Why Sleep Regressions Aren’t Regressions at all

As a sleep consultant, I talk to a lot of parents and read lots of posts by parents. One of the things I hear talked about a lot, or ‘blamed’ for sleep issues, is sleep regressions. The thing is these are not regressions at all and are completely misunderstood.

Here is a typical post and what follows

A mum posts that her 4-month-old has gone from sleeping really well to waking every 40 mins during the day and every 2 hours overnight. She receives lots of replies saying:

‘It’s the dreaded 4-month sleep regression’

‘A regression, you just have to wait it out’

‘The four-month regression is the worst – my little one is still going through it at 7 months’

‘It’s normal for babies to wake frequently – eventually, they sleep longer’

Parents are continually told it’s a sleep regression, It’s normal and eventually – maybe months later sleep will improve. Later they read another post and reply ‘I’m going through this too. Don’t worry it’s the 4-month regression – it will pass’ and others reply too and the cycle continues.

You can see how very quickly every parent who asks why their child is suddenly not sleeping well is told it’s a sleep regression. Wait it out. The more you hear it the more you believe it. Another mum asks about her 18 month old’s sleep issues is told ‘oh isn’t there a sleep regression at 18 months? Wait it out – it will -pass’

People refer to regressions at various ages. These aren’t ‘regressions’ but developmental changes which highlight existing issues and no they won’t go away if those issues aren’t addressed.

The ‘4-month sleep regression’ can be a bit misleading as it can happen between 3 and 6 months, depending on various factors. What happens isn’t a regression but a development. Baby’s sleep is maturing and they begin sleeping in sleep cycles more and more like adults and the flood of melatonin they were born with has now worn off. Daytime cycles appear earlier and are 40 mins long – a ‘catnap’. Night sleep cycles are 2 hours and appear a bit later but the effects tend to get put together. People say catnapping is perfectly normal and that babies who wake every 2 hours overnight will get through it but as a parent, it is our responsibility to help our children with all parts of their development and this includes sleep.

Babies surface between sleep cycles just like adults. We adjust our pillow or snuggle our doona and because everything is as it was when we fell asleep we pass into the next cycle. Come morning, most of the time we don’t remember waking up. When your baby surfaces from a sleep cycle – day or night they also look for what was there when they fell asleep and if everything is still the same. So if they fall asleep snuggled in your arms and wake in the cot they will wonder ‘where’s mum?’ and now they are fully awake and crying for you and need your cuddles to go back to sleep. They may be so awake they can’t go back to sleep at all. Or they were sucking on a dummy and wake to find it gone. They cry for you to put the dummy back. Babies can also wake because their environment is not optimised for sleep. They may not be warm enough, the sunlight may be bothering them or any number of things and they just can’t go back to sleep.

Because parents hear constantly about sleep regressions, they don’t realise that they can to help their little one with their new development. Parents think they need to accept catnapping and it will pass but this is not the case. They need our help to ensure the way they fall asleep is how things remain when they go through light sleep. If you don’t want to be up every 2 hours overnight giving a dummy back maybe you need to look at helping them fall asleep without the dummy. If you rock your them to sleep and you can’t rock them whenever they are sleeping you may want to look at helping them learn to fall asleep in their cot so that when they wake in their cot things are the same as they were when they fell asleep.

We also need to look at everything that can affect sleep and settling to give them the best chance of waking up and thinking ‘everything is all good I’ll go back to sleep’. Often sleep associations are addressed but everything else that can affect sleep isn’t looked at. This could include a wide range of reasons and often multiple things are affecting your baby, so this is where the holistic approach I talk about comes in to optimise your little one’s chances of sleeping well. If they continue to wake then you may need to look at settling and resettling to get them to sleep longer. Again this development sees babies needing our help to learn how to sleep longer. This doesn’t mean babies don’t wake at all – we all wake but it means that they wake, look around and go back to sleep.

Now I bet a lot of you are thinking I’m saying you need to leave your baby to cry to learn how to settle and resettle. This isn’t the case at all. There are plenty of methods you can use to help a little one learn to fall asleep and resettle and these do not have to include leaving them to cry. Every baby should learn in a way that is tailored to their temperament and their family’s parenting style. Teaching your little one these skills is one of the most valuable things they will ever learn and these so-called ‘regressions’ are just a sign of new developments and them asking for our help to optimize everything so they can sleep well.

If you are feeling a bit lost at what you may need to look through to help your little one sleep longer or you feel like you have tried everything and it just isn’t working then that is when reaching out can help. Dream Winks takes a holistic approach that looks at everything that can affect sleep and settling and works with each family individually to see what is going on with their little one and what will work for their family.