Last week, a dear mom in my Mommy and Me group walked into class looking drained and about to cry.“Sophia has forgotten how to sleep! She was sleeping 9 hours straight, but in the last 4 nights, she’s been waking up every two hours from midnight on! I’m losing my mind I’m so tired. I thought her sleep would keep getting better but now it’s like she’s a newborn again!”
We’ve heard a version of this countless times before. It’s classic sleep regression—something we call the ‘cognitive surge,’ when babies become more awake, more discerning and better able to detect patterns (good news for their smart brains, bad news for their sleep patterns). This new alertness feels very novel and exciting to them at first and makes it hard for them to fall back to sleep easily during the night.
Here are some important ideas to keep in mind when sleep seems to have gone off the rails and you’re working to get it back on track:
Don’t assume you have a “bad sleeper”! Waking up at night is rarely a sign that your baby is an inherently bad sleeper—it’s a sign that her sleep patterns need adjusting. In an interesting baby study, researchers asked parents if they had a “good sleeper” or “bad sleeper,” and then they observed those babies to see how many times they woke during the night. Surprise, both groups woke exactly the same amount. The difference was that the “good sleepers” were used to falling asleep on their own, whereas the “bad sleepers” were in the habit of reaching out for help falling back to sleep. Both groups have all the brain power needed to fall asleep independently and sleep well at night; the difference was the babies’ expectations and habits.
Ride the hump. Your baby is so much smarter and aware now—she has a new level of consciousness and there’s so much to do, see, and test out! But this new excitement will wear off eventually, and she will go back to sleeping. The silver lining of sleep regressions is that they often signal your baby’s blooming abilities and smarts. She just needs time to adjust and for you to resist changing up your patterns and behaviors too much—you should be steady and she’ll come back around.
Make sure you’re not overhelping. The most common problem with sleep regression is that parents automatically start helping, helping, and then overhelping. When your baby was a wee thing, all that helping and soothing was what she needed. After 5 months or so, babies don’t need so much help—in fact, they need more space to practice their self-soothing. At this point, parents’ helping ways can start to get in the way of a good nights sleep. Signs of overhelping are when an older baby starts…
- · Waking more rather than less during the night
- Adding new nighttime feeds
- Taking longer and longer to fall asleep
- Resisting your help (rocking, feeding, holding etc.)
- Popping awake after 45 – 60 minutes
- Waking up way too early in the morning
Hold tight to your routines and schedule. Babies are highly sensitive to routine and timing. When you’re seeing sleep derail a bit, make sure your baby is going to bed at the right time (usually between 7-8pm is ideal), falling asleep independently (on her own, without you feeding or rocking her to sleep) and at the same time every night. Hold on to her nap schedules too. Ironically, overtired babies are more likely to wake up at night because their systems become wound up and dysregulated.
Hang in there. Even though they seem endless at the time, sleep regressions—whether they’re from new cognitive leaps or motor milestones—will eventually pass.
Whether you have a sleep regression on your hands, or just want help smoothing the way to better sleep for your baby, we’ll see you at The Happy Sleeper class for babies 5-18 months (although all ages are welcome). You’ll come away with a clear and gentle plan for turning over the soothing to sleep role to your very capable baby, so everyone in the family can get a full night’s sleep.
The Happy Sleeper, sleep class for babies 5-18 months