While babies don’t have urgent work deadlines or TV cliffhangers keeping them up at night, they can be just as sleep deprived as adults come morning. But if it’s not the stress of day-to-day life causing them to toss and turn, what is? The answer goes way beyond dirty diapers.
As babies age, their new physical and mental capacities begin to take a toll on sleep, often resulting in a parent’s worst nightmare: sleep regressions. These unexpected periods of frequent awakenings and nap refusals can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, and have a lot to do with the rapid rate at which their brains are developing.
Sleep regressions can affect parents just as much as their babies. With countless ups and downs each night, it’s hard to get the deep sleep you need to be super-mom or dad the next day. Here’s how to navigate the four most common regressions to help your child sleep better so you can, too.
Four-Month Sleep Regressions
Unlike adults, who transition from light to deep sleep, infants typically fall into deep sleep immediately. This changes right around the four-month mark as a baby’s brain adapts to adult sleep cycles. As begin to experience lighter sleep, it becomes easier to wake up and harder to fall back asleep.
How to Help
- Watch for Sleep Cues: Your baby will hint that it’s time for a nap by yawning and fussing. When you notice these cues, find a quiet place for them to rest.
- Put Your Child to Bed Drowsy, Not Asleep: It’s important for infants to learn how to fall asleep independently. Sing a lullaby or gently rub your child’s back for a few minutes to soothe them in their crib. Then, quietly leave the room so they can drift off on their own.
- Establish a Routine: Whether it’s a warm bath or story time, find a routine and stick to it. It’ll become an indicator for your baby that it’s time to fall asleep.
Eight to 10-Month Sleep Regressions
Between learning how to crawl and stand, babies are discovering there’s much more to do inside the crib than just sleep. Bedtime can quickly turn into play time now that your child has the motor skills to sit up and look around. Babies also begin to understand object permanence, which often manifests itself as separation anxiety — making it harder to fall asleep without mom or dad in the room.
How to Help
- Provide Extra Reassurance: If your baby experiences separation anxiety, more snuggles before bed and nap time can go a long way. However, too much could make your child dependent. Try setting a time limit so you don’t overdo it.
- Practice New Skills Often: Allow them to crawl, scoot, and explore throughout the day. That way, they won’t have extra energy to practice at night.
18-Month Sleep Regressions
Children at this age begin rejecting naps and stalling bedtime. According to a 2015 study published in PLoS One, afternoon naps affect their circadian rhythm as they grow —meaning their bodies and brains might not be ready to shut down as early as they used to be.
How to Help
- Fine- Tune their Bedtime: To learn their new biological bedtime, keep a record of when you child falls asleep for a week. You can adjust the average time by gradually making their bedtime earlier so they don’t keep you up past your own.
- Offer a Bedtime Snack: Because growth spurts overlap with the 18-month mark, middle-of-the-night hunger may also keep your toddler up. Combat stomach rumbling with a high-protein bedtime snack like a scrambled egg or low-sugar yogurt.
24-Month Sleep Regressions
At this stage, toddlers are generally transitioning from cribs to beds and napping less throughout the day. But as their cognitive abilities grow, their imaginations produce new fears that intensify separation anxiety at night.
How to Help
- Set Some Ground Rules: Toddlers need boundaries, especially when it comes to sleep. Even if they claim they’re not tired, it’s important they lie down and rest their bodies at the nonnegotiable time you set.
- Soothe Nighttime Fears: A child’s vivid imagination can turn a rocking chair into a monster lurking in the dark. Try easing these fears with a stuffed animal or another comfort object.
One more piece of advice for parents: remember to be patient as you incorporate these tips into your day-to-day routine. A full-night’s rest might not be in your future anytime soon, but you can take advantage of quiet moments throughout the day to nap and self-care. Your body, brain, and baby will thank you for it.