Handling the 12 Month Sleep Regression

The 4 month sleep regression is pretty common. It’s a talked about topic among parents with newborns or babies that have recently come out of the newborn stage and perhaps… waking more frequently in the night. Many of us are familiar with this setback, but I find that the 12 month regression comes up much less often. In my experience, it’s seems that not all babies go through this regression or if they do, it’s not such a big deal. (This is true of any sleep regression- doesn’t mean every baby will struggle with sleep at these outlined times.)

I might not be the most common regression, but it’s very relevant for me at the moment because we are actually facing this regression right now at home. I like to share our personal sleep struggles, in case someone out there is going through the same thing.  Many baby’s sleep will not change at this time, so if you’re approaching the 1 year mark, don’t start stressing and fearing the worst, assuming that sleep is going to fall apart at 12 months.  It’s very possible your bub will sail on through sleeping peacefully without a hiccup. My daughter slept like a dream at this time.  If you do experience a little bump in the road around this time, it’s ok.  It will get resolved and it’s actually perfectly healthy and normal! I’m not writing this to instil fear or worry- it’s meant to reassure you that everything will be fine, and that this regression is developmentally appropriate.

Our little boy is 12 months old and has been sleeping well (not perfect) since he was 6 months (11-12 hours overnight, 1.5-2 hour naps 2xs a day)  Lately though, his sleep has been a bit funky particularly his ability to initiate sleep (I am referring to sleep starts- putting himself to sleep at the start of naps and bedtime.)  I am trying to navigate this regression, and it’s possible that if you are reading this, you are also.

 So here is what you need to know:

1) Most commonly, this regression messes with naps.  It can interrupt night time sleep BUT it is more common for parents to experience a resistance to 1 or both naps around this age: 11-12 months.  This can become confusing for parents and they begin to wonder if the days of 2 naps is over! Baby fights their second nap for 3 days in a row and they think “Huh, maybe he’s ready to transition to 1 nap a day!?” or “Maybe she doesn’t need 2 naps any more!?” This is such a common thought (in fact, after 3-4 days with really poor naps and difficulty falling asleep in the daytime with my little guy, I almost thought the same thing! If I didn’t know better, I too would have been questioning whether he was ready for 1 nap!) But this is not the case, trust me.  A 12 month old is not ready to move onto a 1 nap/day schedule simply because they cannot happily, comfortably handle wake windows of 5-6 hours before and after the 1 and only nap without becoming wayyyy over tired.  They still need that daytime sleep split up throughout the day so that their wake time is closer to 3-4 hours. Much more than that and baby will become over stimulated, over-tired and cra-aa-anky. You probably know by now that dealing with an over-tired baby is a nightmare and this built up over-tiredness can create additional sleep problems like increased night wakings and early rising.

2) If you’ve mastered the art of bedtime and all of a sudden babe is giving you major tears, protest and refusal to fall asleep when it’s time to say ‘night night’ it’s likely she’s going through this little setback. I’ve always been AMAZED at how well my son falls asleep at bedtime.  We lay him down and that’s it.  It definitely took some practice, but once he figured it out, he really loved going to bed! But these last few days bedtime has been difficult.  Drifting off appears to be a major challenge and no one is happy.  This is not pleasant to experience but if either of these scenarios are happening in your home it could be a sign that you’re facing a regression. Confusing and frustrating, yes, but believe me, this won’t last forever. 

Why does this happen….

I would say it’s a tie; the culprits being separation anxiety and MAJOR developmental milestones happening and often at the same time. (SIDE NOTE: Throw in transitioning to daycare or additional caregivers, teething, travel, etc.  All of these things impact baby’s ability to sleep well and can definitely throw off sleep.) 

  1. Separation Anxiety: Baby’s desire to be close to their loved ones starts to peak at this age.  They are more aware of when Mom or Dad are not nearby and parting at nap time or bedtime can be especially hard for them.  They begin to express real FOMO and can’t understand why they have to miss out on the “party” happening in the living room (which consists of a tired Mom, Dad, maybe a sibling and a big mess of Duplo). They are beginning to understand that if they are going to their room to sleep, it means they won’t be playing with Mom or Dad anymore and they may not like this (and they let you know!) They fight sleep in hopes of continuing to join in the non-stop fun of banging around tupperware on the kitchen floor or scooting along the furniture grabbing remote controls or the magazine you are trying to read.  Who wants to sleep when you can play with your loved ones? Fair enough.
  2. Developmental Milestones: This is a HUGE one. Doesn’t it seems like every morning, when you go to grab your little love bug from the crib, they have learned a new skill, or a new sound, or they move in a way you’ve never seen before? At this age, your baby is developing in leaps and bounds. They might be crawling, pulling up to stand (on EVERYTHING- dangerous coffee table, dishwasher, the front door and of course the crib), furniture cruising, perhaps even taking their first steps or walking! This new found mobility and sense of independence is HUGE and VERY exciting but it can interfere with baby’s ability to fall asleep because they are so  excited.  It takes time for these new skills to become mastered and until then baby may find themselves in tricky positions that are difficult to get out of or fall from time to time, or even feel insecure once bedtime hits and they are up on their feet, standing in their crib, unsure how to get back down without help.  Language may also be emerging.  New physical mobility paired with separation anxiety; it’s not surprising that your little one is having a bit of trouble in the sleep department. 

So, what can you do….

Your little one needs sleep now, perhaps even more than normal. They are exerting so much energy and learning so much each day- sleep is vital during big leaps like this so make sure it is still a priority. Look carefully at what they are going through and think about what they need.  Ask yourself,  ‘What’s new here?’ How has my little girl changed in the last 2 weeks? 

In regards to developmental leaps: For example: my guy is crawling like he is on a serious mission ALL DAY LONG. Pulling up on walls, doors, chairs- you name it.  He’s furniture cruising and pointing constantly  saying “ma ma ma ma” all day lonnng. When we do his simple, calming nap time routine and lay him in the crib for nap time, he wants none of it- immediately pulling to stand, falling back down, reaching out of the crib, pointing for the door, etc.  I am making sure that he gets TONS and tons of free time between sleep periods to explore, move, climb stairs, pull up, fall down and practice these new and exciting skills as much as he likes (of course, 100% supervised). These are not the days to confine him to the stroller, or take long car rides or have him unable to move freely from room to room. Let him move and wiggle and play and explore in a safe environment. Playing games like “Ring Around the Rosie” where everyone safely “falls down.” Have him practice getting down from standing position on the carpet with some pillows nearby and you encourage and reassure him. Lately I have been handling tears at bedtime by entering the room as calmly and gently as I can.  (FYI Baby’s ability to sleep well has a lot to do with what kind of energy you as a parent are bringing to the table so always try present yourself in a calm manner no matter how frustrated you feel!)  When I go to my little guy if he is having difficulty falling asleep, I’ll try patting the mattress gently and encourage him to lay down.  I might pick him up, give him a cuddle, remind him that it is sleepy time and lay him back down.  This might be all he needs to calm and relax.  Sometimes it takes a few tries, extra cuddles, a back rub or some reassuring words. Other times though, I leave the room and determine if he needs a bit more space before I go back in. I can usually tell by his fussing or the sounds of his cries if he needs a bit of space as he sorts things out, or if he really needs me.   I decide my exact response based on what I think he needs. 

To help ease the separation anxiety: Ask yourself the same question: What is it that your baby needs? Whenever a baby or child is experiencing separation anxiety it is VERY important to meet baby’s needs in the daytime by focusing on connection time between parent and baby and working on helping baby feel a stronger sense of trust and security when you are close but but also when you are not around. This doesn’t mean you need to stick to your baby like glue. Not at all- and this might make the anxiety worse come time to separate. But you might spend 5-10 minutes down on the floor with your little girl looking at books together, or singing, dancing to your favourite music, tickling, laughing. Studies have shown that gentle “rough housing” can be an effective bonding activity and promotes connection and trust between baby and parent.  Giving baby some alone time is important also.  This will help them learn that even though you are not right next to them, they are safe, secure and loved. Give baby a moment to play with (safe) toys without being interrupted by Mom or Dad. Leave the room for a few seconds and speak from a nearby room to teach baby that just even though you cannot be seen, you are never far.  Pop back frequently to say hi and offer some words of reassurance and positive encouragement, teaching them that when you leave, you will always come back.  If you are able to practice this in the day, they will begin to trust being away from you at bedtime or nap start.  Always tell baby where you are going when you have to leave (sneaking out might feel easier in the moment, but baby may suddenly look up and discover that you have “disappeared” which can actually be more stressful for them than if you inform them of your whereabouts and when you will be returning.)  Focus on a nice, soothing, stress-free bedtime/naptime routine, some extra cuddles or hugs, perhaps staying in the room longer than you normally would have, or visiting more frequently.  Now is not the time to rush bedtime routines or jump from “busy busy busy” to “plunked down in the crib, door shut, asleep.” Give your growing baby a nice chance to unwind and transition into “sleep mode.”  Continue to have confidence in your child and believe in their ability to sleep well and this too shall pass. Remain calm and confident. Oh, and of course, the lovey. If you don’t already have an transitional object or security item now would be the time to really encourage this bond. 

Regressions are never fun, but they are completely normal and a healthy part of any baby/child’s sleep journey.  To assume your baby/child will never have bumps in the road, setbacks or disruptions with their sleep is unrealistic and well, impossible.  Regressions happen because babies are humans.  They are growing, learning, developing, changing, transitioning, adapting, and leaping from one stage to another ALL THE TIME.  As soon as something becomes stable and predictable, baby changes and we are back to navigating an entirely new situation. Parents can never get too comfortable 🙂 Setbacks will happen BUT that they will also pass.  As I sit here writing this today, my little man’s sleep is already getting back to normal.  Until the next thing… 😉