourself. So, what am I gonna do about me when my child wakes up and yells for five minutes and then goes back to sleep for six hours?”
How to minimize sleep regressions
While every human being is prone to a bad night of sleep here and there, having good “sleep hygiene” can minimize the impact of sleep regressions. “As a clinical pediatric sleep physician, I tell parents to focus on the basics,” says Super. There are things that you can do, Super explains, even right when your infant comes right home from the hospital to help them get into healthy sleep routines faster. Those things are:
- Have a consistent bedtime routine. “Hopefully, this is a really nice part of the day for you. You change your infant into pajamas. You give them a short bath, a little massage, sing a song, and then put them in the crib. There’s evidence that just having a consistent bedtime routine has increased sleep time even in infants as young as one month of age,” Super adds.
- Have a consistent bedtime. “A healthy baby bedtime is typically earlier than we would expect, usually between 6 and 7 p.m.. We know that infants, if they’re overtired, are actually going to get less sleep,” Super explains.
- Put your baby in the crib while they’re still awake. “This leads to them trying to develop those self soothing skills,” says Super. “You can try doing this as early as 3 months.”
When to call the doctor
Knowing that a sleep regression — or any sleep disruption that is caused by a developmental shift, whether it’s cognitive or the development of gross motor skills — should pass in a few days should be comforting to most parents. It’s also something to keep in mind when you’re wondering about tapping in your pediatrician for advice. If the sleep disruptions — whether its night wakings or early mornings — are “pushing into 5, 6, 7 days...I don't think it's a terrible idea to have your pediatrician check out your kid,” Canapari suggests. “There’s nothing wrong with finding out that everything is normal.”
This, too, shall pass
“Sometimes, your kid is gonna wake up at night and it’s going to be annoying,” concludes Canapari. “If you go in and pat them back to sleep, then all of a sudden you're doing it every night, and then you're doing it twice a night, that's a pattern you probably should correct.” However, as you wait for the sleep regression to pass and for your child’s sleep to return to normal — whatever normal looks like for them — Canapari says the bottom line is to try to have compassion for yourself as a parent. “There’s no actual perfect parent strategy in a lot of these situations,” he explains. “You've gotta give yourself a little bit of grace.” And if the sleep disruption lasts longer than a few days, don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician for guidance. Both you, and your baby, deserve to be rested.
Dr. Elizabeth Super, M.D., FAAP, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Pulmonology, School of Medicine, Associate Professor of Neurology, School of Medicine
Dr. Craig Canapari, pediatrician and director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center
Alexis Dubief, baby sleep expert and author of Precious Little Sleep