What are sleep regressions and nap transitions?
A sleep regression is a temporary disturbance in a baby’s sleep pattern. As the term suggests, a baby takes a few steps “back” in the way she sleeps by waking more frequently or resisting naps and bedtime or having active nightwakings or taking shorter naps or waking earlier in the morning than she did before the regression.
These are usually caused by neurological changes and cognitive development.
So, it is important to note that sleep regresses but the baby is undergoing a “progression” in actuality. Regressions commonly occur at ages like 4 months (when sleep cycles and circadian rhythms are being formed), 8-10 months (when there is massive physical development and baby starts crawling and cruising, experiencing separation anxiety and also teething), 12 months (walking), 16 months (speech development and walking), 18 months, 21 months and 24 months (all 3 linked to immense speech and cognitive development).
This is a time when our babies need our support more than ever. The best way to handle regressions is to try to stick to the sleep schedule to the extent possible and give babies all the extra nurturing they need. They may need a different mode of soothing, they may need to be held while they sleep, they may need our understanding during active nightwakings. We need to avoid overtiredness as much as possible and just ride it out. Almost an entirely new person awaits us on the other side!
A nap transition is a different sort of disruption in the baby sleep journey. Babies change the number of daytime naps they take quite regularly. Just when we think we’ve got their (and therefore our, the house’s and the entire universe’s) routines in order, bam! They drop a nap and the whole world turns on its axis🙂
Babies need a fair amount of daytime sleep. As they grow older, the total amount of daytime sleep reduces gradually and it also consolidates into fewer naps. This is a neurological phenomenon. They can stay awake for longer between naps (they need a longer period of time awake to build up “sleep pressure” – which is determined by their homeostatic rhythms) and they also need longer stretches of sleep at a go. So, at 4 months old, they take 5 naps totaling about 5 hours of sleep. At 5 months, they still sleep 5 hours but they take 4 naps – some of which may be longer than before. At 6 months, they shift to 3 naps totaling 4 hours of sleep. At 8 months, they shift to 2 naps totaling 3.5 to 4 hours of sleep. Between 15 and 21 months, they shift to one mammoth nap of 3 hours. Eventually, the length of that nap reduces to 2.5 then 2 and then maybe even 1.5 hours by the age of 4 years. Somewhere between the age of 3 and 5 years, children stop napping altogether and sleep 12 hours straight at night.
Nap transitions can be tricky to manage because they usually take a few weeks to settle. There can be a long period of time when baby takes a higher number of naps on some days and a lower number on other days. This can be accompanied by nap resistance, bedtime resistance, short naps, active nightwakings and early morning wakings. Usually, the way to handle it is to help baby expand the awake windows between naps gradually and to also provide a lot of support to baby to lengthen the naps. Lengthening the naps and providing a super early bedtime (often 6 pm) helps baby manage without the extra nap.