It’s a rite of passage for parents everywhere. The moment you’ve been dreading. You put your child down to sleep for the night and, not long into their peaceful slumber, you hear them stir. Perhaps they cry out for you or toss and turn.
Whatever their sleep-related problems, coping with them can be tricky. Luckily, you’re not alone. We speak to experts in the field to get their advice on everything you should know about sleep regressions.
What are sleep regressions?
First things first, what are sleep regressions? Put simply, this is the time when your child’s sleep patterns shift. That means that they may be awake for longer during the night, or struggle to sleep all the way through.
“There are three typical ages for sleep regression; four months old when the child is becoming more awake and aware the world, eight to ten months old, when the child is developing object permanence and so has separation anxiety from a caregiver when trying to sleep, and 18 months old when the child's language and cognition is rapidly developing,” says Rachel Carey, a Children's Occupational Therapist and mother of two.
While sleep regressions are completely normal, they can be hard to deal with. Let’s face it, whenever your child is awake, you are too. For that reason, it’s important to understand what causes sleep regressions and how you can manage them in your child.
Why do sleep regressions happen?
There’s no sole reason that sleep regressions happen. While some children may not experience serious sleeping issues, some will go through tumultuous periods. Of course, many factors can influence your child’s sleep.
“There are all sorts of other reasons that sleep regressions take place from teething, through to sickness, changes in daily routine and environments, and then also the caregiver’s current emotional physical and capacity affecting the child,” says Carey.
“My oldest son Joey has always been a difficult sleeper. And now, still at five years old, he struggles to sleep often. Falling asleep is difficult for him and he has nightmares that wake him. His sleep history is a complicated one. He had painful reflux as a baby which affected his sleep. He also had a complicated health/immune profile that meant that establishing good sleep patterns was difficult because these were so often interrupted by illness.”
“My second child, Benji, had normal sleep regressions and is a much better sleeper than his older brother. He had repeated ear infections when he was very little and these definitely affected his sleep. These difficulties resolved as soon as he had grommets put in. He was always easy to settle for both day sleeps and in the night and even when he wakes during the night, will fall asleep again pretty quickly with a bit of reassurance.”
6 tips to help your child combat sleep regressions
Whatever the individual reason for your child’s sleep problems, finding a way to manage the issue is essential. After all, you both deserve a decent night’s sleep. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the tips you could try to help you along the way:
1. Try outside play during the day
Logic tells us that the more sleepy kids are at night, the better their rest will be. During the daytime, make some time for physical exercise that will wear your little one out. “Outside play is ideal for toddlers as they get some fresh air too,” says Sanjima DeZoysa, Parent Content Manager, NCT. “They usually embrace the freedom and space the outdoors gives them to shout, jump, run around, hop and skip. A walk to the local park is a good idea and most toddlers love to be pushed on the swings.”
2. Limit screen time, if possible
While screen time is fine in moderation, it could be overstimulating your child and keeping them awake. This is especially important if your little one is sensory sensitive. Consider limiting the amount of screen time your child has directly before they hit the hay. “Because Joey has always struggled with regulation and sleep we have tried a lot of different things,” says Carey. “He is sensory sensitive and so we eliminated screen time around sleep completely.”
“Benji, not being as sensory sensitive, is far more resilient and can handle a lot more change and unpredictability around bedtime. To keep things simple in the family, we make sure we meet Joey's needs when it comes to sleep hygiene and routine.”
3. Create a calming atmosphere
Similarly, the routine and atmosphere you create at home could have an impact on your child’s sleep. You may want to use calming things, like essential oils or music to help them relax and prepare them for bedtime.
“As Joey got older and he struggled with sleep from a regulation perspective,” says Carey. “We introduced a weighted blanket, essential oils in his room to help him sleep, a sensory diet of calming play activities during the day, a very predictable bedtime routine, and magnesium supplements. We now use CBD oil, under supervision, to help him calm when he has nightmares.”
5. Keep a sleep journal
When your child struggles to sleep, you'll try a variety of approaches. So, how can you keep track of which work and which do not? Using a sleep journal may be the answer. “The best thing that I have done, and the thing that has helped me manage his sleep difficulties the most, has been keeping a sleep journal,” says Carey. “This was particularly helpful when he was between five to nine months and was waking every 30 minutes or so during the night.”
“I started keeping a note on my phone of each time that he awoke, what I did to soothe him and to get him back to sleep, and how long it took for him to fall asleep again. I could then see some patterns in what was happening and could change my management appropriately. I changed one thing at a time and did it for a few nights.”
“With doing this, I did not get him to sleep through but was able to identify more achievable and sustainable ways of getting him back to sleep.”
6. Consider a new bedtime
Naturally, as your child ages, they will need different amounts of sleep. So, when your little one is nearing toddler age, it may be time for a whole new milestone; a later bedtime. “If your toddler’s taking a long time to fall asleep, it could be that they’re ready for a new bedtime. You might want to think about shifting their schedule but try to keep their bedtime routine more or less the same,” says DeZoysa.
Keep calm and carry on!
If you’re with sleep regressions, it may feel like an endless battle. However, it’s important to remember that this period is entirely normal. All you can do is keep trying to soothe your child and stay strong. Try out our tips, simply keep calm and carry on.
“One of the best things I was told was that sleeping through is not a milestone. It is not a developmental thing that children achieve and can then do it — like crawling or walking or talking,” says Carey. “Sometimes children do and sometimes they don't. And sometimes they will sleep through and then they will stop sleeping through. All you can do is meet the need as best you can in the stage you are in.”
About Rachel Carey
Rachel Carey is a Children's Occupational Therapist and the mother of two little boys. She is passionate about early child development and about what is happening in the brain in those early years of life. Follow her on Instagram @rachie_ot_mom for daily developmental play ideas to boost your little one's imagination, play skills, learning and development.
About Sanjima DeZoysa
Sanjima DeZoysa is the Parent Content Manager at National Childbirth Trust (NCT). Find out more about sleep regressions here: nct.org.uk//toddler-sleep-how-help-any-problems
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