Sleep Regression in Kids: Causes and Solutions

What happened to my great sleeper?
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Image: Tetyana Moshchenko / Shutterstock

You were on the cusp of having a wonderful sleeper but then your household got hit with a nasty virus or you arrived home from a vacation and now sleep regression has arrived!

We’ve all been there a time or two and we know that there is nothing worse for a parent than when your baby had been sleeping well and suddenly that cycle stops and they start night-waking again, staging nap strikes, or struggling to fall asleep. It can be a very frustrating and trying time when this happens, but there are always things that you can do to help them get back on track.

What is a sleep regression?

A sleep regression is when your child’s sleep pattern changes, causing more sleep disturbances.

These are some signs that your child may be going through a sleep regression:

  • They went from sleeping really well to not sleeping
  • They may be waking frequently again after they had been sleeping more consistent hours at night
  • Putting them to sleep may be very difficult when it was once much easier
  • They may be taking shorter naps when they were previously napping longer
  • They may be fussy and clingy during their waking hours
  • They may want to feed more frequently

Sleep regressions most commonly occur when your child is developing a new skill, after a bout of illness, or upon returning from a vacation or a weekend getaway.

Sleep regression due to a developmental change

If your baby is going through a sleep regression, it may be caused by a leap in their cognitive development. Your baby’s brain is having a hard time shutting down, which causes her to stay up practicing all of her new skills until she has mastered them.

What to do: Take time during your child’s wakeful periods to practice their new skill with them. For example, if your baby is learning to roll from stomach to back, spend extra time between naps allowing them plenty of opportunities to practice.

A sleep regression due to teething or illness

This one is a little bit different than a developmental sleep regression; in these cases, your child cannot sleep because they are uncomfortable or perhaps in pain.

What to do: During the acute phase of the illness you will want to attend to them as much as necessary in order to meet their needs. However, when you are sure that they are feeling better work hard at getting them back on track!

When you see that your child’s behaviour during their waking hours is perfectly fine, you are safe to resume healthy sleep. If you would send them to daycare/school or resume extra curricular activities with them such as swimming or playgroup then they are in good shape to resume healthy sleep.

Sleep regression due to travel or holidays

While traveling, it is very common to have some disruptions in your child’s sleep routine. Maintaining your normal schedule is often quite difficult when you’re away. Add in sharing a room and your efforts to not wake everyone else, and your baby can get comfortable with this new routine very quickly.

What to do: To remain on the right path to healthy sleep, it is imperative to work towards re-establishing your schedule and routine as soon as possible upon your return home.

Sleep regression should be temporary

When they are learning a new skill such as rolling, crawling, talking, or walking, it can disrupt their sleep for a few days. Do whatever you have to do to support them through it, but it is important to get them back on track. What you want to avoid is allowing the regressive pattern to last for months.

Getting back on track

If you sense that your child is going through a sleep regression, here are some things that you can do to keep it from spiraling out of control.

  • Make sure that you are sticking within your child’s wake windows or schedule. When your child is overtired, she will have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep. You will want to make sure that you are putting her to bed at the optimal time for sleep without missing those windows.
  • Try not to create too many new sleep associations during a regression. We know that it is a difficult time and you just want your baby to sleep! But it can be even more difficult to change those habits. If your baby has become comfortable being rocked, fed to sleep, or having to be in the car, they will begin to rely on all of those associations to fall asleep. Instead, try to stick with one soothing technique during the regression phase.
  • Once you can see that the regression is over, work on slowly phasing out the amount of intervention needed to get her back on track.

Coming out of a sleep regression takes time and patience. Don’t get discouraged if you see some progression followed by regression again. Maintain your consistency and you will both get through before you know it! 

*Originally published January 11, 2016