Sleep Regressions

Fact-Checked

Research shows that both parents experience sleep deprivation after their baby is born, most significantly in the first several months after childbirth. For this reason, parents are often immensely excited when their baby begins sleeping through the night. However, some parents anecdotally report that this excitement is short-lived, as their infant later experiences a sleep regression, or seemingly backslides into less stable sleep patterns, once again awakening during the night.

We discuss what sleeping habits are normal for infants of different ages, what a sleep regression is, when sleep regressions are likely to happen, and how to help your baby sleep as soundly as possible.

How Does Infant Sleep Change Based on Age?

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that newborns, defined as babies up to 3 months old, sleep between 14 and 17 hours each day. After 3 months, infants' sleep needs decrease, with babies from 4 months to 1 year requiring between 12 and 15 hours of sleep per day. The National Sleep Foundation notes that some infants sleep slightly more or less than this, but anything far from these ranges may signify a health problem.

Babies 2 months or younger tend to wake up more at night. Around 5 or 6 months of age, steadier sleep patterns develop and many babies begin sleeping through the night. Still, nearly 38% of 6-month-olds and nearly 28% of 1-year-olds do not sleep for six uninterrupted hours at night.

Parents should be assured that sleep problems in infancy are common. Many parents report that their infant experiences sleep problems throughout the first 2 years of life. An infant's sleep patterns tend to vary widely throughout this time, becoming steadier and more consistent in the child's second year.

What Are Sleep Regressions?

Sleep regression is a term used to refer to a period in which an infant's sleep patterns become less stable, or the baby regresses to sleeping patterns they had at a younger age. This is generally associated with fussing at bedtime or waking up more frequently during the night.

Although sleep regressions are discussed anecdotally, they rarely appear in the scientific literature. They may be related to the more general concept of a developmental regression, during which an infant or child regresses to an earlier state of development. Researchers have suggested that in an infant, a developmental regression might involve the baby temporarily becoming less independent, crying more, experiencing a loss of appetite, wanting more physical touch, and having sleep troubles.

When Do Sleep Regressions Happen?

The most marked sleep regressions are often said to occur at 4 and 8 months of age. Since sleep regressions have not been demonstrated through research, information about when they occur is unscientific, largely coming from parents' anecdotal reports.

Popular parent-focused websites claim sleep regressions are also common at 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 18, and 24 months. Perhaps it is better to simply assume your baby's sleep habits will vary during the first 2 years of life, than to think in terms of sleep progress and regression.

Why Do Sleep Regressions Happen?

Since infant sleep regressions have not been documented by research, no one can definitively state why they occur.

Sleep regressions may be most likely to happen immediately before a developmental milestone, such as learning to crawl or stand. Some propose that a growing infant may wake more during the night at these times because they need more food than usual, or because their brain activity is changing. More research is needed to understand the connection.

Other factors that might temporarily affect your baby’s sleep include separation anxiety and changes such as traveling or teething. These setbacks tend to resolve naturally as long as you persevere with healthy sleep habits.

Tips for Parents Dealing With Sleep Regressions

Keep in mind that many infants do not regularly sleep through the night in their first year of life, so patience is key. If your infant isn't yet sleeping through the night, you might just have to give it time. That said, if you want to promote sound sleep for your baby, there are some strategies you can try:

  • Set an Earlier Bedtime: One study found that when babies went to sleep later at night, they slept for shorter periods of time. Learn to recognize your baby’s signs of tiredness, such as crying or rubbing their eyes.
  • Keep a Regular Bedtime Routine: A bedtime routine helps give your child a sense of security and prepare them for sleep. Ideally, the bedtime routine should contain the same activities performed in the same order every day, such as brushing teeth, taking a bath, and singing a lullaby
  • Promote Self-Soothing: Self-soothing refers to an infant's ability to put themselves back to sleep when they awaken. Following age-appropriate guidance from your pediatrician, you may find that moving your baby's crib outside of your bedroom, allowing them to spend more time in their crib each day, and taking a little longer than normal to respond when they cry may promote self-soothing.
  • Try Sleep Training: Sleep training is meant to train the baby to fall back asleep on their own. With this method, parents put their baby to bed when they are sleepy, but not yet asleep. If the baby cries after being put down to sleep or after awakening during the night, parents wait 2 to 5 minutes before attending to the baby. With time, they can increase the time they wait before checking in on the crying baby, allowing the infant the opportunity to fall back asleep on their own. To reduce stimulation, it is best to soothe the baby while still in the crib instead of picking the baby up.

It is normal for babies to experience occasional sleep problems, though it never hurts to talk to your pediatrician if you are unsure whether your infant’s sleep habits are a cause for concern.

References

+ 16 Sources
  1. 1. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30649536/
  2. 2. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29073412/
  3. 3. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21784676/
  4. 4. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27252030/
  5. 5. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30420470/
  6. 6. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32087408/
  7. 7. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20480682/
  8. 8. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12025364/
  9. 9. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://depts.washington.edu/nwbfch/infant-safe-sleep-development
  10. 10. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25704736/
  11. 11. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26704990/
  12. 12. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002392.htm
  13. 13. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002045.htm
  14. 14. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32564032/
  15. 15. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12236607/
  16. 16. Accessed on October 26, 2021.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29358251/

Related Reading:

  • How Much Sleep Do Babies Need?

    Babies are asleep for more than half of their first year of life. This time spent sleeping allows an infant's brain and nervous system to develop, preparing them for the years to come. We cover how much sleep your baby needs to promote healthy growth, why sleep is so crucial for infants and toddlers, and answers to the most frequently asked questions about infant sleep habits.

  • How to Get a Baby to Sleep Through the Night

    Parents of babies are often sleep-deprived due to their baby's night awakenings. Learn when your baby should sleep through the night and how to help them.

  • Is Your Child Getting Enough Sleep?

    What are the signs and effects of sleep deprivation in children? We cover what to look for and how to help your child sleep better for their health and mood.