If you belong to any online parents’ groups and you make a word cloud, there will be one word in 72-point font in the dead center: SLEEP. No one gets through the first months or years of parenthood without wondering how the f*$% to get the kid to go to sleep, stay asleep, or sleep just a bit later in the morning.
And one of the special cruelties of early parenting is that sleep development isn’t linear—just when you think the kid is in a groove, settling easily and staying asleep for a good chunk of time, it all gets blown to smithereens. The baby who was doing a good six hours now wakes and cries every 45 minutes, while the toddler who usually conks out from 7PM to 6AM now has three nightmares a night. In parenting groups, pitiful queries surface regularly: “Is there such a thing as a four-month sleep regression? A nine-month sleep regression? A three-year sleep regression?” For a while I was convinced there was no such thing at todas as a sleep regression—our babies were just messing with us.
I spoke with Dr. Daniel Lewin, a psychologist, sleep specialist, and the associate director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Health System. It turns out the babies weren’t just messing with us, and that disruptions in sleep don’t occur randomly. But it is true that there isn’t really such a thing as an exact two-month or four-month or whatever-month regression.
“I pin it not so much on ages but on developmental progressions and bursts,” Lewin says. “Often a regression in sleep is a sign that your child is about to make a big jump forward in some developmental domain.” A kid who’s about to crawl or talk, for example, might suddenly start fighting bedtime or waking during the night. Dr. Lewin says, “One of the most dramatic regressions typically occurs around six months of age, when a child has more physical strength and starts crawling. This is also around the time the child develops some stranger anxiety and more intense, observable attachment to their parents.” Both of these milestones—which are adaptive, normal developments—can mean that nighttimes won’t go as smoothly as they have been, at least for a little while.
So if your child is having trouble sleeping and it’s not an illness or a developmental leap, it might be helpful to consider the media they’re consuming. In my house, we’ve had to limit TV to Winnie the Pooh and the like—nothing even remotely troubling.
At the end of the day (hah) sleep progress can be two steps forward and one back—no one learns to sleep through the night at six months and never experiences night-waking again. Even as adults, we go through periods of wakefulness and nightmares that sometimes indicate issues with health or daytime anxiety. The key is not to make a challenging situation worse by freaking out, and patience, as always, is the number-one parental virtue. Dr. Lewin says, “Typically if the parents can be patient and ride out the changes for a few days or even a week, sometimes they’ll see a big jump in what’s going on in daytime behavior that will then inform the changes in their child’s sleep.”
And then you can post in your parents’ group that the latest sleep regression is over—at least until it’s time for the next one.