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Why Do Sleep Regressions Happen?

The two words a parent never wants to hear are “sleep regression”. Parents of newborns dread the typical four-month sleep regression, while parents of sleep trained babies often live in fear that their little one will suddenly experience a sleep regression. However, it is important to understand what regressions truly are, and how & why they happen.

You may be surprised to learn that the four-month, eight-month and 18-month sleep regressions are actually PROgressions. Meaning, there are progressive developmental changes taking place that may cause disruptions to a little one’s sleep. These disruptions can often be mistaken for a regression.

Progression vs. Regression

This is most noticeable when a seemingly great sleeper suddenly starts to struggle in the sleep department. For instance, a child who used to sleep well begins to wake frequently at night, takes shorter naps and/or fights or refuses sleep.

At four-months of age lots of things are changing for your baby. They are starting to discover the world around them, as well as starting to become more physically active (rolling over, etc.). A big change also happens with sleep around this time - their sleep becomes less childlike and more adult like. Specifically, their sleep cycles start to change and they are able to string them together. Not to mention, at this age they are transitioning from four to three naps a day. It is due to of all of these reasons, both physically and developmentally, that sleep disruption is actually a progression and not a regression.

None of us sleep through the night without waking. At some point, we all come to the top of our sleep cycles, “wake” to check our surroundings and then fall right back to sleep due to knowing how to self-soothe. At four-months not every baby does know how to self soothe, which is why we have to teach them. These changes are here to stay!

The same thing happens at eight and 18-months. Big developmental and physical changes are happening for your little one, PLUS they are making nap transitions (3-2 and 2-1 respectively). At eight-months the nap transition begins, and physical changes are taking place as they learn to sit up, crawl, and pull up. During this time, be consistent and do what you have always done for your sleep-trained baby. Know that these progressive milestones will pass. Baby will transition to two naps and the novelty of practicing these new skills at bedtime or during the night will pass. Word of caution - paying too much attention to these temporary milestones can actually result in a sleep regression.

At 18-month months, the combination of a nap transition, boundary pushing, and separation anxiety kick in. This nap transition is often the most difficult because it typically takes the longest to happen. Add in the issues of little ones testing their boundaries and exhibiting their

first signs of anxiety when parents leave the room, and parents may feel like they want to pull their hair out.

Remember, just like with the 8-month progression, we have to be consistent with what we expect and how we handle sleep. Make sure their schedule is correct, that the bedtime routine is clear and consistent, and most importantly, don’t transition back to any old bad habits!

What about other regressions?

As I said earlier, I consider the four, eight and 18-month regressions to actually be PROgressions because they are developmentally appropriate. If handled correctly, they pass with no real issue. It is when they are handled incorrectly that a regression can occur.

Regressions may also happen after a child is sick or following travel. Anytime there is a major deviation from the norm, old habits tend to pop back up. What we don’t want to do is use a ‘band-aid’ as a quick-fix. In other words, trying something different or convenient as a means to fix the problem. When your child is sick you should handle their sickness safely and acutely, but once your child is better, get right back to business as usual. Same thing for travel; the likelihood of sleep getting all out of whack is greater. In order to avoid a regression, get right back to the basics as soon as you return home.

One thing I want to emphasize is that parents should not live in fear of a sleep regression. Once your child learns to fall asleep independently, they are not going to forget how to do it. Instead, they may just need a bit of help getting back on track when things deviate from the norm. If you and your family are struggling and feel like you need some assistance, I have email packages available to help!

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