Sleep Regressions May Not Actually Be A Real Thing

Sleep Regressions Might Not Be The Reason Your Baby Isn’t Sleeping

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My first son was an intense, high-needs baby who was nearly impossible to put to sleep and woke up frequently at night. When he little, I was on a mission to understand the reason behind his all his finicky sleeplessness in the hopes that I could figure out how to make things better, or at least survive the whole ordeal.

When he was about three months old, and began sleeping even worse than he had before, I scoured the internet to help me figure out what in fresh hell was going on. At first, even though it was early, teething seemed like a possibility. Then gas. Then a growth spurt.

When I came across the idea of a “sleep regression,” a little lightbulb went off in my head, and I thought, “Ahhhh, yes. This is what it is!”

Sleep regressions are basically defined as times when your baby suddenly becomes fussy, hard to settle, and more wakeful—usually after a period of relative calm. The idea was popularized by the book, The Wonder Weeks, a bestselling book (and now an app), which defines ten major developmental periods in your baby’s first 20 months of life that correspond with increased periods of fussiness and sleep regressions.

The book lays out a timetable as to when these fussy periods and sleep regressions are supposed to occur. And yep, three months (11-12 weeks), the age my baby was then, was one of those “developmental leaps.” I was amazed by how accurate the book was. My son was exactly 12 weeks old. His sleep had gotten a little better at two months, and was notably worse now.

The signs of development that my son was showing—a propensity toward more intentional physical movements, and an ability to follow voices and visual cues—also corresponded to what the book described he was supposed to be doing, and what was turning his mood and his sleep to shit.

It Turns Out That Sleep Regressions May Not Be Real: pair of little feet sticking out from blanket
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Not only did it explain my son’s sleep issues, but it was fascinating stuff. At least his crap sleep had a purpose, right? This set my mind at ease.

As the months went on, though, I began to lose a little faith in the whole sleep regressions timeline that was presented in the book. First of all, I felt like there needed to be about twice as many sleep regressions in there, because it seemed like my baby’s sleep got worse and then better and then worse again pretty much all the damn time.

And while it was reassuring to be able to pin a cause like a sleep regression on the dumpster fire of my baby’s sleep, it seemed like there were so many things that would wreck sleep, like illness, separation anxiety, growth spurts, and bad dreams. Those things seemed to happen pretty randomly, definitely not on the schedule that the sleep regression experts proposed.

Honestly, it was pretty difficult to tease out which was the culprit when it came to sleep. It ended up being easier and a lot less stressful for me to stop analyzing it all, and accept that babies sometimes just don’t sleep because…well, they’re babies.

It turns out I may have been on to something. Now, more than a decade after I first latched onto the idea of sleep regressions, experts are questioning the validity of such claims, at least from a scientific point of view.

Recently, science journalist Jessica Wapner penned a piece for the New York Times which concluded that although the idea of a sleep regression may be comforting for parents—and although there may be some grains of truth in the idea that babies are more wakeful at certain times—the research behind sleep regressions is sorely lacking.

It Turns Out That Sleep Regressions May Not Be Real: baby crying wrapped in blanket
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“[W]hile experts (and parents) agree that sleep patterns can vary wildly throughout a baby’s first two years, no rigorous data support the notion that nap and nighttime changes happen at predetermined times or are linked to specific developmental milestones,” writes Wapner.

As Wapner points out, if you take a dive into the research and data behind The Wonder Weeks, you’ll find that the ten developmental leaps that are the core of the book are based on questionnaires and interviews of only 15 moms, which is too small a sample size for significant theorizing.

“Critics say that 15 participants and two direct observations is too small a pool on which to base a theory,” says Wapner.

Wapner asked Dr. Jodi Mindell, a child psychologist and sleep expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to give her opinion on the validity study. “[I]t has to be a very large sample,” said Dr. Mindell. “I think that means looking at thousands of babies.”

Dr. Frans Plooij, co-author of The Wonder Weeks, begs to differ. He tells Wapner that as long as you have at least two moms who had similar experiences “you already have proof that the phenomenon exists and is not due to luck or chance.” He also says that further research to support his data exists, though these studies also had small sample sizes and only one was from a peer reviewed journal.

So what does all this mean for parents, especially the exhausted parents of little ones who are looking for some rhyme or reason to their baby’s up-all-night antics?

Well, none of this is a total abolishment of the whole sleep regressions thing. For many parents, it may be helpful and reassuring to use a book like The Wonder Weeks as a guide to baby sleep and development. Babies do wake all the time, and it’s helpful to understand some of the reasons behind it all. I still have a soft spot for that book and find value in it.

Most experts agree that there is some truth to the fact that babies are more wakeful when they are learning new skills (like rolling over, sitting up, crawling, and walking) or going through one of the many amazing developmental phases that all babies experience. The problem is that when those phases happen, and whether they are predictable or similar for all babies, is yet to be decided. So it’s probably best to take the whole “sleep regression” thing with a grain of salt.

In my experience, the thing that helped me the most when it came to baby sleep was ignoring most of the advice out there from books, websites, and the like, and trusting my instincts as a mom. Those instincts involved keeping the faith that my baby was normal, that he would sleep through the night eventually, and that driving myself bonkers analyzing every little thing about how he was sleeping was probably more trouble (and stress) than it was worth.