Sleep Regression, Phase, or Habit – Which Is Causing Your Baby’s Sleep Problems?

sleep-regression-phase-habit

We’ve written quite a bit about sleep regressions on this site (in fact, Nicole herself was instrumental in coining that term!), and with good reason: your child goes through FIVE sleep regressions in the first year of life alone!

But how can you know for sure if something is a sleep regression?

How do you distinguish a sleep regression from a growth spurt?

What about a sleep regression vs. a funky phase that has no real explanation?

And, for that matter, how do you distinguish what seems like poor sleep due to a sleep regression from the kind of poor sleep that is the result of a newly-formed bad sleep habit?

Sleep Regression? Phase? Habit? How is a tired parent to tell the difference? Read on for answers!

Sleep Regressions – What You Need To Know

Before we launch into this article, it might be helpful to offer a bit of background information about sleep regressions.

One primary benefit we have over other parents is YOUR experience. What we mean by that is that, sure, everyone on The Baby Sleep Site® team has experience with our own children, but now that we’ve helped countless parents, we see patterns that most parents don’t have the luxury of seeing. We benefit from your experience and know the potential pitfalls to look out for; we glean these not only from our own experience as parents but from all of yours, too. It’s actually very interesting to put it all together!

Our experience tells us that MANY people will have sleep troubles around the same time:

  • 4 month old sleep regression – This is probably one of the biggest trouble spots for many new parents (though only some will consider it a sleep problem until 6 months, waiting for a baby to “get over it”). The way your baby sleeps fundamentally changes and it never changes back!
  • 8 month old sleep regression – This one is another big one, but doesn’t always happen in the eighth month. This can be around 8, 9, or 10 months and usually related to a lot of development going on with your baby. This usually gets better a few weeks later, though it’s easy to develop new long-term habits trying to deal with it.
  • 11-12 month old – We hear about this one fairly often but not enough to say it’s a “big” problem for all families. Around 11 months old, we have found that some babies will start fighting one or both naps and then it will pass 2-3 weeks later.
  • 18 month old sleep regression – This is a common age to hear from parents about their toddler’s sleep, usually related to napping, night waking, and testing limits or questions about discipline.
  • 2 year old sleep regression – Around this age, I find many parents writing to me about bedtime getting later, which is common at this age, especially in the summer.

These are all very common trouble spots and, as we always say, the biggest “danger” with these times is to make new long-term habits such that something that would have been temporary becomes a long-term sleep problem for you and your baby.

Are there other challenging times? You bet! The first two years (sometimes three) are difficult, regardless, but around 7 months, your baby begins developing separation anxiety, then there is teething, of course, and other issues like that come up here and there. Some will simply be more sensitive to all the changes than others.

Sleep Regression or Sleep Phase? How To Tell The Difference.

First, we should explain that a “sleep regression” has been a term that people have used to say “Sleep really messes up at this time, but don’t worry it will go back to normal.” But, a “regression” implies that something will go back to how it once was and, in that regard, it’s likely that only the “8-month sleep regression” fits the definition.

18 months is a close second, but if you aren’t careful, that strong independence-seeking stage can bleed into 2 and 3 years old and that’s a heck of a long “regression!”

Remember, at 4 months, your baby changes how he sleeps and while some will then begin to sleep better without you changing anything, he will never sleep the way he did when he was a newborn.

By contrast, at 8 months, this is generally a “blip” due to rapid development and the simple inability to sleep with so much going on in their minds. As long as you don’t inadvertently make some new long-term habits, your baby most likely will get past this in 3 to 6 weeks and go back to how he was sleeping before. If it was bad before, though, that may not be very desirable!

Every other “blip” in your baby’s sleep we would call a “phase.” Generally speaking, there are two distinct causes for a sleep phase: either your child is working on a new developmental milestone (whether you can see it or not), or your child’s external environment is changing in some way that impacts sleep.

Now, sleep regressions happen due to development – but not all development is linked to a full-blown sleep regression.

Your baby learns a LOT in a short amount of time! Just to name a few, they learn names of objects, how to roll, crawl, pull up, stand up, sign language, and/or hand gestures, walk, talk, object permanence, eat, cause and effect, and so on. And, there are likely lots of “little” things we don’t even see that can cause sleep phases. All of that can make some babies feel unsettled, insecure, happy, tired, over-tired, excited, over-stimulated or all of the above! No wonder they can’t sleep, sometimes!

By contrast, some sleep phases can be caused by a disruption to your child’s usual environment.

For example, welcoming a new baby into your home and/or moving to a new house can both cause major sleep disruptions! Sleep tends to derail for a bit in both cases. Similarly, if you take a vacation, you can expect your child’s sleep to fall apart for a bit. And illness falls into this category, too; when your child is sick, you’ll have a rough sleep phase for awhile!

What About Sleep Habits? How Do Those Differ From Sleep Regressions and/or Sleep Phases?

There is no black and white as far as when you have a sleep regression, phase, or a habit, but our general rule of thumb is to wait 2-3 weeks to see what happens. If you have an abrupt sleep change, try to give your baby 2-3 weeks to see if something reveals itself. It could be a new tooth or a new “trick” or even an illness a few days later.

There is no reason to feel alarmed that something has changed in those first 2-3 weeks. But if, after 2-3 weeks, you are still dealing with the exact same issues – in other words, if the sleep problem has “stuck” – then that’s when we tend to tell people to treat the sleep issues as new habits, and to take action.

Now, we’ve been assuming, so far, that your baby was sleeping well and then suddenly wasn’t.

But if your baby wasn’t sleeping well before and then sleeping gets even worse, that would be another reason to start working on sleep sooner rather than later.

Sleep may not become “perfect” until a sleep regression is over, for example, but it could be a whole lot better if your baby WAS waking 3 times per night and is now waking 6-8 times per night, which is excessive even for a sleep regression.

In the end, you know your baby best and, although you may be a new mom or on your third baby and forgot everything from your younger one(s), your instincts will guide you more than you think. As soon as you start to feel resentment or that you can barely function or, worse, your baby can barely function, it’s likely time to do something about it.

Although it may be your fault your baby won’t sleep, it doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Only some babies will eventually grow out of their sleep problems. We work with parents of toddlers all the time still waiting for their baby to grow out of the same sleep problems they had at 4 months old!

How do YOU decide if your baby is going through a sleep regression, a phase, or a new sleep habit? Scroll down to share your tips and stories, to ask questions, and to hear from other parents like you!

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18 thoughts on “Sleep Regression, Phase, or Habit – Which Is Causing Your Baby’s Sleep Problems?”

  1. My baby is 4 months old. She would sleep well in her crib and wake up 1-2 at night. Once fed she would fall asleep instantly. However She’s been struggling to fall sleep and stay asleep for the last few days and would only sleep in my bed I guess because she calms down with our smell. She could sleep in my bed forever. Could that be 4 months regression? She seems very nervous in her crib like if something would bother her.

    • Hi @Ania, I’m sorry you’ve recently started experiencing difficulties with your daughter’s sleep! It is certainly possible it is the 4 month sleep regression. 1-3 wake ups for feedings are normal at this age as they are still growing at such a rapid pace, but anything beyond that may be a result of the regression. Here is a link to download a free guide with tips to help your baby sleep through the night: https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-through-night-free-ebook/
      Again, I will mention that lots of babies don’t actually sleep through at this age, but the guide will give you tips on how to get her on an age appropriate schedule for sleep. If you need more help working through this, let us know! We are here to help.

  2. Hi. Is it possible to go through sleep regression at the age of 3 months? She slept well in her first and second month (1-3 times) but she started to wake up every hour in her 3 month!!!

  3. My daughter, who is 18 months and has never been a good sleeper (overnight or naps), seems to be going through a regression. I know a big part is teething (all 4 canines!), because this is similar to what we went through with her molars coming in (all 4 within a month), but this seems to be so much worse.

    Before the molars (which was around 16 months), she was down to only waking up 1-3 times most nights. She has a pretty consistent bedtime routine which hasn’t changed much since she was maybe 4 months old, and is usually asleep between 730 and 830. She wakes up for good between 630 and 7 most days. She has finally been taking good naps at daycare (1 to 1 1/2 hours after lunch); she used to only sleep for maybe 30 minutes on the way to daycare, 45 minutes at daycare, and maybe 30-45 minutes on the way home. She combined the naps into one maybe 2 months ago.

    She still uses a pacifier, but mostly when her teeth hurt or she is sleepy. She’s been slowly weaning herself during the day and often only has it at naptime when at daycare during the week. I plan on working more forcefully to get rid of it once her canines are all in. I do rock her to sleep, which I don’t mind doing till she’s 3 or so; I did that with my son and then transitioned to patting his back while he fell asleep, then only patting his back for a certain amount of time. He is 9 and sleeps great, so I’m not worried about that part too much. When she wakes up, sometimes all she needs is her pacifier and a little back rub, other times it’s some milk to drink, and other times it’s just a snuggle for a few minutes. I’m usually not up for more than 10 minutes each time, but when she wakes up 4-6 times a night, it’s rough. I would be happy with getting back to 1-2 times, as I am able to function very well with that much sleep.

    Tradition sleep training isn’t really an option; she is just like my son and won’t actually cry herself to sleep. She just cries and cries until she gets too worked up and then vomits.

    I have found that she does well with small, gradual changes. For example, I started switching from a bottle to a sippy cup during her middle of the night drinks once I was confident she knew how to use it well. It took a couple weeks, but she went from sippy cup only sometimes during the day to only sippy cup with very little fussing. If you bring too much attention to the change, she bucks against it quite hard.

    I would greatly appreciate any advice you have!

    • Hi @Jacqueline, thank you for writing to us! I recently went through the all 4 molars coming in at the same time with my son, so trust me when I say I understand how you’re feeling! I am sorry to hear it’s been a struggle for your daughter’s sleep. You may want to check out our free guide available on how to help your child sleep through the night and see if there are any tips in there that you haven’t tried yet: https://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-through-night-free-ebook/ Here at the Baby Sleep Site we have much knowledge on sleep training that goes beyond crying it out, so if you decide you need more help our sleep consultants would love to work with you on this – and you can know that they will be happy to create a plan for helping your daughter sleep better on her own with the least amount of crying. If you’re interested in that, you can view the options to work with a consultant here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-toddler-sleep-consulting-services/
      Hang in there and I hope this passes quickly!

  4. Thank you Danielle, always nice to know things are “normal” even if they are difficult. My perception is probably skewed since my first was such a rock star sleeper.

    I tried dropping the top off feed for a week and he keeps waking up between 9:30 and 11 every night and eating really well. The 1am feed is less robust so I may use some gentle sleep training along with pushing it back to try and merge it with the 4am feed somewhere in the middle and see how it goes. He falls asleep easily at the start of the night after nursing and needs minimal soothing to fall back asleep when he wakes (most of the time), but usually needs either the pacifier or a few pats on the back. It’s gotten a little easier since he learned to roll on his side in the past week or so.

    I will definitely focus my efforts on nap training and trying to avoid sleep deprivation during the week. I can usually get two extra 30-45 minute naps in if I commute on foot with him in the carrier rather than get a ride in the car (we live in the city and are a one car family). That way during the week he gets more rest and during the weekends I can focus on crib naps on a more set schedule etc.

    Thank you so much for your comments and all the wonderful information on this site!

    • Hi Sarah,
      So nice to hear back from you! I’m glad the information was helpful, and your plan sounds great. He’s very young yet, and it sounds like you’re helping him develop a solid schedule and encouraging him gently to learn to fall asleep on his own. Those are great foundations and will help both of you a lot as he’s learning 🙂 Hang in there, and do get in touch if we can be of further help!

  5. Hi, I have been thinking for about 6 weeks now that my 18 month old was just going through a sleep regression, but from reading your article it should only take 2-3 weeks.
    We’ve gone back to control crying these last 6 weeks, only going in after 30mins but by then he’s normally asleep.

    Controlled crying worked well at 10 months, and since this time he’s mostly self settled easily and always sleeps 11hrs a night.

    On occasion now we’ve tried other things, as I thought it might be separation anxiety. Have tried sitting in the room silently but after a while he just starts playing! Have also tried leaving a night light on, or the door open, but neither seem to have worked.

    My husband said tonight ‘I just want him to go to bed happily’. Should he still be crying every night, even if its 10 -15mins? It’s so upsetting. We have a pretty good bed time routine, with reading in his room before bed.

    Love to hear any suggestions you might have.

    Megan

    • Hi Megan,
      Thank you for using The Baby Sleep Site as a resource! I’m sorry to hear you’re having some trouble at bedtime. If it’s just that your son is crying a bit at bedtime before sleeping, then that can be normal. Some babies do just cry at bedtime, sometimes for a couple of months, to release tension and calm themselves down. This does usually stop eventually as they grow and develop different methods of self-soothing. However, if your son seems very upset, or he’s waking a lot at night and crying every time, there might be more going on. For example, if bedtime is too early or too late, many babies will cry excessively and experience more night waking. We’d be happy to help you troubleshoot further, if you’d like to write us with a little more information about his day-to-day schedule and whether he’s waking at night: [email protected] . Good luck with everything!

  6. I love this site and it’s been helpful for both of my sons (3.5yrs and 19 weeks) my oldest was one of those dream kids who could self soothe vis thumb sucking and slept 8hrs after a 10pm top off feed by 12 weeks. My youngest not so much.

    He’s big (9lb at birth, 16lb10oz now) and loves to eat. As a newborn he ate 12-13 times per 24hrs. He’s breastfed exclusively and gets expressed milk at daycare. He knew night from day and links sleep thankfully but is often waking every 3-4 hours at night or more. Still! Up until 10 weeks that first block was getting longer (consistently 5-6hrs).

    Since then it’s been all over the place and in the last few weeks I rarely get a stretch more than four hours. I started doing a dream feed when he started waking more often in the night but it doesn’t seem to have helped. With it he gets 9 feeds per 24 hours. Bedtime feed at 7:30, top off at 10, then he’s up around 1, 4, and 7:30 for good. I’ve been back at work since 12 weeks and his napping at daycare is awful (2-3 30m naps tops). The first week he was so exhausted he slept 9hours twice! Not so much any more.

    I don’t know if it’s habit or age/leaps or severe over tiredness or cortisol laced breast milk because I’m stressed from working and not sleeping and also having a preschooler to tend to. Our pediatrician recommended solids, but I’m hesitant since his growth has been rock solid, but then again he’s eating overnight a bunch. He eats every 2-3 hours during the day, usually no more than 2.5 hours between feeds.

    I don’t know if I should be sleep training, nap training on weekends (can’t do much about daycare), self soothing training, or what. He has fixed wake up and bed times at least. He nurses to sleep at night but often opens his eyes when I put him in the crib and most often just goes back to sleep. We weaned from the swaddle over the last two weeks because he’s rolling to his sides to sleep.

    Any advice? Is it habit waking or a schedule issue or just him? I’m at a loss and exhausted.

    • Hi Sarah,
      Thank you so much for being a dedicated reader at The Baby Sleep Site! We sincerely appreciate it 🙂
      I’m sorry to hear you’re having some trouble with your son’s sleep. I hate to say it, but it sounds like he’s actually in the normal range for night feedings at his age. For a 4-5 month-old baby, we do sometimes still see 4 feedings a night, and that can be normal. We have a chart on average night feedings by age here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/baby-night-feedings-age-chart/
      We do usually recommend moving away from a fill-up feed at this age (unless it’s helping you dramatically, which it doesn’t sound like is this case for you), because it can actually interfere with developing that longer first stretch of sleep at night after about 3 months-old. If you feel like he’s waking up out of habit at 1AM and is not truly hungry, you can try pushing back the feed by half an hour or so every couple of nights, and see if you can stretch out that first sleep, but whether it works will really just depend on your son. Sleep training might help if he’s not falling asleep on his own at the beginning of the night, but if he is, and he’s putting himself back to sleep at night when he’s not hungry, he may not get anything out of sleep training for nights. Nap training on the weekends, though, might be helpful for extending his naps, and often fixing naps will improve night sleep over the long term.
      I hope this helps, but if you’d like more help troubleshooting, please do email us at [email protected], and we’d be happy to connect you to some more resources. Good luck!

  7. Thanks so much for your reply. I think now that he has calmed down from whatever spurt was causing his crazy behavior, he is probably ready to practice falling asleep on his own. He continues to put himself back to sleep in the middle of the night and sometimes early in the morning, so I think he can do it.

    I’m inclined to keep carrying him and bouncing him to sleep for his naps to make sure he isn’t overtired. When he takes too many 30 minute naps (which is all he’ll sleep for if in his crib), he gets so tired and cries a lot at bedtime. When he is well rested, bedtime is much easier – but this means him napping mostly in his carrier. (I’m OK with it for now…but not for the next year!!)

    Would you suggest in our case working on the night sleep first? Or trying to tackle everything at once? I’m sure he has a pretty solid habit of napping in his carrier at this point. But it’s where he sleeps the best!

    • Hi Rebecca,
      Thanks for letting us know how it’s going! I’m so glad to hear that the regression is easing a bit for you. For a baby as young as your son, working on nights first often goes better for the whole family. It can be pretty common that naps won’t consolidate and be longer until closer to 6 months-old, but night sleep usually comes together earlier, so I think your instinct is a good one. We have a good chart that explains what to expect from naps as your baby grows here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/naps/baby-naps-chart-how-many-how-long/
      Once you’ve got night sleep down and your son is a little older, it will be easier to work on lengthening naps out and getting him in the crib. I hope that helps, and good luck!

  8. Hello, my 4 month old seemed to hit this regression right on time. Prior to this, he would sleep very well at night, needing to nurse only once in the 11 hours he was in bed (from between 7-8pm until between 6-7am). For a week, starting just before 4 months old, he woke up every couple of hours and needed to be rocked or nursed back to sleep at night.

    We have seen a big improvement by itself in his night sleep; after a week, he is now back to waking only once or twice at night. However, he will not go to sleep by himself – he needs to be nursed and/or rocked. Naps are worse; he fights sleep and will often not go to sleep unless in his Ergo carrier, which I have been using for every nap to keep him from getting overtired. Sometimes I can nurse him to sleep and transfer him to his crib, but he will sleep for 30 minutes maximum in there.

    There was a short time in which we could put him in his crib at night awake, but close to sleep, and have him go to sleep on his own, but he is unwilling to do that now. I am nervous that his night wakings are going to come back, since he is always snuck into his bed at night, and my husband and I would like to teach him to go to sleep on his own. However, we do not want to let him cry too much. Each time we try to take a gentle approach, getting him close to sleep and then putting him down barely awake, fussing escalates into full-blown crying/screaming very quickly. We are unable to console him with just a hand on him, or patting, he wants to be held and rocked.

    We have a consistent bedtime routine and are following all other gentle techniques you suggest; however his nap schedule varies somewhat throughout the day as the time he wakes up has about an hour of variability.

    I guess my question is, should we wait to coach him to sleep on his own until he gets a bit more mature? Or should we be prepared to deal with very hard crying? We would like to avoid the crying; however don’t want to make it worse by waiting until he is older. We did let him cry himself to sleep once, and he cried for 2 bouts of 4 minutes each before he was asleep. I do not think this is very much crying, but it was distressing and we would like to avoid it. Fussing is OK, but unfortunately our son gets hysterical almost right away. Thanks in advance for your advice!

    • Hi Rebecca,
      I’m sorry to hear that your family is going through this regression, though I’m glad to hear that your son’s night wakings have already decreased! Your description of the symptoms sounds pretty typical of the 4 month regression, though it can be an exhausting, tough time for everyone. We do tend to recommend sleep training right around 4 months (for healthy babies born on time) for a few reasons, which you can read more about here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/baby-sleep-training-best-time/
      Of course, the best decision will depend on your baby’s personality and your family’s needs. We completely understand wanting to reduce the crying, and often sleep training around 4 months will result in less crying overall than sleep training later on. And sometimes, a small amount of crying can lead to better sleep overall, which we talk about here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/baby-crying-sleep/
      We do have information on no-cry sleep training here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/sleep-training-from-no-cry-to-cry-series-part-1/
      -as well as in all of our ebooks, and that’s certainly something our sleep consultants can guide you through as well, if you need more personalized help. I hope these links will help, and good luck! Thanks for visiting The Baby Sleep Site!

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