Developmental Leaps & Sleep Regressions
One of the most frequent questions I get after, “Can you come to my house and make my baby sleep?” is, “Is there a(n) [insert any month here] sleep regression?” With milestone-tracking apps and endless information about baby “leaps”, I want to shed a bit of light on these stages and hopefully bring some clarity to what sleep regressions truly are.
What are Sleep Regressions?
If you’re the parent of a baby who’s learning to roll, crawl, sit, or stand, this may come as the least surprising scientific discovery imaginable: developmental milestones are inextricably linked to disruptions in a baby’s sleep. Milestone achievements – or “leaps” as they’ve become known – happen all throughout childhood. Whether it’s your four-month-old learning to roll over, your six-month-old learning to crawl, your 9-month-old pulling to stand, or your 12-month-old taking their first independent steps, your baby is in a constant state of flux for the first several months of their little life.
Regression, or PROgression?
But while your child is PROgressing in other areas of development, their sleep may be temporarily disrupted as they organize and master their new skills. Babies’ bodies are biologically driven to practice new skills until some level of mastery is achieved. To your baby, learning to roll over, crawl, walk, or talk elicits pretty much the same response; they get a big thrill out of this newfound ability and they are going to practice it over and over. In the morning, in the afternoon, and even when they wake up in the middle of the night. This excitement and tenacity can make it a little more difficult for them to fall asleep at naps or bedtime, and get back to sleep in the middle of the night.
Where Did My Good Sleeper Go?
When milestones are budding, you may start to experience protests at bedtime, fragmented nights, and micro-short naps. I see a lot of parents looking for a “solution” in this scenario, and in trying to get their baby’s sleep back on track, they tend to lose consistency. They’ll move bedtimes around, start rocking or feeding baby back to sleep, change up the bedtime routine, anything they think might help. Inevitably, these things don’t actually help much and can even make things more confusing in the long run.
The best advice I can give you is to hold steady. Disruptions due to milestone leaps should only last for a week or two (unless we’re talking about the biological changes that a baby undergoes during the 4-month sleep regression). Anything beyond that and there might be more to the story than just skill-building.
But during these “leaps,” what can you do to keep sleep on track?
Surviving Sleep Regressions
Practice, Practice, Practice
Just like any other skill, practice makes perfect. If your little one is able to master rolling more quickly because they’ve spent all weekend working on it, that’s less time rolling will disrupt sleep. Whenever I work with a young baby who has not yet mastered rolling, I encourage parents to spend about five minutes three times a day engaged in purposeful rolling practice. This goes for other skills as well; sitting, crawling, pulling to stand, walking, and even language development. If you notice that your little one has started working on something new, get lots of practice in during the day so it doesn’t start to disrupt your night!
Give Some Space
Many parents ask me whether they should intervene if their baby has rolled to their tummy, is sitting up when they’re supposed to be sleeping, or is cruising around the crib. My answer is usually, “no”. A good rule of thumb is that as long as your little one is safe, you can give them some practice figuring out a comfortable sleep position on their own.
Most pediatricians will tell you that when your baby is able to purposefully and intentionally roll themselves from back to tummy, they are okay to stay there, and you don’t have to flip them back. (Of course, run this by your pediatrician first.) However, once they start rolling, it is important to make sure your baby is no longer swaddled.
If your little one is very unhappy on his tummy, you of course can go in and roll them onto their back every so often. Offer them some comfort, tell them it’s still bedtime, and help them get back into a comfortable position if they’ve gotten themselves pushed up against the side of the crib. I would recommend just starting the rolling process; get your little one tipped on their side, and have them “finish the job.” Even though they’re tired, their body will continue to build that muscle memory until they know exactly what they’re supposed to do the next time they’re unhappy about being on their tummy.
If your baby has started sitting up at bedtime or in the middle of the night and will not lay down even as they are falling asleep, my advice is take a pause. Your little one will quickly learn that it is much more comfortable to sleep laying down than it is to sleep sitting up. Once your babe is in a deep enough sleep, you can go in there and try to lay them down if you want but know that you run the risk of waking them up and having to start all over again. Again, during the day, the more you can help them practice laying down from a sitting position, the sooner your baby will be able to do this on their own in the middle of the night.
Many parents get wary when I tell them to leave their little one standing in their crib. The last thing anyone wants is a tired baby falling over and hitting their head on the rails. If they are wide awake but you are uncomfortable with them standing at all, you can certainly go in and lay them down every so often, but to be careful that this interaction does not turn into a game. I stand up, mommy comes and lays me back down. What a fun way to play with her at 3 a.m! However, if you notice that your little one is falling asleep while they are standing, please go in and intervene.
Use your best judgment here, but what looks uncomfortable to us, may be just fine for your little one. I know some kiddos who sleep in some pretty strange positions and giving them that control over their sleep can actually be helpful in the long run. That way, once they’ve got this new skill mastered, they’ll still have the ability to self soothe when they wake up at night.
No Special Treatment
The biggest key to getting through milestone leaps unscathed and with a good sleeper in tact is to avoid introducing any new habits that you don’t intend on continuing once your baby has mastered their new skills. Adopting a bunch of quick-fixes in order to get your baby sleeping quickly when they wake up at night is very likely to end up creating dependencies that will last long past the time your little one has mastered their new skill. So don’t give in to the temptation to rock or bounce them to sleep, don’t let them sleep in your bed, don’t take them for car rides, and above all, don’t nurse or feed them back to sleep. Once they are bored of practicing or the skill is achieved, they should go back to their old, better, sleep habits.
These phases are likely to be a bit challenging, and it may feel at times like one skill is mastered just in time for another one to start developing, but hang in there! Support your little one’s brain and body as they discover their new skills and honor their need for quality sleep as they grow. And remember that these are just temporary phases and you’ll emerge on the other side with an older, bolder, more skilled child!
If you’re struggling to get back on track after a regression wreaked havoc on your child’s sleep, I can help! Set up a complimentary sleep evaluation and let’s chat about restoring peace into your nights!
If you’re exhausted, totally overwhelmed by your child’s sleep habits, or looking for answers to the sleep questions that keep you up at night (literally), then you’ve come to the right place. I’m Jamie, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and my goal is to help your family get the sleep you need to not just survive, but thrive!