Is Your Baby Going Through a Sleep Regression, a Phase, or Is It a Habit?

A great client of mine sent me this idea for an article about how to know whether your baby is going through a sleep regression or a phase. This is the same client who is a strong advocate of Attachment Parenting who contacted me over a year ago about her then 10 month old. She is now expecting a new baby, which is very exciting! This article will consider whether your baby is going through a sleep regression, a phase, or whether your baby or toddler simply has a bad habit.

One primary benefit I have over other parents is YOUR experience. What I mean by that is that, sure, I have my own personal experience with my son who inspired this website, but now that I’ve helped countless parents and approaching my 10,000th e-mail (you can see the counter on the homepage here, which is almost real-time and updates ever so often), I see patterns that most parents don’t have the luxury of seeing. I am very analytical, so I connect things that others may not, since my mind looks for patterns, even when I don’t mean to. I benefit from your experience and know the potential pitfalls to look out for, not only from my own experience, but from all of yours, too. It’s actually very interesting to put it all together!

My experience (or maybe I should say OUR experience) tells me that MANY people will have sleep troubles around the same time:

  • 4 months old – 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 baby to “get over it”). The way your baby sleeps fundamentally changes and it never changes back!
  • 8 months old – 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 months old – I hear about this one enough to know I wasn’t alone, but not enough to say it’s a “big” problem for all families. Around 11 months old, I have found that some babies will start fighting one or both naps and then it will pass 2-3 weeks later.
  • 18 months old – I have not written an article about this one (yet), but 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 years old – 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 I 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! I would say 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.

So, how do you know if you are seeing a sleep regression or a phase?

First, I 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, I would say 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 heckuva long “regression!” 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 same. 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, I would call a “phase”. Anytime your baby or toddler is working on a new developmental milestone (whether you can “see” it or not), it may affect his sleep. This is going to be quite a lot of “phases” in the first few years. They learn 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 realize. Some of the things we’ve taken for granted that we know we have to teach our kids. 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!

When is it a sleep habit?

There is no black and white as far as when you have a sleep regression, phase, or a habit, but my general rule of thumb is 2-3 weeks. If you have an abrupt sleep change, try to give your baby 1-3 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 until it has “stuck” and then that’s when I tend to tell people to take action.

If your baby wasn’t sleeping well before and then starts to sleep worse, that would be another reason to start working on sleep. Sleep may not become perfect until the 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 doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Only some will eventually grow out of their sleep problems. I 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!

If you’re looking for ways to get your baby or toddler into a healthy sleeping routine, please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of 5 Ways to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night, our e-Book with tear-free tips to help your baby sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.

How do you decide if your baby is going through a phase or has a sleep habit?