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Why I don't believe in the 4 or 6-month "regression" (OR "progression")

You may well have heard about sleep regressions and progressions at 4/6/12 months (or any other month for that matter) and been struck with dread about a looming bumpy road of sleep ahead.

I often find people love to label sections of sleep 'regressions' or 'progressions', but both terms, kind of imply the same thing; that you should expect changes to sleep to happen at certain times.

One of the reasons I'm not a fan of these terms is that they prescribe times for biological changes in sleep. There is actually no research that proves their existence. No evidence has been found that sleep hits a bump in the road at a certain age, so to me it feels like adding to a parent's plate with no real foundation!

It also implies that this is a problematic time of regression or 'atypical' sleep.

In paediatrics, "regression" often refers to a red flag. Red flags would be the loss of an acquired skill. Sleep is not a skill, it's a homeostatic bodily function and is also the product of habits, development, and parenting meaning that this terminology doesn't really fit!

But that mum at the baby group promised you were destined for a rough patch?!

Fundamentally, it is about understanding that when children develop their sleep can go a bit wonky. Whatever they learn or new skills they acquire can impact sleep. What's important, as parents, is to understand that this is normal!

You might like to ask yourself what is your child doing right now? They may have learned new words and begun to roll or grab a toy.

Does a "regression" happen to every baby?

In short No! Not all babies are impacted by a developmental leap or progression and that's why I find that these terms can be unnecessarily terrifying for an event that doesn't scientifically exist! Some children might sleep better due to being extra tired! Having that underlying fear or searching for problems with your child's sleep can be problematic and stressful for parents.

But as we are natural scientists we like to be able to give a reason or explanation for things that happen to us. So let's look a little deeper into what can happen around the 4-6 months mark that can contribute to what families can experience around this stage.

Why does a "regression" happen?

As the brain develops and new skills are acquired the brain is growing and creating new neural pathways, this requires lots of energy. To fuel the growing brain, more energy is required which often means children wake more frequently needing a feed to take in more glucose (obtained from milk) to fuel their growing brain!

What also is happening is the maturation of the sleep cycle meaning they move through more stages of sleep than they did when they were a newborn, which can mean we see more challenges around sleep.

Common sleep challenges between 4-6 months.

At around 4 months babies are developing their own internal body clock or circadian rhythm, they have made it through the fourth trimester and are beginning to be more alert. Babies generally need 4-5 hours of sleep may be spread across 4 naps, reducing gradually as they get a little older.

Some common sleep challenges we can see include:

  1. Difficulty settling to sleep.

  2. Difficulty with naps.

  3. Shortened naps, or missed naps.

  4. Grizzly, cranky behaviour in the daytime.

  5. More frequent night waking.

  6. Startling awake after 5-10 minutes, as the are transitioning to deeper sleep.

Here are some quick fixes!

  1. Start with a sleep diary: keep a sleep diary to help paint a picture of if your child may be in need of more sleep during the day or night

  2. Optimise feeds; Check that feeding during the day is optimized. Try to remove distractions or use nursing necklaces to keep babies focused on feeding. Distracted babies may be ‘reverse-cycling’ their day, catching up on their feeds at night when there are fewer distractions. Don't be tempted to offer solid food early as this can increase the risk of developing allergies and there is no evidence offering solid foods early improve sleep outcomes. Here is a resource should you wish to explore this further

  3. Set up predictable nap patterns and a consistent routine you carry out before sleep.

  4. Support them through cycles: placing a hand on your child's chest and tummy just before they usually wake/stir can help them to stay asleep by preventing the startle reflex which can often wake them during this lighter patch of sleep.

  5. Play with the timings of sleep: you may find an earlier bedtime will make your little ones' transition to sleep a bit easier if they are becoming dysregulated and overtired before bed.

  6. Offer comfort: It's easy to assume a baby wakes because they are hungry but often at this age they are also developing attachment and object permeance awareness, meaning they may well want comfort from you. Offering a reassuring hand in their cot can help support them back to a place of calm.

  7. Ensure there are no problems with feeding, reflux, allergy, or other medical concerns.

  8. Check out this guide from the NHS.

My "regression" tips:

Keep it simple. Sometimes the fear of sleep going wonky can drive us to make changes to a child's sleep that aren't needed or read into any little sleep hiccups. Changes in your child's development CAN impact sleep. But don't worry about the scaremongering of the 4/6/etc, etc month regression/ progression. These fearful pockets of time aren't helpful for anyone!

So consider sleep a moving target, we simply need to adjust and adapt as we would with our own sleep. Infant sleep can feel overwhelming due to lots of rules and windows and strict structure. But generally when we are armed with knowledge about sleepy cues and good sleep hygiene often we can address these issues practically by making small shifts to timings by around 15 to 30 minutes where necessary.

Your child is an individual, developing at their own pace! IF sleep presents some challenges then I am here to help guide you through!

Love & Sleepy Dust,

Imogen X

The Little Sleep Company

For more support and advice contact me here!


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