The Truth About Age “Regressions”

Family, Health And Wellness

As a mom of 4 and a pediatric sleep consultant, I have heard parents complain about “regressions” with practically every month of their child’s first few years (ie 4mo, 6mo, 9mo, 18mo regression, etc). Many parents believe that because their child’s sleep seems to change every couple of months that it must be due to a sleep regression of some sort, as they are often not clear as to why the change is occurring.

Dictionary.com defines regression as the reversion to a chronologically earlier or less adapted pattern of behavior and feeling. Personally, I don’t like the word regression, as it implies that your child is going backwards developmentally, which is simply not the truth. You’re probably thinking, “well, if it’s not a sleep regression, then what is it?!” Let me try to explain what’s happening... 

4 MONTH “REGRESSION”

By about 17 weeks old, your baby’s circadian rhythm will fall into a more predictable pattern and start to mirror that of an adult’s. As adults we start off by falling into 2 lighter phases of sleep, followed by the deeper stage (non-REM), and then into our dream stage (REM) before starting all over again. We go through about (5) 90min cycles each night (newborns’ sleep cycles are about half that).

As we transition from one sleep cycle into the next, we very briefly and lightly wake up (stage 1). If everything around us is the same as it was when we first went to sleep, then we will just roll into a new position and transition into that next sleep cycle without every really waking up. If, however, something has changed (ie our blanket fell off, our partner is gone, our white noise machine is off, etc), then we will more fully wake up at this point to investigate or fix whatever happened.

So what does this intriguing information have to do with your baby’s 4mo “regression”? Well, if you were feeding, rocking, patting, holding, using a device, or otherwise helping your baby get to sleep in those first 3 months, then baby was relying on you or these other props to get to sleep. While that didn’t matter so much in those first 3 months with baby's shorter naps and sleep cycles, it very much so matters now in this 4th month and beyond. Baby is seeing better and has become more aware of his surroundings these days. Now when you go to lay him down after falling asleep feeding (the #1 sleep prop), he will often startle, wake, and cry, leaving you to wonder what’s going on. If he needed your help going to sleep initially, then he’s going to need your help getting back to sleep again…and again and again!

This is when most parents will start noticing that their good sleeper is no longer sleeping that well, or that their baby who was moving in the right direction with sleep seems to be taking a step backwards. As you can see it’s a natural developmental milestone, though I’ll admit it’s not nearly as exciting as watching him roll or sit up for the first time! The key here is to put baby down into her crib when she is sleepy but still awake! Try to let her fall asleep initially in the place you want her to end up being (ie her crib or bassinet), so that when she transitions into a new sleep cycle during the night or at nap everything will be the same as it was when she first went to sleep and she won't feel the need to "ask" for your help transitioning into another sleep cycle.

OTHER MONTHLY “REGRESSIONS”

So now let’s talk about the other months and their “regressions”. When parents call me saying that their baby “was sleeping good until recently” (and this can be any age), they are truly stumped as to what’s happened. Most often the answer can be found if you can think back to when this change first occurred. Was she sick? Was he teething? Did she learn a new skill like rolling, sitting up, walking, etc? Did you go on vacation? Chances are good that one of these things happened right around that same time.

Why should this matter, you ask? Well, this “regression” did not happen because your child was sick, teething, learned to roll, or went on vacation; it’s often caused because of how you responded when these things happened. If you changed what you would’ve normally done because of these events, then that’s all that he needed in order to change his responses now.

For example, let’s say your 12mo son got a cold. He wakes up at 2am, so you go in and check on him. He has a fever, so you give him some medicine. Now, what you should do is tuck him back in, say goodnight, and leave (a child who can self-soothe would let you leave with no crying); but being the loving parent that you are you feel bad that he’s sick so you take him to your bed to snuggle and to keep an eye on him. And then you do it again the next night because he’s still not feeling well. On the third night you decide he’s feeling well enough that he should be fine on his own again, however, he has other plans.

He’s decided that he prefers sleeping with you now instead of his crib and he’s ready to put up a good fight about it. And so begins your new, unwanted nightly routine. Believe it or not, it only takes 2-3 days to replace all of your child’s good sleep habits with these new, unwanted ones! You want to try to be very careful about how you respond to things so you’re not inadvertently creating new, bad habits. You want to try to treat the symptoms/issue without changing your normal responses. Remember, the cold may last a couple of days, but the sleepless nights can last for a very long time!

HOW TO AVOID “REGRESSIONS” ALTOGETHER

So what are new parents to do??? Well, if you can teach your baby the skills to self-settle in the first 3 months of their life, you will never have to worry about the 4th, 6th, 9th, 11th, 14th, or 36 month old regression! I know that’s easier said than done, which is why I offer support for what I call “sleep teaching” for newborns. When your baby is born they don’t have a preference or skill set for sleeping, so it’s something we parents teach them. Unfortunately, most parents don’t realize they’re teaching them to only fall asleep during a feed or in a swing until it’s too late. It’s so much easier to teach them these skills from early on instead of changing them later on (believe me, I should know since I had to sleep train my twins, but then I successfully used sleep teaching with my son when he was 3mos old).

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This is why I offer prenatal sleep (0-7wks) and newborn sleep (8wks-4mos) for sleep teaching and babies sleep (5mos-3yrs in a crib) and toddlers/prek sleep (2-5yrs in a bed) for sleep training! I can always help you with whatever the stage of “regression” you’re currently in, no matter your child's age! Learn more on my website at www.sleeptasticsolutions.com, or set up a FREE 15min phone assessment so we can talk about your child’s unique sleep situation!

This article was originally published at Sleeptastic Solutions. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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