Sleep Regression Might Be Common, But It's Absolutely Brutal

by Caila Smith
Originally Published:

Now that I’ve been through the baby stages with five little ones, I hold no expectations when it comes to how many hours I might sleep throughout the night. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way, and my wishful thinking only results in disappointment. Because, well, your teeny-tiny, precious baby’s sleep regression really has a way of kicking your own, grown-adult ass, doesn’t it?

It’s easy for others to advise, “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” But what about when said baby isn’t sleeping? What happens when you’ve perfected the most well-rounded routine for a good night’s rest, accumulated it for a good amount of time, and then return to waking every hour on the hour to the sound of unhappy, screeching baby wails?

This is sleep regression hell, folks, and it and all of its unpleasantry is most commonly seen in 4-, 8-, 12- and 18-month-old infants, which just so happens to coincide with all of the major developmental, physical and cognitive changes occurring during infancy (crawling, talking, walking, separation anxiety, etc.).

But in order to fully understand the complexities of an infant’s sleep and their sleep regression — particularly the four month regression — you must fully understand the four stages of sleep:

– Stage 1: “I’m not sleeping…” The first stage of sleep kicks off when one’s only just drifted off to sleep. You aren’t fully asleep, but you definitely couldn’t recount the past ten seconds.

– Stage 2: This is considered the first “true stage” of sleep. Often times, this is when someone has dozed off, and upon waking, could consciously realize that they were asleep.

– Stage 3: Better referenced as the “slow wave” sleep, this is the first deep sleep experienced in the sleep cycle. During this time, the body mends and replenishes the immune system, muscles tissues, energy stores, and nurtures one’s growth and development.

– Stage 4 (REM): The final stage is known as the “REM”(rapid eye movement) cycle of sleep, and it’s a time for the brain to collect and store information from the day, while the individual also dreams intensely.

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When an infant is younger than four months old, their schedule is the same as it was when they were in uterine, and they are immediately able to drift into stage 3 and then stage 4 (or REM) of their sleep. Hence, the reason why newborns are able to fall asleep anywhere and at anytime.

But at around four months old, infants will begin cycling through all four stages of sleep, both light and deep. Whereas adults drift in and out of these stages of sleep throughout the night, sometimes without fully waking, it takes time for infants to adjust to these new sleep patterns. (And, really, can you blame them?)

The good news for baby? Sleep regression occurring at this age is brought on by the adjustment of beginning to cycle through all four stages of sleep, and it’s considered an important milestone for infants. The good news for parents? This too shall pass.

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And the bad news? You and your little one get to deal with sleep regression and all of it’s horror once again at 8, 12, and 18 months. So, basically, RIP to your plan of a good night’s sleep for the immediate years following your child’s birth.

From one baby to another, sleep regression doesn’t mirror one another identically, but a standard period of time to expect bags beneath your eyes can range from two to six weeks. And all of this is so normal.

But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not draining. If you’re anything like me, you can’t always physically tolerate the cry-it-out method. Although I don’t look down on others practicing this method of sleep-training, for me, it didn’t work. So when the screaming begins, so does the repetitiveness of the bouncing, shushing, lulling, rocking, patting, feeding, burping and singing.

And once baby finally starts to fall asleep with their lashes fluttering, you may have found yourself slithering face-down with carpet fibers in your nose, fighting like hell not to add any weight to the squeaky floorboards you’ve memorized. You’re fearful to breathe and petrified at the thought of a possible, uncontrollable sneeze or cough.

On some nights, you break out of the nursery feeling like a boss, with baby sleeping a few more hours ’til morning and all. Other times, you start your day in the middle of the night. In those desperate and defeated times, the sleeplessness can make those moments, the ones that we are meant to soak in and eat up whole, feel somewhat unenjoyable.

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Even with the warmth of your new and sweet-smelling baby, those middle-of-the-night comfort sessions are isolating. Leaning over the crib with legs that feel like jello makes it easy to shed a tear of defeat from time to time. When you know morning-time is just on the horizon, and yet, you still don’t feel like you’ve gotten a wink of sleep, it makes the following day dreadful as it draws to a near.

As one who struggles with asking for help from others, I understand just how trying it can be to ask a friend or family member to pretty please tend to the youngin(s)’ while you catch just a half-hour of shut-eye. But during these periods of your baby’s sleep regression stages, it is more than expected, crucial to your health and fulfilling for you and everyone in the family.

For some, sticking to a schedule, maintaining a relaxing bedtime routine and adjusting your baby’s small daytime needs can be a step in the right direction when helping to get a little one back on the right path after sleep regression.

This is all so normal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. If there’s one thing parents can count on, it’s that our children will forever deprive us of our sleep. Just remember, this sleep regression stage is only for a season.

This too shall pass.

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