We have written so much about sleep regressions here at The Baby Sleep Site®. SO MUCH. So so so so so much:
- 4 month sleep regression (and here and here)
- 8/9/10 month sleep regression
- 12 month sleep regression
- 18 month sleep regression (and here)
- 2-year sleep regression
Now, there’s a reason for all of these sleep regression articles… There are no less than FIVE sleep regressions within your child’s first 2 years of life. That is a lot of problematic, headache-inducing, exhaustion-producing regressions to deal with! So understandably, parents need resources to learn more about these stages and to learn how to cope with them.
Are Sleep Regressions Even Real?
But here’s something funny: every once in a while, a client emails us a link to an article or video by one sleep consultant or another who claim that sleep regressions don’t exist. These sleep consultants call them “myths.” Some sleep consultants even posit that the term “sleep regression” is one we parents have coined to “get us off the hook” when sleep derails, and to help us shift the “blame” for bad sleep onto our babies.
Needless to say, this isn’t a line of thought that we support here. We also thought it was time to write an article to “debunk the debunking” of sleep regressions.
Sleep Regressions: What Are They Again?
Let’s establish a working definition of the term “sleep regression” before we get started. We’ve shared this definition before, but it seems helpful to share it again now: a sleep regression describes a period of time (anywhere from 1 – 4 weeks) when a baby or toddler who has been sleeping well suddenly starts waking at night, and/or skipping naps (or waking early from naps) for no apparent reason.
Now, I would add that the “no apparent reason” is just that. It’s usually not an apparent reason. The underlying reasons for these regressions are almost always developmental. Your child is learning a new skill, going through a period of brain growth or development, becoming more socially aware, developing the capacity for imaginative bedtime fears, etc. You may be able to observe the cause of some regressions. (If your child is learning to walk, for instance, and is not sleeping well, it’s pretty easy to trace the cause!) But some regressions are caused by development that is all but invisible to us parents.
Sleep Regressions: Very Real, Generally Very Time-able, and Somewhat Research-Supported
So are sleep regressions real? Our answer to that is a big fat YES. Yes, sleep regressions are real. And while the term “sleep regression” may be one that we parents have come up with after decades and decades of observing the same sleep challenges at the same stages of development, research is beginning to catch up and to bear this out. For example, did you know….
- ….that a 2015 study confirms that learning to crawl disrupts babies’ sleep?
- ….that a baby’s brain grows 64% larger between birth and 3 months of age? (Right around the time that many parents start seeing early signs of the 4 month sleep regression.)
- ….another study revealed that the circadian rhythms of toddlers who still take an afternoon nap tend to shift in such a way that bedtime may be needed as much as an hour later than normal? (This is that no doubt part of that classic 18- and 24-month bedtime fighting that we see as part of those regressions, thanks to recent and impending nap transitions.)
These developmental milestones (and many others) are real. They are quite time-able. And the havoc they wreak on sleep is real, too.
And here’s what’s funny: you won’t find a single sleep consultant worth her credentials who disagrees. Even those consultants who call sleep regressions myths will agree that developmental leaps and milestones have a profound impact on sleep. One consultant in particular who wrote an article debunking sleep regressions ended up outlining all the ways that the incredible leaps a baby makes at 4 months add up to make the fragmented, disrupted sleep we experience as part of the 4 month sleep regression.
Yep, that’s right: even those consultants who will go out of their way to tell you that sleep regressions aren’t real agree that developmental milestones at specific periods in a child’s life will interfere with sleep.
Sleep Regression: It’s Not A Bad Word
So what’s the deal with folks calling sleep regressions “myths?”
I suspect that, in the end, these consultants take issue is with the term itself. Many read negative connotations into the term “sleep regression” (connotations which in fact are not there). For instance, in one consultant’s article, she points out that during a developmental leap, your baby is progressing, not regressing. And this is true; during a developmental milestone, your baby is learning an important new skill and/or undergoing critical new brain development. Progress indeed!
But hold up… The term we use around here isn’t “baby regression.” We take no issue with the idea that babies are progressing beautifully during developmental leaps. We use the term “sleep regression” because while baby may be progressing, sleep seems to be regressing. A baby who was starting to sleep 5, 6, or 7 hour stretches at night and to nap consistently is suddenly up every 2 hours and taking micro-naps around the clock. In other words, that older baby is suddenly sleeping just like he was as a newborn.
And THAT, folks, is where the word “regression” comes in. Regression is not a bad word. It simply means (in this case) “to return to an earlier state or form.” When we call a developmental period a sleep regression, we are highlighting that during this time of exciting and necessary development, sleep seems to move backward. Parents often report feeling like their baby takes about 15 steps backward during a sleep regression.
And that’s okay. That’s normal. But let’s call it what it is. That’s a regression. As your baby is progressing in some fun and exciting ways, her sleep is regressing in some normal but very exhausting and discouraging ways.
Sleep Regressions: Not Your Baby’s Fault, and Not Your Fault
Some consultants also believe that parents who support the idea of sleep regressions are “blaming” their babies for these break-downs in sleep. These consultants suggest that the very concept of sleep regressions is an “escape hatch” that parents have created to blame their babies for new sleep problems and to escape any responsibility themselves.
This one actually makes me chuckle. Why? Because I would suggest that blaming parents for blaming their babies is still playing the blame game. And by engaging in this blame game behavior, these consultants are actually much closer on the “blame spectrum” to those parents they are attempting to criticize than they may realize.
I’d push back here and ask why on earth “blame” has anything at all to do with the conversation surrounding sleep regressions. Why does anyone have to be at fault here? NO ONE is to blame for sleep regressions. Not parents, and not children. (If you just need to have something to blame for sleep regressions, then you could blame basic human biology, but I don’t know if that will make you feel better!;)
In truth, there is so much about your baby’s growth and development that is beyond your control. What’s more, as a parents, we are limited by little things like, you know, BEING HUMAN. Feeling exhausted and cranky if you’re running on too-little sleep, losing your temper when you’re tired, turning on the TV for your child when you “should” be reading to her because you just need to lie down for awhile…it’s all part of the package. So how much better would it be to abandon this idea that anyone is “to blame” for sleep regressions and the sleep fall-out they can cause, and to instead accept that this is a normal and exciting (and exhausting) part of baby care, and that everyone just has to do the best they can with the resources they have to get through it?
Here’s your answer: it would be so much better!
Sleep Regression: They Are Real, But How You Handle Them Is Flexible
I think a fair summary of the sleep regression issue is this. Sleep regressions are very real. Sleep will be impacted at least slightly when your child is going through a major developmental milestone.
That said, how you think about and deal with sleep regressions is totally up to you. If you decide that you want to do anything and everything you can to help your child sleep during these regression periods, that’s fine! It may mean new sleep habits you have to undo later, but if you are okay with that, then it’s all good. If, conversely, you want to get through a sleep regression without creating any sleep issues you’ll have to work through later, that’s fine, too. Lots of parents who have worked hard with sleep coaching are understandably discouraged when a sleep regression pops up. They want to preserve the gains they’ve made so far with sleep. We get that, and we support it completely!