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Baby Sleep Regressions: Causes, Signs & How To Manage It

Just like a real-life game of snakes and ladders, when your baby approaches the 4-month-old mark, a sleep regression can send you sliding quickly back in the direction you do not want to go. Don’t be disheartened, your hard work and dedication has not been in vain; your baby is likely going through a major developmental milestone.

Sleep regression for babies is temporary, so keep calm and read on to get a better understanding of what this baby sleep regression business is all about.


What is sleep regression?

A sleep regression is when you see a shift in your baby or toddler's sleep patterns without an obvious cause like illness, teething or travelling.  Your baby (who may have been sleeping beautifully), suddenly starts waking during naps and overnight, and is difficult to settle back to sleep.  You may experience these periods around 4 months, 8 months, 12 months and even 18 months.

While no one wants setbacks in sleep, the exciting news is that it’s happening because your little one is experiencing a developmental leap. That’s why some people prefer to call them ‘sleep progressions’.


What causes sleep regression?

If your baby does experience a sudden change in sleep and behaviour, it’s important to rule out illness first. Viruses, ear infections and even UTI’s can all impact how your baby is feeling and sleeping. If there is no underlying pain or discomfort causing the sleep and settling issues, it may be that your baby is experiencing a sleep regression.

Simply put, sleep regressions are caused by your baby growing and developing. As your baby begins to learn new skills, they may begin to wake between sleep cycles, and instead of being able to settle themselves back to sleep, they become more alert. At around this age, a baby’s sleep starts to mature. Your little one may begin to experience phases and stages of sleep more closely aligned to that of an adult.


The “4-month sleep regression/progression”

Though sleep regression may be experienced a little earlier or later than 4 months, by 3-4 months of age, a baby is much more alert and aware of their surroundings than when they’re a newborn. They may be reaching out to grab things, have better head control, start making new sounds and for many, this is the time you’ll see them learning to roll.

Just like everyone around them, your baby is fascinated by all the new things they’re able to do. So, when they’re moving into the lighter phases of their sleep, and transitioning from one cycle to the next, they’re more likely to wake, notice and be interested in their surroundings and want to practice their new skills. That self-soothing back-to-sleep they were starting to learn is no longer a priority!

Once bub has started mastering their new skill and it’s no longer new or exciting, their sleep should get back on track, but there are ways you can help manage and survive the disrupted periods.


What are the signs and symptoms of a 4-month sleep regression?

When there is a prolonged and unexplained disruption to your baby’s established sleeping patterns it may be a sleep regression. Sleep regressions are characterised by:


Difficulty falling asleep

Your baby may need extra support or assistance to fall asleep during this time. They are beginning to develop, and in their more alert state, they may experience difficulty drifting off to sleep.


Frequent night-time awakenings

Your baby may be waking between sleep cycles where they were previously able to self-settle or soothe themselves back to sleep.


Irritability upon waking

A reduced number of sleeping hours and quality of sleep, may cause your baby to be more irritable upon waking.


Reduced total sleep time

Taking extra time to get to sleep and not being able to join sleep cycles together, may result in less total sleep time for your baby over a 24-hour period.


Other periods of sleep and settling disruption

Your little one may experience disruptions to their sleep again when they’re learning new motor skills like crawling, sitting, standing and walking, when they’re starting to talk and express themselves in new and different ways. Babies can become unsettled as they’re getting older and start testing the boundaries, trying to prove their independence and of course, when they’re teething, unwell and when you’re travelling or leaving them in a new or different environment (like daycare or sleepovers at the grandparents).

All babies and children will go through these stages and phases in some way. While you can’t avoid or control them, try to remember, these periods of change and disruption are temporary.


Tips on managing sleep regression in babies

When you’re feeling exhausted, or sleep-deprived, knowing sleep regressions are temporary may not fill you with a lot of enthusiasm in the moment. Here are some things to remember to help you through this period:


Try to stay calm

Remember this is a natural development. It shows your baby’s development is progressing and while it might take a couple of weeks, your baby’s sleep will get back on track.


Stay consistent

You might need to offer a little extra support as bub settles off to sleep or if they wake overnight, and it might take a little longer than usual to get them to settle. If they’re unwell or in a new environment, they may need more reassurance and comfort. It’s okay to be flexible, just try to stay consistent with your routines and strategies as best you can


Remember the 4 foundations to healthy sleep

When you’re exhausted and desperate for your little one to sleep, it’s understandable you’re willing to try anything to get them drifting back to dreamland. Remembering the 4 foundations to healthy sleep, settling methods and ways to support bubs self-soothing, will help you and bub get through these periods of disruption and help you avoid forming bad habits.


Make sure bub is getting enough sleep

Whether bub is unwell, teething, in a new environment or going through a period of development, it's important they still get enough sleep across their whole day. If bub had a particularly disrupted night, they may need to make up for it with extra or longer naps the next day. Remember, an overtired baby can be even harder to settle, so keeping them well rested is key.


Common FAQ’s from parents on sleep regression

Many parents and caregivers experience the same frustration when in the midst of a sleep regression. Some of the most commonly asked questions are covered below.


How long can a baby’s sleep regression last?

Typically sleep regressions last between 2-6 weeks.


Can you avoid baby sleep regression?

Sleep regressions may be barely noticeable in some babies, and more so with others. As sleep regressions are caused by biological processes, there is nothing you can specifically do to avoid them. You can ensure that you form healthy sleep foundations, such as bedtime routines, to support your baby through this period and help minimise disruption.


How do you fix sleep regression?

Ensuring your follow your baby’s bedtime routine will help minimise the disruption during sleep regressions. Establishing the foundations of healthy sleep habits early, may assist your baby to get back on track.


What should you not do during sleep regression?

Don’t adjust your established bedtime routine, this routine may help your baby through the regression. Avoid providing new sleep crutches such as rocking or feeding to sleep. And don’t panic, remember sleep regressions are temporary.


Do babies go back to normal after sleep regression?

Babies sleep patterns should return to normal after a sleep regression. Stay consistent with your bedtime routine.


Is sleep regression a milestone?

Sleep regressions are closely linked to developmental milestones, though they are not considered to be a milestone in themselves.


How do parents survive sleep regression?

When you’ve finally got some sleep hours back in the bank, dealing with your baby’s sleep regression can be tough. Ask for help if you find you are struggling. Reach out to trusted family or friends, or get in touch with one of the trusted services in our Support Directory.


Should you night feed during sleep regression?

If your baby is waking during the night, first determine if they are hungry, or if they just need some support to settle themselves back to sleep. It is possible that your baby may also be growing during this period, and may require more sustenance. If you are unsure, try resettling your baby first, before offering them a night feed.


When should I be worried about sleep regression?

Sleep regressions typically last between 2-6 weeks. If your baby is experiencing disrupted sleep beyond that time, contact your GP or child health professional to rule out any underlying medical conditions. It’s important to note that ruling out medical conditions, should be investigated first, if your baby experiences sleep disruptions.