Sleep-deprived parents know the dreamy feeling that comes when their baby finally strings together enough ZZZs to get from sunset to sunrise. It’s a wondrous, fabulous, amazing moment.
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And then, far too quickly, it’s over. The infant who spent eight solid hours sleeping one night now sends out a crying call at midnight … and 2 a.m. … and 3 a.m. … and 4:30 a.m.
YIKES! What’s going on?
Well, the fancy title for this phenomenon is “sleep regression.” It’s a common phase when children slide backward regarding maintaining a consistent sleep pattern, explains pediatrician Heidi Szugye, DO, IBCLC.
“It can feel like every time you brag about your child sleeping through the night, the next night is a doozy,” says Dr. Szugye. “We’ve all been there.”
Here’s how to get past it.
Let’s start with this basic fact: Babies sleep a lot — just not necessarily when you want them to.
A newborn spends about 16 hours a day snoozing, says Dr. Szugye. By about 3 months old, babies often slumber 12 to 15 hours. The problem? Those little kiddos do their sleeping in relatively short bursts.
As babies scatter their sleep, they rarely get more than four hours of shut-eye at a time before waking up for a short period. Then, those eyelids drop again and the cycle starts over.
So, why is their schedule so erratic? The short answer is that babies have yet to develop their circadian rhythm, the 24-hour internal clock that guides the more mature crowd through their day.
As babies start to establish their body rhythms, the schedule they’re keeping may suddenly change. They may go from sleeping for longer stretches overnight to once again waking every few hours.
“It’s very common to have babies go through ebbs and flows in their ability to sleep well,” says Dr. Szugye.
Early on, babies spend more mattress time in a deep sleep. As they get older, their sleep pattern begins to cycle through phases of deep and light sleep — more like what we do as adults.
Adjusting to lighter phases of sleep can make babies more likely to wake up for a bit, leading to a temporary regression.
Timing of sleep regressions vary by child, though there’s often talk of it happening around 4 months of age. Other regressions can coincide with growth spurts and developmental milestones throughout your baby’s first year.
But research hasn’t shown regressions happening like clockwork at a specific age for every baby, notes Dr. Szugye: “It’s different for every child,” she says.
Regressions typically last a week or two before children eventually get back on track.
“The important thing to know is it does not last forever,” says Dr. Szugye.
The most obvious sign of sleep regression, of course, is your baby suddenly waking up more often at night. Other signals include:
Don’t just assume that a sleeping issue involves a regression, either, says Dr. Szugye. Your baby may get up and demand attention for any number of issues, including an illness, a dirty diaper or a grumbly tummy.
There’s nothing like disrupted sleep to emphasize the importance of sleep, right? With that in mind, view sleep regressions as a gentle reminder to build a consistent routine with your little one.
Here are a four tips to follow:
Babies have a lot to learn, but some lessons on sleeping should be at the top of the study list.
The American Academy of Pediatrics endorses the “graduated extinction” sleep training method. With this approach, you slowly increase how long you wait to respond to your crying baby after putting them down to sleep, explains Dr. Szugye.
The idea is to offer some comfort and support as your child learns how to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. Consider this a gentler approach to the cry-it-out method, which calls for no response to tears.
Learn about other sleep-training methods, too.
Make sure your baby gets enough to eat throughout the day so they’re not hungry overnight or midway through a nap. Eating about 15 minutes before heading to their crib also can help make a baby sleepy. (“It’s a nice wind-down routine,” says Dr. Szugye.)
When putting your baby to sleep, make sure they’re drowsy but not fully asleep. Look for cues such as yawns, eye rubbing or when a baby grabs at their ears that indicate they’re tired and ready to snooze.
“By starting out awake in their crib, they learn that they can fall asleep on their own,” says Dr. Szugye. “So, if they do wake up in the middle of the night, they have that experience and practice of getting themselves back to sleep.”
Try to avoid overstimulating babies before bedtime with screen time or energetic play with toys. Instead, look to wind things down by reading a book or softly singing a song.
Set the mood in the room with minimal light and visual distractions. White noise sound machines can be relaxing, too. “You want to make sure you’re sending the message that this is a place for your baby to sleep,” advises Dr. Szugye.
On the flip side, during the day it’s important to send the message that it’s awake time by providing play time and interaction.
If your baby just can’t seem to get over the sleep regression hump, or something doesn’t seem right to you, talk to your pediatrician to make sure everything is OK. Just remember that sleep regressions are natural and normal.
“It’s a phase,” reassures Dr. Szugye, “and it will eventually pass.”
To hear more from Dr. Szugye on this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “Babies and Bedtime.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast are available every Wednesday.