If your little one is suddenly cranky and a fussy sleeper, you might be experiencing what some call “a period of sleep regressions”.
Sleep regressions are a concept formulated by a popular theory that states that children go through periods of fussiness right before or in the middle of a developmental growth spurt. This concept has existed in the field of developmental psychology since the 1940s, but it was not until 1992 with Dr. Plooij’s paper about his work on this topic that it became more popular.
Supporters of this theory claim that sleep regressions are considered to be normal and they typically last between two to six weeks and occur during a baby’s first three years of life. During this time, you might notice changes in your baby’s habits including an increase in appetite, waking up frequently at night, taking shorter naps, or not wanting to sleep at all. Because of the lack of sleep, your baby might be fussy, cry more often, or cling to mom or dad.
Nonetheless, the evidence of why and when these regressions occur is still not very clear. On one hand, some experts state that the amount of data Dr. Plooij gathered for his paper was not enough to establish any conclusions. On the other hand, psychologists from the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and the Sleep Medicine and Research Center at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield agree that the most important question is not when regressions occur, but what to do about them. Keep in mind that not all babies experience sleep regressions and it’s important to know that development is different for every child.
How to deal with sleep regressions?
Here are a few guidelines to follow if you think your little one might be experiencing this:
During this time, a child becomes more engaged in the world around them. You might notice an increase in mobility, an elevated sense of curiosity, and a love for playing with adults. Your baby’s sleep cycles will also start to change. No more deep, restorative sleep; now, your baby will start to cycle in and out of active and deep sleep just like an adult. They might become startled when entering an active sleep stage, and since babies don’t know how to fall back asleep alone, they’ll begin to cry. Interrupted sleep is developmentally appropriate at this age, but here are some things you can do to help:
- Help your baby fall asleep with a soothing sensation like rocking or non-nutritive sucking. Avoid using a bottle for comfort as this can cause tooth decay and the potential for ear infections.
- Provide lots of attention when your baby is awake.
- Adopt a consistent sleep routine. Take a warm bath, read a story, sing a song, or massage your baby with lotion. Choose one or two consistent activities so your baby can begin associating them with sleep.
- Pay attention to signs of tiredness. This will give you the opportunity to put your baby to sleep before they become cranky.
Around this time, your little one will be learning how to roll, sit up, and play with objects. They might prefer certain people and want to be carried. Little by little, your baby is mastering skills and getting ready to develop new ones like the pincer grasp and crawling. Around the time of major developmental milestones, it’s common to see behavioral changes. After all, there’s a lot to learn. Who has time for sleep? All of this growth might make your baby hungrier and fussier so try to avoid overtiredness by watching for cues such as eye rubbing, yawning, and acting distracted or disinterested with others.
It’s an exciting time. Around 9 months, children start to experiment with different kinds of food, begin pulling themselves up, crawling, and reaching for toys. It’s important that you teach your little one how to sit down in case they wake up, stand, and don’t know how to get back down. Help your baby practice bending their knees and try to follow your bedtime routine as much as possible. Remember this is only temporary: extra snuggles, hugs, and kisses will go a long way.
Sleep regressions at 12 months
Your baby is getting buff! You’ll probably see a lot of squatting and climbing these days. Because your baby is on the move, they might resist nap time. And even though very soon your baby won’t need as much sleep, for now, babies should still nap for three hours each day.
During this time period, some children start learning to walk. The excitement of your baby’s first steps might mean your baby tries to avoid sleeping. But nap time is still important! Try setting the mood for bedtime with quiet activities like a bath or a lullaby. Be flexible and respond to what your little one needs. Some days your baby will nap once and other days twice. Your support and responsiveness will help regulate sleep cycles and emotions.
Around this time your toddler will be achieving exciting milestones like learning to use a spoon to eat. Your baby will love to run around, and you’ll notice them becoming more active and engaged during playtime. If your little one has experienced a sleep regression before it’ll be easy to recognize the signs: resistance to sleep, change in appetite, fussiness, and overtiredness. Despite a change in sleep habits, your baby still needs 13-14 hours of sleep. Usually, toddlers will sleep 11 hours at night and nap for two to three hours each day. It’s important that you keep offering time for naps.
Sleep regressions at 2 years
Times are changing. Your child now only needs two hours of sleep during the day and 11-12 hours of sleep at night. Two-year-olds are known to test boundaries and nap resistance is common. This is also the era of potty training, which will bring its own set of challenges. Consistency is key, so continue trying to provide a regular sleep schedule for your little one regardless of the many life changes.
If your child has started potty training, they might still wet the bed every once in a while. It’s important to make frequent bathroom trips during the day and help your child get used to wearing underwear. And don’t forget to make going potty part of your bedtime routine! At this age, your little one’s imagination is running wild, and they might start to get nightmares or get scared right before going to bed. This is normal. Just like adults, children work out confusing feelings and experiences through sleep. Try helping your little one understand their fears by talking about them during the day. Remember that a consistent bedtime and routine will make your little one feel safe and secure.
Whenever you think your child is experiencing a sleep regression, it’s going to take a lot of patience, love, and reassurance from you. Thankfully, sleep regressions usually last no more than six weeks, and, like most transitions, they will pass! We also recommend consulting with your pediatrician if you have any specific concerns or questions about this topic.
Sofia Martinez is a psychologist with a specialty in Early Childhood Development. She’s a certified yoga and meditation instructor, eager to share these techniques with kids and parents. Sofia has spent time working with kids and studying normal development as well as working with kids with special needs, understanding individuality in development. She wants to keep studying ECD so that Kinedu can scale its model to families across the globe.