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Sweet Dreams Turned Sour: Understanding and Managing Your Child’s Sleep Disruptions

Once again, your child isn’t sleeping as well as usual and it’s time to play your favorite game:

Is it a regression?

Is it teething?

Is it time for a schedule change?

If you have been a parent for longer than 2 weeks, you know that your child’s sleep is always adapting. Sure, you will have weeks (maybe even months) where you’ve finally hit a sweet spot, but before you know it – sleep is disrupted again. If you are like me, you might feel desperate to figure out why! This blog will guide you through the process of pinpointing the most likely cause of your child’s sleep regression or disruption.

But the first thing you should do is….

Wait for a Trend

I know that after a bad night of sleep, you want to jump into problem-solving mode! After all, who wouldn’t want to get back to those full nights of rest right away? Here’s the deal, if we jump to make changes every time we experience a sleep disruption, we are going to make a lot of unnecessary changes.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to wait until you see a trend in your child’s sleep before you start sleuthing around to see what is causing your child’s sleep concerns. At a minimum, wait until you have two nights in a row of sleep disturbances (Although, truthfully, I would encourage you to see a trend of 3-5 nights of sleep disruptions first!).

Your child will have nights where they don’t sleep well, and there won’t be much rhyme or reason behind it. We have to remember that your child is a human, not a robot. They will have a poor night’s sleep sometimes and obsessing over it is not worth your [already limited] energy!

With that being said, once you have noticed a trend in your child’s sleep, let’s look at what might be behind the disruption.

My editor has a contribution here that made my heart giddy. Her rule of thumb was to wait until Thursdays when I had my weekly Q&A on Instagram. If it was still an issue on Thursday, then she would ask about it! We can include this in a way to win the heart of your sleep consultant.

Most Common Causes for Sleep Disruptions

· Sleep Regression

· Teething

· Schedule Change or Nap Transition needed

· Illness

Is it a Sleep Regression?

Common Characteristics of Sleep Regressions

· Typically occur around specific ages

· Correlate with developmental milestones

· Last 2-3 weeks

· Can cause a variety of sleep disruptions

Every parent has a horror story to tell about one sleep regression or another. Sleep regressions can be one of the “longer-lived” sleep disruptions! Their length can vary, but they usually last two to three weeks, assuming that we have not established any new sleep habits during that time.

The good news about sleep regressions is that they generally occur around the same ages. This is because they correlate with your child’s growth and development! Taking a look at the typical regression ages can give you a sense of if a regression is to blame. (If you click on any of the following links it will take you to a blog that specifically outlines what you can expect during that regression!):

Sleep regressions typically correlate with new milestones. These milestones can be physical or cognitive milestones! If you have noticed that your baby has picked up some new skills lately, or is on the verge of learning new skills, then they may be hitting a regression!

The trickiest part about sleep regressions is that they are not a one-size-fits-all. It may feel like no two sleep regressions strike the same way! Regressions can look like taking a long time to fall asleep, false starts, increased night wakes, split nights, early morning wakings, or short and unpredictable naps.

Is it Teething?

Common Characteristics of Teething

· Fussy and irritated at night AND during the day

· Red and swollen gums

· A white mountain peak under the gum line

· Trouble eating

· Excessive drooling

· Rubbing ears or cheeks

Teething is the most typical scapegoat for sleep problems! While teething CAN impact sleep, it typically only disrupts sleep for a very limited amount of time. Teething itself is not a short process (2-3 weeks), but the most painful part of teething that disrupts sleep only lasts approximately 48-72 hours.

Sleep disruptions tend to happen when the tooth is just about to break through the gums! Hard to predict, right?! You may notice that the gums are red and swollen, or that there is a tiny white mountain peak underneath the gums.

While there are average ages when teething may occur, each baby develops at their own pace! For example, my boys had almost all of their teeth before they were one year old! My friend’s baby had NONE of her teeth by one year! Neither is cause for alarm, so take this teething timeline with a grain of salt:

Is it Time for a Schedule Change?

Common Characteristics of Needing a Schedule Change

· Taking a long time to fall asleep for naps or skipping naps altogether

· Consistently taking short naps that are under an hour

· Taking a long time to fall asleep for bedtime

· Early morning wakings

· Split nights (long wakings in the middle of the night)

As your child grows, their sleep needs will also mature! Wake windows will become lengthier and more flexible, and night sleep will also become more easily consolidated. Thankfully, children go through schedule changes around the same ages so it is possible to predict when a schedule change might occur!

There are average ages for a schedule change, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Our children are not carbon copies of each other. It is important to know these ages, but it is equally important to pay attention to your own child and what their behavior is telling you!

In general, there are warning signs leading up to schedule changes. Rarely do your child’s sleep needs dramatically change overnight! If you are unsure what these warning signs might look like, then take a look at the “yellow light” phases of nap transitions in the blog below:

As your child grows, you will find their wake windows need to be increased. This may not mean that they need to drop a nap, but they may be ready for a longer wake window between their naps! Before you take this step, make sure your child is consistently taking a long time to fall asleep for their naps. Sometimes your child will have an off nap day just because! Once you have noticed a trend, adjust the schedule slowly. If your child is under a year old, try adding 15 minutes onto their wake window at a time. If your child is over a year old, try adding 30 minutes to their wake window at a time!

Once your child starts to skip naps, or if bedtime has gotten to be uncomfortably late, then it may be time to drop a nap! Check out this graphic on the average ages when your child may drop their nap:

Is it Illness?

Common Characteristics of Teething

· Spacing out

· Poor appetite

· Fussier than normal

· Seeming more tired throughout the day

· Symptomatic

· Can strike at any time of year, but notorious for occurring during the colder months (Fall and Winter)

Unfortunately, the season of sickness is upon us. Fall and Winter are notorious for bringing about every viral illness known to existence – especially if you have school aged or daycare children at home! Two things tend to happen when children get sick, and at first it might seem like they contradict each other!

1. Children’s sleep needs tend to rise during illness. Your child’s wake windows may seem shorter than they were before, and there may be times that they take longer naps or sleep in later in the morning.

2. Their sleep might become more disrupted. We may see more wakeups at times that our children were previously sleeping well at night!

To sum it up, most families will report that their child sleeps A LOT but its more broken up. As you can imagine, a child might have a harder time connecting their sleep cycles if they are congested or have body pains.

The days leading up to illness can have parents second guessing why their child’s sleep is disrupted. Typically, they do not have strong symptoms at first, but things might feel “off”. Children might seem a little more sleepy or fussy than normal. They also might appear to seem “out of it”. Always pay attention to your instincts here! This is a great time to stock up on Pedialyte or infant pain medication if it has been approved by your pediatrician!

To Wrap Up

Baby sleep can feel draining sometimes. It feels SO magical when we finally figure out the recipe for a good night’s sleep, only for it to be taken away again due to some type of sleep disruption. Constantly playing the guessing game as to why sleep is disrupted can feel discouraging, and many parents will start to feel like all the work they have put into creating good sleep habits is going to waste. Frustration and discouragement are completely normal emotions to be feeling right now.

I want to take a moment to reassure you that the work you have put in DOES matter! Sleep disruptions are a normal part of your child’s life, and they wouldn’t have had those great nights without you! The work you are doing now is a gift that you are giving yourself and your child for YEARS to come. We live in a culture where most people are chronically sleep deprived, touting the phrase: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” You KNOW how important sleep is for your child’s mind, body, and soul. Even if it doesn’t go perfectly all the time, you are showing your child how important it is to prioritize sleep and rest – in a culture that would easily tell them otherwise.

Edited by the kind hearted Emily Schafer

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