Sleep is a dynamic process that fluctuates and evolves as a baby grows. One particular challenge many parents face with their little ones is a phenomenon known as ‘sleep regression’. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, you’re not alone. Many new parents find themselves in the middle of one before they even know what it is.
A sleep regression is characterized by a period where a baby, who was sleeping relatively well, suddenly starts waking up frequently during the night, starts fussing more, doesn’t want to be in their sleep space, or has trouble napping. This can be especially challenging for parents who have just settled into a consistent routine and have just started to get back to some normalcy.
It’s important to remember that while sleep regressions are commonly acknowledged by sleep experts and parents, not all babies will experience them (and indeed, not all pediatricians believe they are ‘real’. Some may seamlessly transition through these developmental phases, while others may find them more disruptive. Furthermore, not every sleep disturbance is a regression. Illness, teething, the wrong nap schedule, or changes in routine (such as travel) can also cause temporary setbacks in sleep.
In this article, we will delve deep into the six-month sleep regression, covering its causes, its impact on feeding and sleep schedules, how long it typically lasts, what you can do to cope, and how sleep training fits in as a possible solution.
Sleep regressions can occur at various stages of a baby’s life, but the 6-month regression is often the most challenging. By this age, many parents have established a solid bedtime routine and feel their baby has settled into good sleep habits. However, the 6-month mark often brings a significant growth spurt and developmental changes.
The 6-month sleep regression is closely tied to physical and cognitive development leaps. At this stage, babies are not only refining skills like rolling over but also may begin sitting up and showing early signs of crawling. These advancements in motor skills can disrupt sleep as babies explore and practice new movements.
Additionally, this period often aligns with the introduction of solid foods, which presents a new sensory experience and alters digestion and feeding schedules. Adjusting to solids can affect sleep patterns, with some babies waking due to hunger or discomfort as their bodies adapt to new foods.
Concurrently, babies at this age are developing more nuanced sensory perceptions. Increased sensitivity to noise, light, and temperature can lead to shorter naps, more frequent night awakenings, and increased fussiness during bedtime routines. These changes can significantly impact both the baby’s and the parents’ sleep quality, making the 6-month sleep regression a notable milestone in a child’s development.
At the same time, babies’ sensory perceptions are becoming more nuanced, making them more susceptible to disturbances such as noise, light, and temperature. This heightened sensitivity can result in shorter naps more night wakings and more fussing and crying during the bedtime routine.
Although the six-month sleep regression can be an exhausting phase for parents and babies alike, there are strategies to manage this period effectively. For parents who are not yet at this regression, the key is to create healthy sleep habits before you get to the regressions and the 6-month mark. This is where ‘proactive sleep training’ or ‘pre-sleep training’ really comes into play. When your baby is born, they are in a blank state when it comes to habits. Over their first 4-6 months of life, a baby’s sleep patterns change and they develop what we call ‘sleep associations’. This is where parents have maximum control over shaping their child’s sleep patterns and getting the basics of sleep right.
Batelle’s Sleep Program was designed to mitigate the effects of sleep regressions by doing just this: laying a solid sleep foundation. Following this, you can ensure that your child is best placed to navigate sleep regressions with minimal disruption.
If you are already in the throws of the 6-month regression, the top things you should be thinking about are:
There is varying advice on when a parent should think about sleep training, and also conflicting views on whether you can sleep train while regression is going on and whether it would be effective (method dependent). So let’s break it down. Sleep training is just a reset of behaviors. A sleep regression is a period of fluctuation and change, so while it may take longer for your baby to settle into good sleep habits (just as it does if you sleep train while your baby is teething), you can still work on these behavioral aspects.
Because sleep training is so much about how a parent interacts with their child’s sleep, regression is usually the time of peak motivation (and pain) by the parent. This means parents are more likely to follow through as they are desperate for a solution. One of the most common reasons sleep training fails is that a parent isn’t able to follow through. So you can use this period to your advantage, get your partner on board, and work on laying good sleep foundations for your child that can help mitigate the severity and duration of sleep disruption when the next developmental milestones occur.
A lot of parents seek medical advice from their pediatrician when their baby starts having sleep problems. Largely because they are not aware of other options, pediatricians often recommend a cry-it-out approach to sleep training, which can be tough on younger babies (and their caregivers). More incremental and supportive sleep training methods are usually better suited for these younger little ones as they receive more active co-regulation and support from their caregivers.
The duration of sleep regressions can vary widely, but on average, they last between two to six weeks. The length depends on various factors including your child’s temperament, the nature of the developmental milestones they’re reaching, and how those changes are managed. Some regressions might be relatively short, lasting only a few days, while others might feel like they drag on for an eternity.
But here is a key insight: a regression is an opportunity to reset and reframe your child’s relationship with sleep – for good or bad. So while the 6-month sleep regression may not last very long, the habits you create during this time can have an enduring effect.
Furthermore, each sleep regression corresponds to different developmental milestones and experiences, thus creating unique challenges and impacts on your child’s sleep patterns. What we find is that if you get the sleep foundation correct early on, then coping with subsequent regressions can be far easier.
Sleep regressions don’t just impact sleep – they can significantly disrupt your baby’s feeding schedule too. Parents might notice an increased demand for night feeds and changes in daytime eating habits during a regression.
This increase in nighttime feeding can be taxing for breastfeeding mothers as the disruption in their sleep schedule can potentially affect their breast milk production. Moreover, it’s not unusual for a baby to eat less during the day, making up for those lost calories by feeding more at night.
Let’s sum up. First of all, keep a look out for signs your child may be going through a regression:
If you are not yet seeing these signs, it’s worth looking into a sleep program that teaches you how to get ahead of this and lay the best sleep foundation possible so as to minimize the intensity and duration of any future regressions.
If you are already in the midst of a regression, then try to set up as predictable a sleep routine as possible and ensure the sleep environment is optimally designed for good sleep habits. Also, consider doing sleep training at this time – if you pick the right program, what you learn now will set you in good stead for all future regressions still to come.
And lastly, see this as a learning opportunity. Yes, regressions (especially this one) are super tough. But it’s a sign your baby is growing and developing and it’s a great time to increase the connection and communication around sleep.
To read more about sleep regressions at other ages, read our Sleep Regressions Blog.