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Your cheat sheet to sleep regressions

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

If you're under the misapprehension that as a children's sleep consultant I've never struggled with my own kids' sleep issues, let me dispel that idea fast.

As recently as 6 months ago, the elder of my twin girls, Tilly, would be placed in her cot for sleep just like her twin, Edie, at 7.30pm. And whilst her twin would drift quietly off to Lala-land in <15 minutes, Tilly would spend the next hour or so, chatting endlessly to herself and her stuff toy lovie.

She wasn't complaining, she wasn't crying. She was perfectly content just talking to the air. This nightly saga continued close to 3 weeks, then suddenly, the conversations ended and Tilly went back to being the champion sleeper she always was. What witchcraft was this?!

What I had experienced my friends, was a sleep regression. And chances are you've probably experienced one of these yourself.

In this post, I will give you a quick rundown of what you need to know on sleep regressions. This way when a regression monster rears its ugly head, you'll know exactly what you're in for. You ready? Let's go.

  1. The term "sleep regression" describes any disruption in sleep for a baby who was previously sleeping well. Signs can include increased crying, frequent waking in the night, short naps, skipped naps, or like in Tilly's case, difficulties falling asleep at typical sleep hours.

  2. The reasons why a baby's sleep becomes disrupted can range widely, from illness, teething, disruptions in routine (e.g. because of travel), baby's sleep needs changing with age (e.g. needing to drop a nap) or simply because of physical/neurological developments occurring in baby's first couple years of life (e.g. rolling, sitting up, crawling, walking, speaking).

  3. Do some detective work to understand why your baby's sleep has regressed, so you'll understand how to take things forward. This isn't rocket science, but it does take some experience and some trial and error to figure out the exact cause. * If the cause is travel, then you will need to mitigate overtiredness and get baby back on track with your regular schedule asap. * If the cause is baby's sleep needs changing, then simply taking steps to transition your baby to a new nap routine should improve things. * If the cause is teething or illness, give the necessary medication to ensure your baby's symptoms are alleviated and that they are comfortable. * If the cause is because baby's going through a developmental milestone, then there's not very much you can do except to ride things out. However, be assured that these physical/neurological changes typically only last 2-3 weeks. In Tilly's case, I had noticed a surge in her language acquisition round about the time she started these nightly chats, so I attributed the disturbance to a developmental milestone and just waited things out.

  4. Importantly, independent sleep skills are *not* lost during a regression. Let me illustrate by using the example of cycling. Cycling is a skill that requires balance, coordination and leg power. It takes a person much practice through time to master it in a quiet setting. Now transplant that same inexperienced person to cycling on a bustling main road. Chances are he'd struggle with the very same things he could do in a quiet alleyway. But you would not consider him as having lost his cycling skills. It is the same with babies and self soothing. Developmental changes tax a baby's ability to utilize a skill they have newly acquired, and so sleep is affected. But the skill is still there. So don't fret about having to "retrain" your baby.

  5. The best thing you can do during a sleep regression is to support your child. And by "support" I mean diagnosing the right cause, and taking the appropriate steps. Where the causes can't be helped, then "support" entails upping the comfort and reassurance given to your baby so baby isn't so alone in his struggle.

  6. Do not go back to assisting your child to fall asleep, as this will undo the hard work you've put in to teach baby to self settle. Going back to the bike analogy, your baby will never learn road biking, if each time he struggles on the road, you remove him from his environment. In fact he'd probably develop a fear for the road, since by your actions, you've inadvertently told him he isn't capable of handling it.

Having some trouble diagnosing the cause behind your baby's sleep disruptions, and want a little assistance? Reach out to me to book a free discovery call, and I'll be glad to help.

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