Ages & Stages

How to deal with sleep regression

Katrina Taibinger, Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Founder of Sleep Through Your Nights   |  16 May 2023


For many parents, the biggest challenge of having a baby or a young child is knowing how to get your child to sleep through the night.  And, once you’re bossing that, how to deal with sleep regression. Four month or 18 month, it’s a thing.

Like adults, children who are well-rested tend to have fewer dips in mood and energy throughout the day.  Whatever age your child is at, when they’ve slept well, they’re better equipped to tackle the day’s challenges: heaving their body up to standing, remembering to bring their violin and sports kit to school or trying their best on their school quiz.

At The Ribbon Box (sign up to our newsletter here), we know that parents of young children often lament over sleep regression.  But what is sleep regression?  How long does sleep regression last and what can be done to help your child sleep through the night?

Today, we’ve turned to Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Founder of Sleep Through Your NightsKatrina Taibinger, for expert advice on sleep regression.  As a certified sleep consultant, Katrina Taibinger works with families throughout Ontario and internationally, helping create healthy routines around sleep for the whole family.

Keep reading to find out things you didn’t know about sleep regression and how to manage it.

Over to Katrina

As a professional sleep consultant, I hear the term “regression” used in regard to just about every imaginable circumstance. Essentially, if baby doesn’t sleep well for a couple of nights, parents start dropping the ‘R’ word. Some people subscribe to the idea that there’s an 8 month regression, a 9 month regression, a 1 year regression, as well as teething regressions, growth spurt regressions, and so on. Others see these as simple hiccups caused by extenuating circumstances.

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What is a sleep regression?

A sleep regression is when your child’s sleep patterns shift, causing them to wake more frequently through the night and/or having a harder time falling back to sleep. Regressions are mostly related to developmental milestones (crawling, talking, walking) but can also be caused by a growth spurt or their brain developing.

Most people tend to see their baby’s sleep change for the first time around 4 months of age, and for good reason. It’s the real deal, and it’s permanent. So, in order to understand what’s happening to your baby during this stage, first you need to know a few things about sleep in general.

The science-y part

Many of us just think of sleep as an on-or-off situation. You’re either asleep or you’re not. But sleep actually has a number of different stages, and they make up the “sleep cycle,” which we go through several times a night.

Newborn babies only have two stages of sleep; stage three and REM, and they spend about half their sleep in each stage. But at around the third or fourth month, there is a reorganization of sleep, as they embrace the four-stage method of sleep that they’ll continue to follow for the rest of their lives. Therefore, making this more of what I like to call a “sleep progression” versus an actual sleep regression.

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Why does a baby go through a 4-month sleep regression?

The major contributor to this 4-month old fiasco, I find, is that up until this point, parents have been putting their baby to sleep with a pacifier, by rocking them or breastfeeding them, or some similar technique where baby is assisted along on the road to falling asleep.

That’s not to say that we want to prevent or avoid baby waking up. Waking up is absolutely natural, and we continue to wake up three, four, five times a night into adulthood and even more in old age.  As adults, however, we’re able to identify certain comforting truths that baby might not be privy to.

At this age babies lack critical thinking which is why when they wake up and they are no longer in their safe place of mom’s arms or feeding like they were when they initially fell asleep it causes them to cry out and looking for that external prop to help assist them back to sleep.

Implementing sleep training (which can take place at the 4-month mark) is a gentle approach that can teach your baby the tools and techniques needed for independent sleep and allow them to learn their own self soothing strategies.

What does sleep regression look like?

Commonly, a sleep regression will occur when your child is between 18-24 months and will be characterised by:

  • Protest at nap and/or bedtime
  • Your child takes a long time to fall asleep (longer than normal for them)
  • Naps are becoming shorter

Fortunately, there are a few things that you can try to help get over the sleep-regression hump.

How can I deal with my child’s sleep regression?

  1. Take your child out for hard play around 10am, for at least 20 minutes. By hard play I mean running around outside! If it’s raining or too cold, you can do the same inside (perhaps an obstacle course) – the key is to wear them out.
  2. Assuming naps are pretty in sync with most 18-24 month olds, sleep regression could just be developmental but you could try to tweak your baby’s nap time. Try putting them down at 12:30 (after some energy-draining play) and see if that helps. If not, try a later nap, like 13:15/13:30. Half past one is the latest I’d recommend. Try each one of these times for three to five days and see which nap time helps your child sleep better during the night.
  3. Nap lengths can also shorten around the age of 18-24 months. Assuming baby is a pretty solid 11-12 hour sleeper at night, they might just be needing less sleep during the day.
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How long does a sleep regression last?

Sleep regressions tend to last anywhere from 2-4 weeks so the most important things to remember are:

  • keep a predictable routine around sleep
  • stay consistent
  • don’t allow new sleep habits to creep in.

If your child has been a rockstar independent sleeper prior, they can and will be a rockstar independent sleeper again. If your child has been dependent on you to help get them to sleep then take this opportunity to teach them the skills they need to string those sleep cycles together, independently, prop-free, without any need for nursing, rocking, or pacifiers.

You’ll have given them a gift that they’ll enjoy for the rest of their young lives.

Related article: When should I transition my child from crib to big kid bed?

All children are different – and help is on hand

Of course, some kids are going to take to this process like a fish to water, and some are going to be a little more resistant. If yours falls into the former category, count yourself as lucky and take delight in your success.

For those of you in the latter camp, I’m happy to help in any way I can.

Just visit my website here or give me a call and we can work on a more personalized program for your little one. The most common thing I hear after working with clients is, “I can’t believe I waited so long to get some help!” So if you’re considering hiring a consultant, now is absolutely the time.

To get your little one sleeping through the night, book a free 15 minute evaluation call with Katrina here.

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