A Sleep Regression Isn't A Setback, It's A Sign

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 centre: SLEEP. No one gets through the first months or years of parenthood without wondering how the hell to get the kid to go to sleep, stay asleep, or sleep just a bit later in the morning.

Photo: Zdorov Kirill Vladimirovich via Shutterstock

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 all 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 in the US. 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.

This is a moment in which parents panic — all their hard work to establish healthy sleep habits and regular routines begins to look like it's for nought. Dr. Lewin cautions that framing it as a setback can be counterproductive: "Don't see it as a setback or a problem, see it as a sign. Something is going on developmentally that in most common cases is a positive, emerging change in their development."

Is Your Kid Sick?

Other physiological events can also lead to sleep disturbances, and Dr. Lewin says parents should keep their eyes open for daytime symptoms: "Is there something else going on that could be a problem? For example, maybe the child is sick or has a low-grade ear infection? There can always be underlying subtle medical problems (or rarely, more significant ones) that can cause a sleep regression." A kid who's slightly under the weather can be fitful at night, and even the most alert parent might not realise what's going on until the day care calls to report a fever.

Use Media With Caution

Unfortunately, sleep disruptions don't end at toddlerhood. My four-year-old is currently suffering from nightmares, which are awful for him and not so hot for me, either, as I'm jerked from sleep nightly by a howling, weeping kid. For this, I have to take some responsibility: I let him watch the same TV shows his seven-year-old brother likes, which are really too much for a preschooler. Dr. Lewin cautions parents to be very careful about the media that kids consume, even for older kids, as it can contribute to anxiety and sleep problems.

"One of the changes that I frequently see, at about six to eight years of age, is that children really start to understand more about narrative [in TV shows, movies, and books]. They can link cause and effect; they can follow the good guys and the bad guys. That capacity is also linked to a burst in more anxiety, more worry, and more fear."

For a child who might have a tendency towards anxiety anyway, these new narrative linkages might be disturbing. "At that time a child might develop some very specific fears about falling asleep alone at night. They might need more parental support at that time."

When I tell him that my four-year-old is disturbed by even the mildest of sad or scary plotlines — one cartoon character being mean to another, for example — he isn't surprised. He says that when children of this age sees a superhero movie or even cartoons, they often don't understand the narrative structure — the difference between a bad guy and a good guy, for example — because they haven't made that narrative leap yet.

Even if it's the good guy in a cartoon being mean or punching a bad guy, it doesn't matter — to a kid under six, it all looks like violence, which can be disturbing and lead to disruptions in their sleep, specifically more difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep due to rumination and worry.

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 will see a big jump in what's going on in daytime behaviour 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.


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