One day, your baby is falling asleep easily, and dozing through doorbells, ringtones, and barking dogs. The next day, and the day after that, everything seems to wake her up.
Nights change. Literally, over night.
They go from predictable to difficult: from waking only to feed to waking every hour after midnight for no apparent reason. Your sweet angel is fussy, grumpy, and clearly tired, but nothing you can do will convince him to sleep!
You’re beyond scratching your head. You’re ready to pull your hair out! What has happened to your easy-sleep baby?
No need to panic, fellow parents.
You have entered the not-so-phenomenal phenomenon known as sleep regression, and it’s just one of many big developmental milestones that your baby hits in her first year of life.
Let’s take a look at sleep regression – what it is, why it happens, how long it lasts, and how you can survive it together.
So, what exactly is sleep regression?
First of all, let’s go over what exactly this phenomenon is and why it happens.
At around the age of 6 months, a baby’s sleep pattern changes. This can occur as early as three months or as late as six months. Premature babies will be age adjusted according to their due date.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, a change in REM sleep cycles occurs. This change means that your sweet child goes from sleeping in deep sleep most of the time to cycling back and forth between deep sleep and light sleep.
Although 2/3 of infants will continue to sleep well through the night, others will begin to wake frequently.
Even though it’s a normal milestone that all babies go through, what you end up experiencing is a period of transition. Transition means change, and babies generally don’t like change.
Change equals grumpiness, and grumpiness equals exhausting days (and nights) for everyone.
To sleep deeply, lightly, or not at all
As a baby’s brain matures, they begin to cycle between deep and light sleep. At one time, you passed your sleeping doll from one set of arms to another without fear. Your newborn quickly and easily entered deep sleep, and it was easy for them to remain asleep.
As your child develops an adult-like pattern with cycles of light sleep and deep sleep, things change. Significantly. Your baby takes longer to get to sleep, and, when they do fall asleep, they do not immediately enter deep sleep like they used to.
Deep sleep occurs after about 30 minutes of light sleep. And, during those 30 minutes, or during any period of light sleep, sounds that previously didn’t bother her now wake her up. If your child startles while in a light sleep cycle, he will probably wake himself up and may not know how to get back to sleep.
That is the real issue here. Your job is to help your baby learn how to fall back asleep when he or she wakes during a light sleep cycle. Try explaining that to a four month old!
Adult sleep patterns
An adult cycles through deep sleep and light sleep (also known as Rapid Eye Movement or REM) between four to six times during a typical night. Each cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes. An infant’s deep and light sleep cycle is about an hour long.
We are usually not aware of waking up during our light sleep cycles. Sometimes, we won’t even remember night time bathroom visits the next morning. We have learned how to roll over and go back to sleep. The Cleveland Clinic describes normal stages of sleep how deep sleep varies with age.
Other causes of night time waking
There are additional reasons that your infant no longer sleeps through the night. The most common reason I see in practice is teething pain. The first tooth erupts between the ages of 6 to 12 months, although teething signs can develop a few months prior. During this phase, your infant will feel discomfort, especially when the body is still during sleep. Painful teeth movement under the gums can result in the baby waking and crying every hour for several consecutive nights. This can be a particularly challenging phase for both infants and parents.
A more concerning cause of frequent waking is illness. If there is an upper respiratory infection, the excess nasal congestion can disturb sleep. Crying and discomfort during sleep may be the sign of a fever or an ear infection. If your baby has any of these symptoms, you should consult a doctor.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
How to deal with your child’s new sleeping problems.
So, how can we help our babies learn to go back to sleep and not wake after every hourly sleep cycle?
Hold tight, I have a few tips that will give you hope as you struggle to help your baby learn the etiquette of sleep over the next few months.
Sleep, Eat, Play, Repeat
My first piece of advice is to stick to a predictable schedule. By schedule, I don’t mean following a clock. The schedule that I followed with my infants gradually made nap times and bed times easier.
After they would wake up, I’d get them ready to eat. If they have cried at all before falling asleep, it might mean a good burp was needed.
Most hungry babes won’t tolerate sitting on your lap to be burped, so take a quick walk around with them on your shoulder.
Clinically, I find that the best burping positions are by either holding the baby against a shoulder or by lying belly down across your lap. In the latter position, you may want to put a burp cloth across your lap first to catch any spit ups. These positions relax the outer abdominal muscles and enable more effective burping.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
After a full feeding, it’s play time! Interact with your sweet one and reward him or her with lots of face time and eye contact. Night time feedings follow another set of rules. But, during the day, offer as much appropriate and varied stimulation as possible.
Here are some additional tips from the Mayo Clinic.
Watch for Sleepy Cues
As play time winds down, keep an eye out for signs that your baby is getting tired. Some of these are:
- avoiding eye contact with you
- rubbing their eyes
- loss of interest
- and yawning
Don’t let them get too tired. An over tired baby is much harder to get to sleep than a baby that has just started rubbing her eyes.
You don’t want to wait for the crying to start. Before the third yawn, head to the crib to avoid a complete meltdown.
A well-rested child of any age has a much easier time falling sleep.
The ideal sleeping room.
Create the ultimate sleep space for your baby. White noise, such as a fan, blocks out or muffles noises, especially during the day. You can even get a white noise sound machine made specifically for this purpose.
Keeping the room as dark as possible will also encourage your baby to sleep and stay asleep. He or she will learn that darkness is associated with sleep.
Keep the room at a comfortably cool temperature and dress your baby accordingly. It is usually best to have the room on the cool side for at any infant age.
If you are concerned about your infant becoming too cold, a thick onsie or sleep sack will solve this issue. Blankets are not recommended under the age of 12 months due to the risk of SIDS. The exception to this is if you are swaddling your baby. Once he or she can get out of a swaddle, no blankets should be used in the crib.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Have your baby’s crib free from as many distractions as possible when it’s sleep time. After they fall asleep, you may want to put one or two child-safe toys back into their crib with the hope that they will learn that waking up isn’t a bad thing.
The perfect night time routine
You may think that starting a night time routine with your infant is trivial, especially when she is likely to wake up in only a few hours. However, creating a familiar bedtime routine is one of the best ways to differentiate day time naps from bedtime sleeps.
A good night time routine will have three or four things consistently. For some little ones, you will need to get them in the right order every single time or they can’t sleep! You may need to play around with this during the earlier months to find what works best for you and your child.
- pajamas and a clean diaper
- read a book and cuddle
- brush teeth
- sing a song with more cuddles and kisses
- a top-off feeding
- then into bed
Nemour’s Hospital further discusses the importance of a bedtime routine.
It helps to put your baby to bed at the same time every night. However, when he or she is only a few months young, following a bedtime routine consistently will gradually help you both learn what time that will be. Consistency is the key to healthy sleep habits.
How to deal with night-time wakeups.
Night time wake-ups are unavoidable. When they happen, there are things you should do – or avoid doing – in order to help your baby avoid day time and night time mix up:
- Avoid turning on bright lights. Use only a dim light when absolutely necessary.
- Don’t speak to them, but hum a quiet song.
- Avoid direct eye contact.
- Don’t change diapers unless they’re dirty or very wet. Consider going up one diaper size at night to account for that.
- Feed them and put them back to bed as soon as you can.
When all else fails…
Sleep Regression can be a very difficult transition for parents and babies. When your little one fights sleep and ends up grumpy and irritable all day and all night, it is exhausting for everyone.
Consider the tips I’ve suggested to help your baby learn good sleep habits. I’ve used these tips for my five children, and, although my first four babies slept through the night in six hour chunks by the age of four months, my fifth baby reminded me that I didn’t know it all.
If all else fails, ask for help. Don’t struggle on your own for too long. Have someone take your baby out for a walk so you can catch up on some missed sleep. Or, ask someone to do house work and prepare meals for you. Rest as much as you can.
And, take comfort in the fact that your baby will eventually learn how to roll over and sleep on his or her own. Your patience with teaching good sleep habits will eventually pay off.