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Baby sleep regression or developmental progression?

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Early on in my parenting journey, I remember hearing all about the dreaded “sleep regressions". Now if you have a baby like my first, every phase felt like a sleep regression - there were bad sleep nights, worse sleep nights and “did I even sleep last night?” nights. But for those babies like my second (and now third), it is common for them to get into a pretty steady sleep routine, only for that routine to be upended every few months or so over the first few years of life.

These tricky phases with sleep are commonly referred to as “sleep regressions”

Signs of a sleep regression in babies and toddlers include:

  • Many night wakings

  • Short or skipped naps

  • Increased fussiness and crying

  • Extra clinginess

  • Changes in appetite

At this point you are probably wondering why I keep putting “sleep regression” in quotations. This is because I feel there is a fundamental flaw in the way we are approaching these periods of disrupted sleep.

Is it a regression in the sense that your baby’s sleep seems to be worsening? Yes. But if we look at the reasons WHY these disruptions are happening, they are almost always due to intense developmental changes and brain growth. Your baby’s brain literally doubles in size over the first year, and these huge cognitive and emotional changes understandably affect sleep.

Although it varies from child to child, there are a few key times in the first two years where you may notice a sleep regression due to a developmental progression:

  • 6 weeks old: Your six week old baby is beginning to wake up to the world around them, experience heightened senses and will likely cluster feed as they go through a growth spurt

  • 4 months old: Your 4 month old baby’s sleep cycles mature to resemble that of an adult. They can no longer transition between REM sleep and NREM3 (deep sleep) as easily causing frequent wakings between sleep cycles or when being put down for sleep

  • 8-10 months old: Your 8-10 month old baby can experience peak separation anxiety, teething and huge physical development as they master sitting and crawling

  • 12 months old: Your 12 month old baby may be starting daycare, learning to walk, and shifting from two naps to one nap

  • 18 months old: Your 18 month old has an increased need for physical activity, increased separation anxiety and the development of verbal skills

So as you can see, most of these “regressions” are directly linked to huge advances for your baby. With new phases happening every few months, it can feel like as soon as you have developed a routine or schedule that works for your child, it changes again.

Unfortunately, parents have been sold the narrative that infant sleep is linear, when in reality it is the opposite

Just because your baby is sleeping 3 hours straight at 4 months old, does not mean they will sleep 4 hours straight at 5 months, and so on. There will be leaps where they find sleeping harder, and there will be blissful times where they can sleep long stretches or even sleep through the night.

Go easy on yourself and try to remember the long game:

One of the biggest gifts you can give yourself during a sleep regression/developmental progression is to take it one night at a time. During the first three years, your child is learning at an accelerated rate unlike any other time in life. The regression in hours of total sleep as they develop is HARD, but the responsiveness you are putting in now to support them is something that leaves a lasting imprint on them for life.

It seems cliché but try to rest or sleep when your baby is sleeping. If you have an older child and this is impossible (my hand is WAY up on this one!), even lying down on the floor while your child plays can help give your body a break. Go to bed when your baby does at least once a week and split night time parenting duty with your partner if possible, so that you both get a chunk of sleep. Most of these regressions are short, and some might not even be noticeable for your child. But no matter what, please rest assured (no pun intended!) that this will not last forever.

Are you wanting to learn more about what happens during these times of developmental progression and how you can best support your baby AND your own sleep? Stay tuned on the blog over the next couple of weeks as I break down the reasons behind these sleep shifts and tips on how to survive.


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