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The Thing About Sleep Regressions

fussing and crying during sleep regression

Every once in a while your baby’s sleep will mysteriously become a disastrous mess. At the same time your baby will become really fussy which is either the cause or result of the sleep deprivation. The slender thread of normalcy you’ve been clinging to will disappear and you will stumble into the void of parenting despair wondering “Why did we think this baby thing was such a great plan anyway?!?!?”

If you’ve ruled out all the obvious causes of sleep stoppage (teething, colds, ear infections, etc.) then what is probably going on is a “sleep regression”. Lots of people have written about sleep regressions but the best post I’ve found, bar none, is to be found over at Ask Moxie.

Moxie recommends a sleep regression book called “Wonder Weeks” by the Danish researchers Vanderijt and Plooij. I don’t recommend this book for two reasons. One – it’s pretty expensive. Two – the only thing you really need to know (which comes from Wonder Weeks) is this:
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According to Vanderijt and Plooij, the spurts happen at weeks 5, 8, 12, 19, 26, 37, 46, and 55.

This seems like a lot of growth spurts and if you’ve just survived one you’re probably looking at that long list and fighting back a wave of nausea. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it seems. I’ve never known anybody to have more than 2-3 rough sleep regressions. In my experience the most COMMON sleep regressions seem to come at 6 weeks, 4 months, and 6 months.

What Happens During a Sleep Regression

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  1. Sleep stops.

    Naps get short, helping baby fall asleep takes forever, baby wakes up constantly, baby wakes up miserable, baby simply won’t sleep, etc. Unsurprisingly this often leaves parents a bit shell shocked.

  2. Fussiness starts.

    growth spurts are rough on everybodyPerhaps it’s due to sleep deprivation but your sweet happy baby will morph into a fussy cranky little gremlin. And since they’ll be barely sleeping you’ll have ample opportunity to enjoy it.

  3. Nursing/feeding is endless.

    Sometimes regressions are also called “growth spurts” and (especially for nursing moms) the idea is that your baby is demanding more from you to amp up your supply because they’re getting bigger and need more food. Thus if you’re nursing you may find your baby is glued to your boobs endlessly. We’ll it’ll feel endless because even a few days with a baby attached to your boob can feel like an eternity. Bottle fed babies also demand more/frequent food.

  4. Must. Be. Held.

    Babies often become clingy and needy during regressions. No longer content with some playtime on the bouncy seat or play mat, your baby ONLY wants to be held. Generally ONLY by you. Note: in case it’s not clear, sleep regressions are a bad time to try to end co-sleeping.


How to Live Through a Sleep Regression

Regressions generally last anywhere from a few days to a week (although I’ve talked to people who swear that their baby took up to 2 weeks to navigate a regression). And I won’t lie to you, sometimes they can be really rough. Especially if things were already feeling a bit shaky. But…
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  1. Don’t Panic!

    You’re already feeling pretty beat up so when things take a determined turn for the WORSE it’s easy to flip out. But this is temporary. It’s a bad week. It’s shorter than having the flu, right? You can do this!

  2. Do What Works (for now)

    Your baby may need extra soothing. Crib sleepers may go back into the swing. You may need to break out the swaddle and paci again. Babies who were going down awake may need to be nursed/rocked to sleep. You may find baby sleeps better in your bed. Don’t look at this as a “step back”, look at this as taking steps to help everybody sleep. Right now.

  3. Get Back on the Sleep Path

    Sleep regressions are temporary. Unless you let it push you off course permanently. It’s OK to do what works (nurse to sleep, rock to sleep, use pacifiers) to navigate a sleep regression. However if a month has gone by and you’re still doing these things then you’ve fallen into the classic sleep regression trap – you let a temporary survival tactic become the new sleep norm. Which is OK until you want your baby to start napping longer and actually sleep through the night.


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Don’t let a temporary sleep regression become a permanent sleep problem.
[/pullquote]Sadly babies do not come with alarms that ring to signify the end of a sleep regression. Sometimes you’ll know because miraculously your baby will sleep a ton (for a day or two) and everybody will breathe a heady sigh of relief. Sometimes things will just gradually get better (and thus it’s less obvious). But keep an eye towards your fundamental sleep goals – helping baby get enough sleep, not letting baby stay awake too long, and helping baby learn to fall asleep.

Anybody have any experiences with sleep regressions to share? How long they lasted? Did anything help?
Photo credit: {Tosdatophoto & Lisa Schaffer}