Sleep Regression

What is a sleep regression? 

A sleep is regression occurs when your child who normally slept well starts resisting going to sleep, has trouble staying asleep either with night time sleep or naptime sleep and/or wakes up before 6 am.

Why do sleep regressions happen? 

 Any time you hear sleep regression, think growth and distraction.  Your child is growing physically or neurologically and that is distracting her from falling asleep and/or connecting sleep cycles in the night or at nap time.   Physical growth includes teething.  Neurological growth includes acquiring concepts, such as object permanence or motor acquisition such as rolling, hovering on all fours or pulling up to standing.  In a way, sleep regressions are a good thing as they represent growth and progress.  All babies and toddlers experience sleep regressions at one time or another. A sleep regression doesn’t mean that your child can’t sleep.  It just means that their mind is busy thinking about a new concept and that can distract them from sleeping.   Adults have mini sleep regressions all the time.  It could be due to a pending trip, important work presentation or an upcoming birth.  Anything that could distract you from sleeping.  

There are three systems that help regulate sleep.

  1.  The circadian rhythm.  This is associated with the sun and the hormones melatonin and cortisol to help regulate a 24 hour sleep cycle.
  2. The homeostatic system.  This is often referred to as sleep pressure and is associated with the body’s use of fuel for metabolism and the build up of a protein called adenosine that signals your brain when it’s time to sleep.
  3. The emotional cognitive system.  This is the idea that our emotions and thoughts can affect our sleep.  Distractions can impede our ability to all asleep or stay asleep. 

Types of Distractions Include:

  • Teething: Teething causes inflammation which causes pain.  Pain can distract someone from falling asleep.
  • Motor leaps.  Thinking about a new skill or wanting to practice a new skill such as rolling, hovering on all fours, pulling to standing or walking.
  • Environmental: 
    1. If the room is too bright in the morning or at nap time there can be visual distractions.  The purpose of black out curtains is to minimize visual distractions.
    2. If there are too many loud or sudden sounds.  The purpose of white noise is to block out household noises or morning birds that could be distracting.
    3. Room temperature matters.  Humans sleep better in slightly cooler rooms versus warmer rooms.  Too hot or too cold could distract a child from sleeping. 

Common Ages For Sleep Regressions 

Now that you understand that sleep regressions are associated with growth and distraction, you can see how they could happen at a variety of ages.  If your child gets teeth at 5 months, you might call that the 5 month sleep regression while your friend’s baby doesn’t get those same  teeth until 8 months and calls that the 8 month sleep regression. 

There are a few common times associated with developmental leaps:

  1.  The 4 month sleep regression. 

Your child learns object permanence.  The idea that you exist even though they can’t see you and calls for you more. This is the hardest regression for many people and this one can often linger for months. 

  1. The 9 month sleep regression.  Finally cementing object permanence and having a strong preference for a caregiver.  This is sometimes called separation anxiety.  They really like your company and can be rather clingy.
  2. The 18 month sleep regression.  Although this regression can hit as early as 13 months or as late as 18 months.  Our children start to be able to communicate more with pointing and sounds.  Often they are walking.  They start to exert their opinions on the world.  They are testing out cause and effect.  These regressions are related to Erik Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development. This can sometimes coincide with the arrival of the 1st year molars.  Common signs of teething molars include rosy cheeks, tugging on ears and fingers in mouth.
  3. 2 year old sleep regression.  This often presents as resistance to napping.  They do not want to miss out on the world. This can also sometimes coincide with the arrival of 2nd year molars. 

The good news about sleep regressions is that it doesn’t mean your child can’t sleep.  It means they can have a harder time falling asleep, may take shorter naps  and might wake up earlier than normal.  The other good news is that this will end in time.  How long depends on the cause of the regression.

Dr. Sarah Mitchell is a chiropractor by training but found her passion empowering parents to teach their little ones to sleep and parent confidently day and night.  She’s a thought leader in the baby sleep space and a sought after sleep consultant in silicon valley where she works with busy executive parents.  She’s the author of the Amazon Best selling book ‘The Helping Babies Sleep Method; The Art and Science of Teaching Your Baby to Sleep” and the creator of Helping Babies Sleep School.  She’s a proud member of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine.  Since 2013 she’s helped thousands of parents be loving, attached and well-rested.  A Canadian girl at heart, she currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a mother of two.

Dr. Sarah Mitchell, April, 2022