Sleep Regressions – What just happened to my sleeping baby?

This is probably one of life’s most cruel jokes on previously sleep-deprived parents.  Just when you think your child is going to begin sleeping through the night on his/her own and you can start feeling a little more normal, things take an unexpected turn.  So what is a sleep regression?  Typically, a child will who has a good foundation for sleep both during the day and night out of nowhere begins to “regress.”  What used to be a welcome bedtime routine is met with protest, and perhaps also multiple night wakings, and your child may seem inconsolable.  You’ll probably take their temperature and find no fever, undress them to see if some clothing is pinching them, or something else is causing them discomfort.  You may be concerned something they ate isn’t mixing well with them, or perhaps this is the worst bout of teething your child has dealt with yet.  What happened to my sleeping baby?  Why this sudden disruption and will it ever end?

If you were to do a web search on sleep regressions, there is a lot of information on this being normal and that eventually it will pass.  It’s true, just like your labour pains, this too, will pass.  But looking at the specific ages where these “sleep regressions” occur, can help us to understand what’s going on with our children and can also help us to prevent a further sleep debt and help our babies get the sleep they need too.  We also don’t want to risk falling victim to the extinction burst.  The typical ages that most parents complain about sleep regressions are at 4M, 8-9M, 12M,  18m,  3 years, and generally there is a tremendous amount of cognitive development going on at these developmental stages as they are learning new skills that they obsess about mastering.   You may vaguely remember the nurse or doula from your prenatal classes warn you about your child deciding to get up in the middle of the night to practice some of these newly acquired skills. So this is part of it, and typically once the skill is mastered the “sleep regression” passes.

However,  there also tend to be sleep milestones overlapping with each of these developmental stages that are popular for “sleep regressions” and if the sleep needs aren’t met, dealing with your “sleep regression” may be more difficult.  I highly recommend “Bedtiming” by Marc Lewis & Isabela Granic to help understand the emotional and developmental stages of your child and what impact it may be having on your child’s sleep habits.  Ultimately, if you have a solid sleep foundation, you should be able to get your child back on track easily enough.

4 Months

This is a huge milestone in the sleep patterns for most babies.   Between 4-5.5M your child will be in the stage of interpersonal expectancy, where they will develop motor expectancies.  For example, when they smile, you smile back, and when they cry, you come. Your child will be learning cause and effect during this stage and it is a major transition in cognitive development.  Your child will be able reach and grab for objects, having a deliberate effect on the world, and may also begin to roll over.  From a sleep needs perspective, there has been a major development as well. Once the biological systems begin to synchronize the circadian rhythm dictates the most ideal sleep windows.  Your child will also begin to develop strong associations with his/her sleep environment, so implementing a soothing routine on a regular basis is extremely important.  So what does this all mean?

  • Your child will begin to have longer wakeful periods and risks becoming overtired.
  • Your child may be able to roll over one way, but not the other just yet and is rather displeased about it.
  • You child is dependent on you to soothe her back to sleep.
  • The “witching hour” is really upon you.

How to Handle this:

  • Don’t let your child get overtired, keep wakeful periods between naps no longer than 2 hrs.
  • Your child needs to learn to roll back, give her plenty of tummy time during waking hours for the opportunity to get comfortable in this position and to learn on her own to roll back and not always be dependent on a parent to return her “back” to sleep.
  • It’s time for your child to develop some self-soothing skills, and it’s time your gave him/her the opportunity to do so.
  • Fussiness is an obvious sign of over-tiredness and a good sign that your child needs an earlier bedtime.

9 Months

Between the ages of 8-11M, children enter the social referencing stage.  Cognitive milestones include baby’s ability to link one co-ordination to a second co-ordination allowing for joint attention, social referencing and searching for hidden objects.  No surprise then, developmental psychologists believe this leads to a peak in separation anxiety and Lewis & Granic suggest this can be a difficult stage to implement sleep training strategies.  I’ve helped families get through sleep training at this stage, so I know it’s not impossible to implement healthy sleep habits and why I think the sleep needs just really need to be met.  Developmentally, this is a stage where many babies are learning to crawl, and some are learning to pull themselves up.  From a sleep perspective, many babies may also be transitioning from 3 to 2 naps. So what does this mean?

  • The world is even more exciting, so your child wants to extend her waking periods and still risks becoming overtired.
  • Your child has learned to pull himself up in the crib, and doesn’t know how to get back down.
  • Your child is fussier during the day perhaps, due to standing up and hanging on for dear life in the crib all night or because that transition is leaving them in a place where some days they get too much sleep and other days not enough.

How to handle this:

  • Don’t let your child get overtired.  Obverse the naps times that you have scheduled and stick with them, kids this age are likely going to be risking over-tiredness if they’re kept up longer than 3 hrs between nap periods.
  • You have to let your child figure this one out on his own.  Lay you child down, once and only once.  If he gets back up, let him figure it out for himself.  Eventually he may fall and then he’ll learn that he isn’t stuck there.
  • If you’re finding your child isn’t getting enough sleep, try to reduce the sleep debt by offering an earlier bedtime, by at least 30 min, and don’t be afraid to make it earlier if necessary.

12 Months

Lots of the internet searching actually describes the next sleep regression as being between 12 and 13 months.   At this stage, called motor practice, developmentally your child is taking command of her own world now that she’s crawling and probably beginning to walk.  She’s intent on exploring the world around her and may be developing a few simple words.  In Canada, because many women are fortunate to spend a whole year with their child before having to return to work, this is the age that kids may go to daycare.  This is a huge change in daily routine, and some daycares will require that the children be transitioned to one nap before accepting them.  So what does this mean?

  • Surprise!  The world is still an exciting place and your child can stay up longer, still risking over-tiredness.
  • Your child has transitioned from 2 to 1 naps, getting less sleep than previously, potentially causing over-tiredness.
  • Major environmental change, you child sees less of you during the day and protests more to enjoy longer amounts of time in your company, which if it goes past bedtime, risks leading to over-tiredness.

How to handle this:

  • You may have noticed a trend… a lot of issues are leading to over-tiredness.  Ensure you stick with your child’s nap schedule!
  • Most kids aren’t ready to transition from 2 to 1 nap a day until about 15-18M.  Talk with you daycare about ensuring that your child gets the required amount of sleep she needs.
  • While you may have less time, make it all quality time!  Keeping your child up later will cause over-tiredness and “catching-up” on the weekend doesn’t solve the sleep debt.  Keep a solid and special bedtime routine and cherish your time together!

18 Months

Around 18M most babies have transitioned from 2 to 1 nap a day.  From a cognitive development perspective, the child enters the emotional stage of Social Negotiating, and that’s exactly what it’s all about.  This is often referred to as the beginning of the terrible twos (hopefully not for you, though). Rituals are extremely important and language development is skyrocketing. Your child is beginning to understand social roles and that his goals may conflict with yours.  Examples of this are that he would prefer to stay up with you, than go to bed when you have said. What does this mean?

  • The nap transition is leaving your child in a place where some days he gets too much sleep, other days he doesn’t get enough, leading to over-tiredness.
  • Your child may begin to try to exert her independence by saying “no” a lot, dragging out the bedtime routine… leading to over-tiredness.

How to handle this:

  • On the days where you feel that your child has not gotten enough sleep avoid creating a sleep debt by offering an earlier bedtime, at least by 30 min, and again don’t be afraid to make it earlier if a nap was skipped altogether.
  • Remember who is in charge. Don’t let your child’s oppositional behavior drag out the bedtime routine or allow it to frustrate or upset you.  Remember this is just a phase.  Don’t get your back up!  Acknowledge your child’s displeasure and with a loving smile continue with your bedtime routine.  For more information on dealing with toddler tantrums, I highly recommend The Happiest Toddler on the Block.

3 years

What’s typically going on with a 3-year-old?  Most are still in home or day care, so the environment hasn’t necessarily changed all that much.  Or has it?  Between the ages of 28M to 3 years, children enter the social comparison stage, and this stage is clearly marked by the development of jealousy.  The “terrible twos” often increase sharply at about 28-30M and children also become more clever. They can weigh the impact of rule breaking behavior on your goals and learn how to push your buttons.  Sometimes if they feel they aren’t getting enough of you attention they know this is a sure way to get it. Perhaps there is a new baby in the house, and your child somehow feels he needs to compete for your affection.   From a sleep perspective, this is also a time where many children may begin to drop their day time nap.  So what does this mean?

  • No nap during the day leads to potential for over-tiredness.
  • Jealousy + Over-tiredness = potential melt down madness, which can lead to dragging out the bedtime routine further and a bigger sleep debt.
  • Sometimes toddlers are given TV time before bed, while parents attend to the younger baby.

How to Handle this:

  • While your child is transitioning from 1 to 0 naps, continue to offer “quiet time” during nap time.  Some children, even though they begin to drop the daytime nap around 3 years old, take the odd nap here and there until they are about 5.  Having the quiet time still allows a chance to the child to take a nap if needed, and if not it gives the chance for the body to remain in a calm state.
  • Dealing with an overly tired child is difficult enough, but a meltdown is down right exhausting.  Stay calm!  Remember who is in charge and who sets the example.  Acknowledge your child’s frustration and feelings. Stick with your bedtime routine as much as possible but ensure that your child gets the reassurance he needs from you about being a valuable member of the family.
  • You may have to offer some extra comfort periodically, but a really consistent and calm routine in the evening will help to prevent a sleep debt, and again, you should always offer an earlier bedtime if you think that you child is more tired than usual.
  • Be firm. While you may  have to modify your routine slightly, be aware that this too will pass.  If you have set a strong foundation, once the difficult period has passed, everything will go back to  normal.
  • TV before bedtime is a recipe for disaster.  While you little child may look calm and contented glued to the screen, TV is actually very stimulating and can interfere with the calm atmosphere that you want to have for your bedtime routine.

When it comes right down to it, there are going to be “hiccups” to your child’s sleep schedule.  It may be one of these so-called “regressions”, or travel, day light savings time, illness, or a move.  Whatever the issue was that caused a bit of a wrinkle in your child’s sleep schedule, know that it will pass.  It is perfectly alright to offer some flexibility on occasion.  In fact, in cases of illness I would strongly advise it, but sticking with your routine and expectations is the best way to keep your child’s sleep on schedule and prevent them from becoming overtired.


“Springing Forward” Dealing with Daylight Savings Time

I belong to A LOT of Mommy Facebook pages, and I have been seeing a lot of posts recently about how to handle the upcoming daylight saving time.  It seems a lot of people are worried about how “Springing Forward” may affect their little one’s sleep schedule, especially if it is something that they have just gotten under control!  Perhaps many of you remember it being rather difficult to recover from the last “fall back.”

Well, I can tell you that this is a time change that you really don’t need to be afraid of.  As my mentor, Deborah Pedrick, founder of the Family Sleep Institute, has said:  This is the time change that parents should embrace, especially if you child is one of those ridiculously early risers.  Even though we lose an hour, this time change is much less disruptive to our little one’s schedule.  So here a re a few tips to help you deal with this coming Sunday.

  • Springing forward for early risers – this is definitely something to get excited about!   For those that wake up super early, what would have been a 5:30 am wake up is now 6:30 am by the clock this coming Sunday. If you start your daily schedule by the clock on Sunday, this means that those of you who have the early risers can actually use this time change to your advantage and get your baby on schedule!
  • Springing forward for late risers. For the babies that are waking up a little later than most (say 7:00- 7:30 am), they’ll now be waking up an hour later.  Let’s face it, you aren’t going to put them right back down for a nap.  So what to do?  It’s best to delay nap time by at least 1 hr, but they’re likely not to be ready for 2 hrs.  So put them down between 9:30 or 10:30 am.  For the second & third nap, you’ll likely also find it is delayed by an hour or so.  Over the next couple days you’ll start putting them down about 15-20 min early to get them used to the time change.  Eventually they will begin waking up closer to their normal time.
  • Stick with your routine! If you had a late riser that is only taking one nap a day, just go by the clock and put your child down at the time that you normally would.  He/She may take longer to settle and go down, but eventually they will.  The next day, you’ll start their nap times a little earlier, and within a few days you’ll be following nap schedules by the clock again.
  • What do I do if despite the adjustments to the routine my kid still seems wiped out? The best way to know if your child is getting enough rest from the naps shows in their mood. If you feel that they really didn’t get as much restorative sleep as needed this Sunday (or any day for that matter), then try and prevent the sleep debt by putting them to sleep a little earlier.

Other tips to make the transition smooth

  • Use black out shades – With the sunrises beginning earlier, and sunsets starting later, natural sun light can interfere with the times that are ideal with our children going to bed.  Ensure the room is dark, even in the morning so they don’t become a super early riser.
  • Keep the lights dim – As mentioned earlier, the sun will be staying up later.  So use dim lights in the house early to set the tone for the bedtime routine.
  • Toddler alarm clocks or Lamp on a timer – If you have a Jack-in-the-Box who’s leaving the bedroom before it’s time to wake up, you can set a lamp on a timer or an alarm clock to the times that it’s ok to wake up.  This will help your child understand and follow the schedule.
  • White noise machine or a REALLY loud fan – Personally I love hearing birds in the morning, but some parents may find this causes their own early bird to get up too.  A white noise machine can drown out the sounds of spring if you feel it may be a problem.

As a sleep consultant, I’ll probably never be able to say it enough, but consistency is key.  Stick with your routine, and you will get your child through this time change like it never even happened!

Happy Spring Time!