Sleep regressions are one of those things that seem to affect each baby differently. What we mean by a “regression” is when the baby’s sleep suddenly gets worse for a period of time, with frequent night wakings, and for some it can be like a return to the newborn period.
Not all babies are affected, and for some, their sleep is so broken anyway, that there is nothing to regress from! Typically, the main periods of regression tend to fall between 4-6 months and from around 9-12 months.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith is one of the leading writers on baby sleep, and it is well worth reading her article on the 4 month sleep regression: https://sarahockwell-smith.com/2013/08/29/help-my-4-5-month-old-is-sleeping-like-a-newborn-again-aka-as-the-4-5-month-old-babies-from-hell/
Also, do read her article on “what the heck goes wrong with sleep around 8-10 months”: https://sarahockwell-smith.com/2015/11/18/what-the-heck-goes-wrong-sleep-wise-at-8-10-months/
It’s probably wrong to think of these periods as “regressions”, as your baby is not actually regressing, or going backwards. In fact, they are making huge leaps forward in their development. Many things are going on here. Maybe your baby is preparing to crawl, walk, or sit up, or their sensory processing is developing. Everything is changing for them, their whole lives are being turned upside down because of changes happening inside them. It is a bit like suddenly one day discovering you can speak fluent Hungarian. It’s mind-blowing change! It’s no wonder they can’t sleep very well. During these periods your baby needs your love and support more than ever.
One point I really want to make here, is that there are many reasons why babies sleep poorly, and this is actually a GOOD thing when you think about the survival of the species. A baby or toddler is incredibly vulnerable, they can’t survive long at all on their own, and they rely on their caregiver for absolutely everything. To put that into context, think about reasons you might wake in the night and what you might do about it. Maybe you stir, or wake up, because you are hot, or cold, uncomfortable, thirsty, need a wee, you are worrying about something, or you hear a strange noise. Whatever the reason, most of the time, you’ll wake up, sort it out and go back to sleep. A baby cannot sort it out themselves.
Whatever the problem, the ONLY thing they can do to fix it is to get you to help them. Sometimes the problem is trivial, but what if the problem is serious? If they didn’t cry out they would be in big trouble.
Babies and toddlers have a hard time distinguishing between a minor inconvenience and a big emergency – once the alarm centres of the brain are triggered they go into major meltdown. Which is why if you have ever experienced a toddler having a complete tantrum over a broken biscuit you will have observed this in action. This overreaction is not their fault, it’s just that they haven’t developed logical reasoning yet, and the ability to put things into perspective.
Anyway, I digress. Waking at night is normal, natural and healthy for babies, whether they are going through a “regression” or not. Maybe that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, maybe it does. At least you know that your baby’s frequent night wakings are not your fault, you are not doing anything wrong in your parenting. It’s also not a problem that necessarily needs fixing. You don’t have to do anything about it. This is a phase – it might seem like a frickin’ long phase – but it is a temporary situation. I know this isn’t a popular opinion, and when you are in the middle of months of sleep deprivation, you just want a magic solution that will make your baby sleep. Believe me, I’ve been there, and it was enough to put me off having any more babies! I remember standing in the shower every morning, really desperate to cry because I felt so wretched, but I couldn’t as I didn’t even have the energy.
It’s OK to feel like you can’t carry on like this, that you have had enough. It’s OK to complain about your baby – it doesn’t mean you love them any less. It’s OK to feel like you didn’t sign up to this. It’s normal to feel like walking out the door and getting on a train to anywhere and never coming back. It’s also OK to feel murderous rage towards anyone else who dares to complain about being tired! Tired?! What do they know about being tired?!
I’ve been there, we all feel like this at some point. But do you know what? You do somehow carry on, day after day, (probably because you are too exhausted to have the energy to actually do anything proactive,) and eventually it does get better. Now I’m back to being in the luxurious position that one moderately bad night’s sleep and I feel like total crap the next day.
Just like some adults are better sleepers than others, the same applies to babies. If you or your partner were a bad sleeper as a baby, I’m afraid that karma might be coming back to bite you now!
If your baby is going through a sleep regression, I feel your pain – probably nobody told you about this before you had your baby, and yep, it sucks.