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Sleep Regressions, Developmental Leaps & Fussy Phases

What is a sleep regression? If your baby goes from sleeping through the night to suddenly waking several times or can no longer fall asleep or stay asleep, fights naps and is expressing the three C’s: Crying, Clingy and Cranky. You have ruled out any illness or teething and it has lasted more than a few days like a growth spurt… This may well be a sleep regression.

When do they occur? The most common sleep regressions occur around 4-6 months, 8-10 months and 11-13 months. Typically around the times a baby learns to roll, to crawl and to walk. At these stages, your baby goes through tremendous cognitive development and while learning the new skill, she will practice it again and again, even in her head, until she masters it.

Why does this affect sleep? Imagine how you feel when you are really excited about something or really nervous about a big event. You cannot turn off your thoughts which often keep you awake at night. During these phases for a baby, the brain is in overdrive and similarly, they cannot shut it off and find it really hard to get to sleep. This results in a tired, cranky baby the next day.

What can you do? Firstly, remember that this will not last forever and, if you have already got a well-trained little sleeper, things will get back on track quite quickly as long as you stay consistent. Remember to stick to your routine, especially at bedtime and don’t be afraid tooter a little more reassurance than usual. Respond to your baby’s cries and comfort her but avoid reverting back to any old sleep crutches that you have done away with. Also, encourage her with her new skill to help her to master it with plenty of practice during the day.

Sometimes a sleep regression will highlight the lack of a sleep skill such as your baby being unable to settle himself to sleep and relying on you to do it for him. In this instance, devise your plan to help him learn this skill and begin to implement your plan as soon as possible. This skill will help him pass through a sleep regression faster but it may take until the regression has passed before he shows you that he can do it.

A baby’s sleep may also take a regression as a result of a change in an area such as: routine, health, travel, physical development, mental development or environment. It is not possible to pin-point when to expect these because it depends on so many variables. However, you can be aware of any changes that might disrupt your baby’s sleep and offer reassurance and comfort through this phase; are they teething, just learned to walk, have you changed the routine?

The Wonder Weeks by Hetty van de Rijit & Frans Plooij defines the 10 predictable weeks in a baby’s mental development during the first 20 months. These are based on lots of research and  neurological studies that show significant changes in a baby’s brain at, more or less the same time for every child.

A developmental leap is usually preceded by a fussy phase and not knowing when to expect these can leave parents confused, confidence knocked and a bewildered baby. For physical development, these will happen at various ages because one child may start to walk at 10 months while another may not walk until 18 months. However, studies show that you can predict the mental developmental leaps to within a week or two! (The Wonder Weeks)

According to the Wonder Weeks, you can expect a fussy phase at weeks; 5, 8, 12, 15, 23, 34, 42, 51, 60 and 71. These are based on changes in the nervous system from conception but the weeks listed have  been calculated from date of birth. Therefore, you should adjust these for your baby if he was  premature or very late. The fussy phase can occur a week either side of these and may last anything from a few days to six weeks.

Whilst this is a useful guide, I don’t like to get hung up on exact times to expect these phases. You could experience a fussy phase due to mental development followed by a fussy phase due to physical development and then a fussy phase caused by a disruption to the routine or due to ill health. It might feel like they come along one after the other and life seems to be one big fussy phase!

If you blame everything on a developmental leap, wonder week, or growth spurt, your child will never truly learn the sleep skills he really longs for. Sure, be aware of these phases and help your child through them but do not expect miracles on the other side if your baby was already lacking in the ability to sleep independently. On the flip side, if you have a skilled little sleeper, don’t let these phases phase you (for want of a better phrase)! Things will be back to normal in no time.

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