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How to Survive a Sleep Regression: What Every Parent Should Know

How to Survive a Sleep Regression: What Every Parent Should Know

Guest Post By Genevieve Kane, MSN, RN

Sleep often feels in short supply as a parent or caregiver. There are several reasons for disrupted sleep, such as colds, other illnesses and teething. One likely culprit of disrupted sleep is sleep regression.

Sleep regressions happen during infancy as babies grow and develop and continue into toddlerhood. While they are an expected part of infant and toddler development, that doesn’t make them any less challenging to navigate. If you find your little one in a disrupted sleep pattern, suddenly waking up several times throughout the night, consider the possibility of a sleep regression.

First, it’s important to understand what sleep regression is. Next, consider some of the tactical methods we provide for how to survive a sleep regression. We hope that these tips will help you and your little one overcome their sleep regression, so you all can get back to a good night’s rest.

Sleep Regression:

What is Sleep Regression?

To survive a sleep regression, it is essential to understand what they are and why they happen. Cleveland Clinic explains that while babies sleep a lot, only some of that sleep is consolidated, consecutive hours.

And as babies grow and develop, their sleep patterns change. Initially, explains the Cleveland Clinic, babies spend a lot of time in deep sleep. However, eventually that pattern changes to include cycles of light and deep sleep—more similar to what you’d find in an adult’s sleep pattern. During these lighter sleep phases, babies may be more prone to waking.

So, you may have an excellent little sleeper who can go for eight hours overnight. But then your baby may need to learn how to peacefully go back to sleep when they cycle through their lighter sleep phases.

The most well-known sleep regression is the one that often happens around four months old. However, sleep regressions also occur throughout a baby and toddler’s growth and often coincide with times of rapid physical growth and mental growth as babies reach new developmental milestones. For example, you may notice a sleep regression happen before your little one learns to crawl or walk for the first time.

 Sleep regressions can also happen as part of an illness. If your child is congested, symptomatic care such as nasal suction with the NozeBot or a cool-mist humidifier can help.

 While sleep regressions can be challenging, regardless of the cause, most only last for a week or two, however, it can feel like a long week when you’re not getting rest. So here are a few tips for how to survive a sleep regression.

How to Survive a Sleep Regression: What Every Parent Should Know

Keep Routines the Same During a Sleep Regression

Now is a great time to start if you don’t already have a regular nap and nighttime routine. Nighttime routines don’t need to be elaborate, and often the simpler, the better. For example, for an infant, the routine may start 45 minutes for bed and include a bottle or nurse, followed by wiping down their gums, stories and a snuggle, clean diaper, sleep sack or swaddle, sound machine on, lights out, and into their crib.

 A toddler routine may look similar, except typically, by the toddler stage, they no longer take a bottle and may or may not nurse. Instead, their routine may start by being offered a snack and brushing their teeth with an adult’s help. Then snuggles and stories, an overnight diaper, sleep sack or tuck into bed or crib, and lights out.

Whether it’s an infant sleep regression or a toddler sleep regression, keeping a routine the same is a great method for how to survive a sleep regression.

During an Infant Sleep Regression Emphasize Comfortable Sleep

An infant doesn’t have the same sense of self-awareness as a toddler. So while a toddler may be afraid of the dark or struggle with being separated from their parent or caregiver for sleep, an infant’s needs are often different.

Children’s Health describes ways to create a comfortable sleep environment for your infant. This includes:

  • A cool sleep environment (i.e. not too warm)
  • Darkening the room (consider blackout curtains and only a dim nightlight if you choose to use one)
  • No screen time
  • A white noise machine

Other considerations for comfortable sleep you may consider are:

  • Properly fitting clothing that isn’t too loose for safety reasons, but also not too snug
  • Swaddling if age and developmentally appropriate
  • Placing your child to bed awake instead of transferring them asleep so they aren’t startled by waking up somewhere they didn’t fall asleep

 While a comfortable sleep environment won’t necessarily prevent an infant sleep regression, it helps eliminate other causes of poor sleep. An appropriate and safe sleep environment, combined with a consistent nighttime routine, helps your baby understand when it is time to go to sleep and can help you survive their sleep regression.

How to Survive a Sleep Regression

During a Toddler Sleep Regression Enforce Appropriate Boundaries

In contrast, a toddler's sleep regression looks different from one with a newborn. By the toddler stage, your child can likely talk to you, may be able to express their opinions clearly, and may also be able to get out of their bed to come to find you.

 Phoenix Children’s Hospital explains that sleep regressions are common in toddlers from 18-24 months of age. Toddlers at this age may begin to develop separation anxiety, a fear of the dark, and may also start to experience and describe nightmares.

 Many parents find emphasizing comfort, reassurance, and boundaries helpful to surviving a toddler sleep regression. This can look like having a toddler help with the bedtime routine. For example, let them pick their bedtime story and turn on the white noise machine or nightlight if you use these items. In addition, some find an ok to wake light useful in helping toddlers know if it is time to get out of bed.

 While it may be tempting to bring your toddler into bed with you or run into their room as soon as you hear them cry, consider enforcing some boundaries to help your child sleep independently. For example, if you hear your little one cry, give them a minute to see if they will settle themselves before intervening. If you let your toddler into your bed or come to get them at every peep, chances are it will be a challenging habit to break post-sleep regression.

 However, everyone’s parenting style differs, and you know yourself and your child best. Whichever boundaries you choose to enforce, just be sure they are ones you feel comfortable and confident with. 

Looking for more tips on dealing with sleep and self care? You’ll find these helpful:

Remember to Take Care of Yourself

Of all the sleep regressions that may happen, the most famous is the four-month sleep regression. This sleep regression can be particularly challenging for moms who work outside of the home as it often coincides with their return to work—which is a tough transition in and of itself.

Whether it is the famous four-month sleep regression or one of the many other sleep regressions that can happen, remember to take care of yourself in order to survive a sleep regression. Many parents and caregivers agree that one of the hardest parts of raising a child is lack of sleep!

Treat yourself to a cup of good coffee or tea, take a hot bath to unwind, exercise, eat healthily, and catch a nap if possible. It is essential to take care of yourself so you have the energy to care for your little one. And, hopefully, if you stick to a consistent baby or toddler-friendly routine, your little one will be back to their regular sleep pattern in no time!

If they aren’t and the disruptive sleep continues for weeks, consider checking in with your child’s healthcare provider to rule out any medical reasons for poor sleep.

Genevieve Kane, MSN, RN, is a mother of four and a registered nurse with a background in pediatrics. When she's not working, you can find her cooking up tasty family dinners or keeping up with her kids on a hiking trail in her home state of Colorado.

A clear nose means better sleep.

The Nozebot is a battery-powered suction device designed to clear nasal congestion in babies and children.

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