When it comes to babies, sleep affects everything. A tired adult might be slightly short-tempered or more easily confused than usual, but a tired baby is a hellscape, a waking nightmare, a shrieking banshee, Satan himself. A baby isn’t capable of quietly thinking to itself, “Oh gosh, I’m rather sleepy”. Instead, it fast tracks to the type of screams that cut straight through an adult skull.
And then, just when you think everyone’s over the worst, sleep regression raises its head and becomes a very real, very unpleasant thing. This can happen several times during the journey from baby to toddler, as developmental and behavioural milestones clash with the universal desire for a good night’s sleep.
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Your little bundle of joy effectively forgets everything they knew about sleep and drags you back into the world of sleepless nights with them. The timing seems particularly cruel, coming at moments when parents feel “the sleep issue” is done and dusted and not something they need to worry about. “No more 9pm bedtimes for us now Junior is sleeping through the night!” they think. “We can stretch it out to 9:45ish!” Then all of a sudden they’re comforting a shrieking child as they watch the clock hit four AM and realise they’re 100% going to be nodding off at work the next day.
Sleep regression is another one of those things nobody thinks to mention to you before your child arrives – just one of the many surprises that come under the umbrella of “don’t let yourself get confident, sunshine”.
Sleep Regression At... Four Months
This first burst comes as your baby is transitioning from sleeping like, well, a baby to sleeping like a toddler. In a way it’s a misnomer – it’s a developmental leap rather than a true regression, but that’s scant comfort to exhausted parents hallucinating from lack of sleep.
While newborns go almost straight into deep, REM sleep, this stage marks a shift into the four levels of sleep that adults cycle through several times a night. Suddenly every 45 minutes or so, your baby is at a much lighter level of sleep than they were before and easily woken by anything from movement to sound to simply realising you’ve put them down. They might adjust to this quickly and learn to go back to sleep on their own, or they might really struggle.
Sleep associations are a big factor in this – if your baby always falls asleep on you and is now waking up more easily and finding you missing, they’ll go bonkers. If you feed or rock or sing them to sleep, expect to find yourself doing a lot of feeding, rocking and singing. By the 19th rendition of the ‘Grand Old Duke Of York’, every third word might be extremely rude.
The good news is that this usually only lasts for a few weeks. A few ghastly, irritable, sweaty weeks, but just a few weeks all the same. Things parents have found to help include blackout curtains, white noise machines, weighted blankets and trying to pre-empt it by putting your baby down when they’re drowsy rather than fully asleep.
Good news! Six months or so after battling through sleep regression, you might get to do it all again. A combination of teething and developmental leaps forward mean a lot of babies hit a point somewhere between nine months and a year where it all goes out the window.
As your baby grows more aware of the world around them, picking more up from their environment and forming connections between things, the sleep that you may be taking for granted by this point can be disrupted for another few weeks. There’s a lot going on in their little heads at this point, combined with new teeth cutting through their gums and a likely reduction in napping that can take a while to catch up with. Cue chaos.
Recommendations for this stage include tiring your child out physically by playing a lot (while trying not to make them over-tired), but a lot of advice seems to be along the lines of just accepting that this regression will happen: “grit your teeth, sleep when you can and try not to operate any heavy machinery”. You’re also warned against getting so despondent you start bad (or in fact, regressive) habits and undo the work you’ve done – you might think about adopting co-sleeping short-term, for instance, and find you’ve actually adopted it long-term against your will.
An 18-month-old is a complicated person. They know what you not being there means, and that screaming and throwing a tantrum might get you to come back, and get them what they want. Canines and molars are often coming in, both pretty unpleasant as they cut through the gum. Plus growth spurts can lead to even well-fed babies feeling hungry in the night. If all these things coincide, you’ve got a perfect storm.
It feels unfair – you’re used to everything being sorted and suddenly it’s all gone wrong again. You repressed the memory of how miserable you were when you never got any sleep, but suddenly it all floods back. But routine and consistency are important, however difficult it can be to stand your ground when knackered – you can’t give in to your baby’s cries on Monday and refuse to on Tuesday, it’ll just confuse them.
Everything is a tightrope and nothing is easy, but over-tiredness doesn’t help. If their sleep is disrupted at night, you might need to allow for longer napping during the day (but not so much napping they’re not tired enough to sleep at night).
This is when night-lights can come in handy. You can talk to a toddler as well – telling them they have to go to sleep and explaining why can help. There’s no point in going into excessive detail, but a straightforward message like “you need to go to sleep now because it is night time” might make more sense to them than you think.
The good news? Even if you are unlucky enough to come up against sleep regression at all these stages, they’re temporary. A few crap weeks of sleep can feel absolutely endless, but it will all pass. Or, you know, it won’t, but then you need to see a sleep consultant, and it will still ultimately end up okay. Plus you might find yourself having new life experiences like falling asleep while standing up in the shower. It’s a miracle what the tired human body can achieve.