We hear the term 'Sleep regression' thrown about alot when people talk about baby or child's sleep and it can seem like they're going to constantly bounce from one regression to another for the first few years. But is this really the case? What is truly a 'sleep regression' and what is purely a developmental or circumstatial change for them that is having a temporary effect on their sleep?
WHAT IS A SLEEP REGRESSION?
A sleep regression is an all encompassing term to describe when your baby or child's sleep appears to have become more difficult for them to either stay asleep, sleep without associations, sleep for longer periods or having trouble self settling when they were previously able to.
There is only one time in a baby's life when their sleep cycles develop and mature into more sleep stages and sleep cycles similar to those of an adult. During this development, some babies can find that they begin to struggle to link their sleep cycles while they adjust to this change, this however is usually short lived and there are things you can do to help aid them.
BEYOND THE FOUR MONTH REGRESSION
Beyond the four month sleep 'regression' there are no more periods where babies sleep adjusts in the way it does at four months There are also no ages where your baby or child will definitely struggle with their sleep or will have issues staying or falling asleep. There are, however, some children who as they hit developmental milestones, may find sleep is disrupted or as their sleep needs change and adjust as they get older, i.e. when it's time to drop a nap, this may be reflected in their night time sleep. Quite often, these periods are put down to a 'sleep regression' when in fact, it is a period of physical or cognitive development.
Unhelpfully, many baby sites will tell you to expect a sleep 'regression' at almost every . Herd of the 8 month, 12 month, 18 month, 2 year regressions? This is unhelpful for a few reasons, firstly, not every child will experience issues with their sleep and also not at these ages or frequency, but it can leave parent anxiously preempting something that may never occur. Also, babies and children all develop at different times. No two children all hit their physical and cognitive milestones all at the same time, so their sleep, if it is going to be impacted, which it may not be, wouldn't necessarily be impacted at the same time. Thirdly, putting these periods of temporary disruption down to a 'sleep regression' sometimes prevents parents from thinking there is something they can do to help it pass more smoothly or quickly, when in fact, there usually is something you can do to help, especially if the disruption is due to an inbalance of day and night sleep because a nap needs to be dropped for example.
WHAT MILESTONES AFFECT SLEEP?
It is important to note that while any of these milestones MAY impact your baby or child's sleep, they also may not. All children are different and respond differently to learning new skills or hitting new milestones and many may not notice any change to their sleep where as other children may do.
Both physical and cognitive milestones can sometimes affect sleep. Physical milestones, such as rolling, sitting, crawling, walking etc may cause temporary disruption to sleep as they process this incredible new talent they have just developed! Cognitive milestones such as learning to talk, going through periods of understanding separation etc can also have some affects on sleep, again, while they process these new skills, emotions or understandings and learn to manage them.
THE DAY NIGHT SLEEP BALANCE
The balance between day time and night time sleep can have a huge effect on sleep and as they grow and develop this balance shifts. It can also shift on a smaller, daily scale, depending on daily factors such as if they have been more or less physically active than usual that day, if their day has been more or less stimulating than usual or if they have experienced something new in their day. These smaller shifts can require small adjustments in their naps or bed time to help them achieve their usual night time sleep. Bigger shifts can occur as children get older and their overall sleep needs are reduced, meaning a reduction in their day time sleep is necessary to help them continue to sleep their usual duration over night.
These larger shifts in nap durations, lengths and timings again, all occur at different times which are individual to your baby or child. There are rough guides on when naps are usually reduced or dropped, but there is no one size fits all for naps and while one child may drop their final nap age two, another might drop it nearer to age 4. This is completely normal and in line with the fact that no two children develop at exactly the same time and two individuals will have different sleep needs.
WHAT CAN I DO?
If your child has recently learnt a new skill, whether physical or cognitive, and you think that is potentially why sleep is disrupted, ensure they have plenty of time and space to practice this new skill during the day time while also being mindful not to do lot of practice immediately before bedtime, where they might prefer to carry on practicing instead of sleeping! Ensure lots of wind down time before naps and bed time to help them process their new skill and really give them the chance to switch off and relax before bed time.
If your child is going through an emotional development, for example if they're suddenly aware more of separation and being apart from you, then ensuring you spend lots of quality time with them during the day and before bed can help. Reading stories together, cuddles, playing together and connecting can all help hugely. Anything which helps strengthen the bond between the two of you and help them feel secure. Also looking at alternative settling methods while they're going through this stage can help too.
If neither of the first two things appear to be the issue but you're still experiencing issues, then address their naps. Look at the timings of their naps and the durations, along with the time that they go to bed. All of these will adjust and change as they get older and it is important to look at your baby as an individual and their sleep needs rather than a generic plan which may not be suitable for your child.
This is my biggest piece of advice to parents. Changes don't always work immediately, you need to be consistent in your approach if you want to see results and positive changes. Also babies and children thrive on consistency and will respond well if you are consistent.
THE TAKE HOME
Try not to worry that your baby will go through a ton of sleep 'regressions' as scientifically there is only one time in their life where their sleep will biologically change with significance and even then this may pass without disruption. Any other disruptions in their sleep are not guaranteed, predictable or impossible to help them manage and the best advice I can give is to treat your child like the individual that they are, don't assume it is a sleep 'regression' and you have to put up with it and also don't try to fit your baby or child into generic plans or schedules that aren't working for them.
Working out your baby or child's sleep needs can be daunting and it can also cause worry that you may disrupt them or make their sleep more unbalanced that it currently is.
This is where working with a professional can help you look at your little one's current schedule, the issues you're facing and where they are in their development and whats going on in their home life and help you to build a schedule that works for your individual.
If you would like more help with your child's sleep I can help create a tailor made plan for your family based on your individual needs. Explore my packages for something that suit you