Does this sound familiar? Your baby’s sleep was getting better. In fact, she was on her way to sleeping through the night — you could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Suddenly, it all started to unwind: she was harder and harder to put to sleep, waking up every three hours at night, taking short cat naps, and seeming ready to party all day.
When I describe this pattern, the majority of moms and dads nod. They tell similar stories: baby was sleeping in longer stretches for the first 3 – 5 months, but now is waking more frequently, eating more at night, and having trouble falling back to sleep.
What makes a baby’s sleep regress? The short answer (and the silver lining) is brain development. It sounds counterintuitive that leaps in cognitive ability would make for sleep setbacks, but it’s true. Between 3 and 6 months, babies experience a boom in consciousness, making them more aware and attuned to their environment, which means a formerly smooth sleeper can easily start calling out in the wee hours. Every baby wakes up at night, but with a new level of alertness, it’s much more likely that baby will call out instead of settling back to sleep on her own.
Changes in sleep patterns can happen at any age, because — you guessed it — a little one’s brain is constantly changing. In the preschool years, advanced powers of imagination and the awareness that bad things can happen mean many kids have anxiety about saying goodnight and being alone.
In other words, kids don’t just start sleeping one day and never go back. Along the way, and with developmental changes, they need our help to re-establish healthy sleep. Here are some tips to keep sleep on track …
1. Help, but Don’t Over-Help
When your baby wakes, instead of immediately scooping her up, try patting her back or replacing the pacifier first. Even if it doesn’t work the first few nights, if you scale back your help, it leaves a window for the baby to eventually need less over time.
A preschooler might need a few more checks after bedtime to help with separation anxiety, or more tools for managing fears of the dark, but try to avoid staying in the room until the child is asleep, or it quickly becomes a dependency. (If this is already happening, don’t worry, there are ways to extricate yourself.)
2. Don’t Assume It’s a Growth Spurt
More night wakings don’t necessarily mean increased hunger at night. After the first 4 – 6 months, wakings are usually more about active brains and habits than rumbling tummies. That doesn’t mean an older baby can’t be hungry in the night, of course, but don’t assume you need to add in many feedings for a baby who used to make it through the night with only one or two.
3. Hang in There with Short Naps
It’s common for babies to take catnaps around 3 – 6 months of age, and they almost always get better. Don’t despair — keep putting your baby down at the right time for naps, work on healthy sleep habits, and they will eventually grow.
4. Re-establish Sleep Habits
Double-check that your bedtime routine and nap routine are working well. Sometimes a sleep regression means the bedtime routine is outdated and needs a few tweaks, or even an overhaul.
Make sure that your older baby or toddler isn’t being put to bed already asleep. A child going into the crib or bed awake and finding her own way to get comfortable and fall asleep is the number one predictor of good sleep — both now and through all those developmental changes down the road.
Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist and co-author of The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep — Newborn to School Age.