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10 Ways Babies Regress In Their First Year And 5 Reasons It's OK

Sleep is the big one. Any mother or father can tell admit to that. A baby is sleeping “through the night” – a phrase, by the way, that will likely inspire an emphatic hallelujah from any parents that happen to be nearby – and then, she’s not.

It’s like you’ve been given the greatest gift of all (a real night of sleep for yourself), and then it is cruelly snatched away from you as if it was all some kind of terribly mean joke.

When regressions such as these occur, it can be easy for new parents to feel like something is wrong. Is something not right with their baby? Are they flawed in their parenting practices or approaches?

But what experienced moms and dads usually wind up realizing is that development tends to be sort of a bit of progress, then a bit of regression. One step forward, two steps back… then a couple more forward… It is so regular to experience change that I have come to accept it as the norm.

I am a mom of two little ones, and things like sleep patterns and behavior are topics which I have come to accept as constantly in flux.

I don’t even really think about things in terms of “regression” because to me, suddenly napping more or less, not sleeping through the night anymore, or acting younger than they usually do is just sort of par for the course every now and then.

As long as things are generally moving in the right direction as far as hitting those milestones, it’s all good in the hood.

So that you might also be more at ease, check out these 10 ways babies regress in their first year – and 5 reasons it’s OK.

15 A Night Owl All Over Again

When I hear “regression” in the same breath as the word “baby,” I think – you guessed it – sleep.

It’s such common stuff from any conversation that new parents have with other new parents. Everything is going great, in that a little one is finally (regularly) sleeping all the way from bedtime until morning time without waking tearfully, often to request milk… and then… it’s gone. The baby may wake every 45 minutes, an hour or two after bedtime, or at some other time(s) in the night.

TodaysParent.com includes this little anecdote: “Delphine Nicholls Golan knew some damage control was in order. So by the door of the apartment unit next to hers, she placed a bottle of wine, a box of earplugs and a note: ‘Dear Neighbours: Apologies in advance for any late-night screams. I’m learning to sleep through the night,’ signed ‘Aleph, 4 months.’ The Toronto mom of two was in the throes of the dreaded four-month sleep regression—that phase when infants who have been sleeping longer stretches at night suddenly stop. ‘Aleph went from sleeping three and a half hour stretches to waking every 45 minutes,’ she says. ‘You start to go crazy.’

The site continues,

“All babies experience numerous sleep setbacks in their first two years, but the four-month mark sleep regression feels especially cruel.

You’re massively sleep-deprived from caring for your newborn around the clock, and just when you think you might be inching toward a full night of sleep, the regression hits.”

14 Normal Cause: Teething Time

As I’ve mentioned before in my writing and will surely mention again, steps that feel like they are in the wrong direction, regression, and upsets to the “normal” routine all become, well, normal after a while spent with babies and young kids.

Really, it’s like just when you sort of feel like you might have something predictable on your hands, something that you can deal with a little more confidently – a routine that makes you feel a bit more in control of this incredibly chaotic thing called parenthood, there’s some big change that makes you feel like all is lost yet again.

The big one, the one that keeps parents up at night and wondering why their kids won’t just eat / sleep / nurse / you name it is… teething.

“If those big cognitive leaps aren’t enough to contend with, your baby probably isn’t eating as much during the day because he’s so busy rolling, grabbing, possibly even sitting. Throw teething pain into the mix, and it’s no wonder you’re up all night,” says TodaysParent.com. The site continues, “To overcome sleep regression, your baby needs to get used to these new developments; and since many are here to stay, the key to surviving this stage becomes less about fixing a problem and more about adapting (and helping your baby adapt) to these changes.”

13 Shifting Back In Modes Of Mobility

In my experience, this one often doesn’t last very long, and it’s often carried out for fun or as an act of imitation.

A baby that has already been walking (yes, some do indeed accomplish the milestone before their very first birthday), and he reverts to crawling for a bit again,

often just for a little session or two within the day. I saw it just the other day at my local library’s story time for babies and toddler, actually. The little one was crawling around on the floor, and the mother was asking, “Why are you crawling?”

I could tell that it was probably just because there were vividly colorful Very Hungry Caterpillar rugs spread out on the floor meant specifically to attract young kids, and the baby was happily getting a close look at the letters and numbers so nicely decorating the mats’ edges.

Even if you can walk, crawling can be fun!

I’ve also witnessed, in my own life as a mother of two little ones, babies reverting to doing that thing where they sort of scootch around on the ground on their tummies when they have already been doing plenty of crawling.

It’s fun for little ones to experiment with how they can move around in their environments, on various surfaces… and to see how others will react when they do so.

Our kitchen floor, for example, is a great place for sliding backward on your tummy, apparently.

12 Needs More Naps Again

While my first baby decided to be all done with the whole nap thing at an astoundingly (too bad for me, huh?) young age and then was actually done with it, my second has gone through some fluctuation.

She, as I’ve heard in my own mommy circles is not uncommon, would drop a nap and go more toward two main naps in the day only to then revert back to needing three.

It can sometimes become a game of “How long do I dare try to keep this baby up in order to consolidate to fewer (and hopefully longer) naps without risking letting her get so overly tired that she struggles to relax and sleep at all?”

It can be a dangerous game, to be sure, but some kids are actually pretty easy to read once you’ve spent any amount of time around them.

Babies often take fewer and fewer naps during the day.

For example, a baby may work his or way toward two main naps (one in the morning, and one in the afternoon) as he gets closer to that one-year birthday, and following that may move more toward one main nap in the middle of the day.

It can be confusing – believe me – when your baby seems to sort of revert back to an earlier schedule sometimes, especially if you’re trying to fit in other things that you need to do during your own day’s schedule, such as, um, writing articles about babies, pregnancy, and parenting…

11 Normal Cause: Growth & Development

So what might cause these various regressions? Often, it’s just normal development, a growth spurt, or that a baby is about to hit milestone:

Parents.com says, “Don't freak out if [your] baby's behavior seems off temporarily.” They include,

“Right before the next big milestone, you might see regression in eating and sleeping… So it's kind of this dance, two steps forward and one step back, because they're really gearing up energy for that next big step.”

The baby sleep site SleepTightConsultants.com also notes that regressions “often coincide with cognitive or developmental milestones.”

And as far as the whole sleep thing, the way babies sleep changes as they mature, so regression in that department totally makes sense.

You might notice your baby now jolts awake to noises he used to sleep through—it’s now much, much harder to transfer him to a crib,” says TodaysParent.com. “Infants are in quiet sleep most of the time with no distinct sleep cycles… But at the four-month mark, a baby’s brain begins cycling through light (REM) and deep (non-REM) sleep stages, like we do… However, infant sleep cycles are much shorter than a child or adult’s (around 30 to 50 minutes, compared with 90), and babies spend approximately half of their sleep cycle in light sleep after they hit sleep regression, which is why they’re so easily awoken.”

10 Needy With The Nursing

It is just not always a predictable pattern when it comes to breastfeeding. Kids may tend to follow the general trend of wanting to nurse a bit less and then a bit less still as they consume more and more solid foods, but there will likely be some ups and downs, especially if you decide to let them lead the way when it comes to weaning.

Such upticks in nursing can start quite early, if you just pay attention. The baby sleep website SleepTightConsultants.com mentions that at 6 weeks,

“Newborns frequently go through a series of growth spurts leading to [increased] hunger and fussiness. Think about how rapidly your newborn is growing at this age! So much happens in a relatively short span of time, and this all takes lots of work on your baby’s part.”

Nursing needs can of course also go up in response to the need for comfort, not just calories.

According to a “Supporter” on the online forums for La Leche League International (at the website Forums.LLLI.org), “There's absolutely nothing wrong with comfort nursing — it helps build and maintain the nursing relationship, it's good for supply, and it's one of mother's most powerful tools for soothing baby! Let baby suck away.”

9 Refusing Daytime Rest

What was rough for me, with my first baby, as a parent who cared for my child from home full-time and also worked full-time from home, was when the absolute refusal to nap hit.

TodaysParent.com offers up, “Instead of following a rigid sleep schedule, take note of your baby’s natural sleep cues—yawning, eye rubbing, fussing—and put him down before he gets overtired.”

The site also quotes one source saying, “I think calling this stage a regression comes less from [the babies] not sleeping and more from the parents hitting their wall.” Another source they quote says that “Once you establish that your child isn’t sick, you understand the science behind their wakefulness and you know there is an end in sight, you can respond in a way that works best for you. Eventually, every child sleeps… It’s not a magic trick. It’s a biological need.”

TodaysParent.com says, regarding sleep regression in general, that “While it’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong, what’s happening at this stage is actually very right. ‘Your baby’s brain is waking up,’ says Pam Edwards, a certified pediatric sleep consultant based in Grand Prairie, Alta. His sleep cycles are becoming more [adult], and, thanks to major cognitive and developmental leaps that occur around four months, he’s also becoming acutely more aware of his world. That might not be comforting at 3 a.m., but take heart. Sleep regressions are perfectly natural—even predictable, and they don’t last forever (typically, two to six weeks).”

8 Fussy About Feedings

This one can be really tough – believe me, I know.

It’s when a baby quite suddenly won’t breastfeed at the times that he or she usually would, or even completely refuses to nurse at all.

This can leave a mother feeling upset and engorged, and the whole thing can be really, really intense. If it’s all of the sudden like this, it probably doesn’t mean that a baby is actually trying to make it clear that he or she is done with nursing for good (and obviously not if it is a newborn or younger baby).

My little one, to provide an example of sudden drops in breastfeeding success, has gone through some days recently where she hasn’t wanted to nurse at all, leaving me engorged and quite honestly rather emotional. I’ve needed to bust out the breast pump just to keep myself comfortable and healthy.

Then, when she’s over the cold or the tooth she’s been working on has finally poked through, she’s back to requesting milk at all the usual times and then some, even.

The baby sleep sight SleepTightConsultants.com notes that it can also just be a bit harder for a baby to focus in at certain ages, such as at 3-4 months during what’s commonly called the 4-month sleep regression. The author of the info provided there says, “I often think of this as one of the hardest time periods. In addition to a growth spurt, your baby is going through bursts of brain development increased awareness of her surroundings leading her to being more distractible in months past.

7 Must Be With Mom

In my experience, each baby has his or her own distinct personality (it’s like they’re actually real little people or something!). While most go through some periods of clinginess with mom (or the primary caregiver), shyness or “stranger danger,” and other such spells as perfectly normal, these behaviors may be way more noticeable in one child than they are in another, as well as, of course, much longer or shorter lasting in some cases.

A tot that was quite fearless, eager, and adventurous when it came to new people and social situations may suddenly seem to be clingy and / or needy for the parent or person providing most of his or her care.

The baby sleep site SleepTightConsultants.com says of a baby at 8 - 10 months, “This can also be an age where children experience their first big burst of separation anxiety. While prior to this moment, your baby may not have cared whether you wanted out of the room for a few moments, now there is suddenly screaming when you attempted to walk away to use the bathroom. Bedtime is often the biggest separation that children have from their parents all day. As babies go through this point in their development, they begin to realize that they are a separate being from their parents. This separation is often most strongly experienced as it relates to the parent with whom your child has his or her primary attachment.”

6 Normal Cause: A Cold

There are a certain predictable set of factors that can really throw off a baby’s normal routine, and to me, it all makes perfect sense.

One of your first clues that your little one isn’t feeling well, in fact, may be a regression, particularly in the ole sleep department. (My baby… last night. While I was also coming down with my second bad cold this month. Bummer!)

When something is off with the eating, nursing, or sleeping schedule, I immediately start watching for signs of fever, sniffles, sore throat, and congestion.

I mean, I don’t like to chew and swallow stuff as much when I’m getting or already am sick.

And lord knows I have a super hard time getting any actual sleep when I can’t lie down without coughing, there’s snot leaking out of my face and down my throat, and I can’t breathe through my nose.

SleepTightConsultants.com includes what so many parents come to understand: “What is a sleep regression? A sleep regression is when your baby was previously sleeping well (possibly through the night) for a long period of time and then, all of a sudden, without a known cause (such as the big sleep stealers: illness, teething, travel), their sleep suddenly goes downhill. Sleep regressions can last anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks…”

5 Normal Cause: Just Thrown Off / Stressed Out

After thinking about all of these issues on and off throughout the entire day (see, I fit my work in within tiny little pockets of “free” time throughout my day as an at-home mom to a baby and a toddler), it is all making more and more sense to me – more so than it ever did when I first had a baby of my own, to be sure.

See, babies are just tiny humans, so there’s really a lot that we can understand about their behavior, in all likelihood, seeing that we are also of this very same species.

When a baby’s normal behavior goes out the window and gives way to regression, it is sometimes just due to an upset to the normal routine (think travel, moving, a new daycare…) or some sort of stress.

NCBI.NLM.HIH.gov includes an article explaining, “Regression is typical in normal childhood, and it can be caused by stress, by frustration, or by a traumatic event. Children usually manifest regressive behavior to communicate their distress.”

And, as touched on elsewhere in this piece, the upset to the routine might just be that baby is about to hit a milestone: At or before 12 months, for example, there’s the big one, as included at SleepTightConsultants.com: “Walking! Some babies will walk sooner [than] 12 months, some later. [One-year-olds have] less regressions than younger babies, but whenever your child begins walking, it can easily throw your child’s sleep for a loop.

4 Not So Smooth With Food

I know from experience that new parents can tend to put a LOT of time and energy into worrying about how much their little ones are (or, rather, aren’t) eating.

It makes sense. It’s our job to ensure that our babies are offered adequate healthy foods to try, the better to allow them to grow, survive, and thrive.

That’s why it can be so concerning (or even frustrating) when a baby suddenly just isn’t eating as much as he or she usually would,

or when breakfast, lunch, and dinner seem to become times to play around, get upset, and make a huge (and apparently pointless and wasteful) mess.

It may be helpful to remember that meal times for babies are actually not just about the actual eating.

Many children begin to eat “solid” foods at the table with the rest of the family starting at something like 4 to 6 months of age, and from the get-go, it’s so much about the experience, and not just getting food into that little belly.

They learn social skills, experiment with tastes, smells, and textures, and work on those fine motor skills, too.

It can be hard, but I’ve found that it’s helpful to look at the much bigger picture, rather than obsessing too much about what a baby does or doesn’t eat at any one particular meal.

3 Crying As Communication

This article may be specifically geared toward parents of babies still within the first 12 months of life, but let me tell ya, this form of regression may happen many times in the years ahead.

It’s when a child who quite clearly has more advanced means of communication suddenly reverts to things like crying, whining, or screaming; grunting; or physically lashing out to express him- or herself.

It can be frustrating. That is one of the biggest understatements I think I’ve ever written.

When you KNOW that your little one is perfectly capable of communicating calmly and in a socially appropriate way, it can be just awful when they suddenly, well, don’t. It can hurt your ears, make your blood pressure rise, and even sometimes make you feel embarrassed.

Of course when we’re talking about young babies not yet past their first birthdays, we aren’t always talking about advanced language skills (though I know for a fact that some babies do use a few words before their first birthdays).

Using gestures, familiar sounds, or even learned signs (such as for “all done” or “more,” to name a few popularly used ones) may be what’s normal or expected, but the more base forms of communication may come out when a baby is sick, tired, or frustrated for some reason.

2 Normal Cause: Tummy Troubles

The baby won’t sleep longer than like 45 minutes at a time.

She’s upset seemingly beyond consolation.

The more you try to comfort and cradle her, the more she arches and screams and cries.

The culprit might be something perfectly normal for humans to experience, indeed: gas.

While colds can really interfere with regular sleep patterns, eating, and other behavior, and the interference can last days or even weeks, it’s stomach upsets that are another main culprit when it comes to causing a baby to behave differently than usual or regress to less desirable sleep, eating, and other habits.

Maybe a little one has some sort of food allergy. Many parents pay close attention to which foods they introduce and when, only offering one new food at any given time so that they can tell if it contains ingredients that are problematic for their child’s digestion. Nuts and dairy are of course common provokers of tummy and other troubles for those affected by allergies or intolerances.

Babies can of course also catch stomach bugs or eat foods carrying pathogens, as well.

Normal digestion – and taking in air while, say, crying – can lead to that old classic that can make a baby too uncomfortable to eat, sleep, or nurse: the simple need to, quite frankly, fart.

1 Suddenly A Thumb Sucker

Some babies are seen sucking their thumbs in the womb during ultrasounds (awwww!). Others, even, are born with their hands right up near their faces, perhaps where those fingers were nearby to the mouth.

At one point or another, many babies suck their thumbs or other fingers, and in my experience, it sort of comes in stages.

For example, I can tell when my two tots are working on getting some new teeth because they’ll shove their fingers or hands into certain areas of their mouths and either suck or sort of appear to almost gnaw on them as a way to try to feel better.

When my now-toddler was a baby, she would suck on her hand or a favorite toy whenever she was tired, sometimes even grabbing my own arm to press against her mouth to suckle against for comfort.

It can seem to come out of nowhere if your child doesn’t normally do it, but there’s often a perfectly normal reason that a baby sucks the hands, fingers, or some object all of the sudden.

WebMD.com, within a topic overview about thumb sucking, says, “Babies have a natural urge to suck. This urge usually decreases after the age of 6 months. But many babies continue to suck their thumbs to soothe themselves. Thumb-sucking can become a habit in babies and young children who use it to comfort themselves when they feel hungry, afraid, restless, quiet, sleepy, or bored.”

AmericanPregnancy.org notes, “Although many have conflicting opinions on soothers for babies, the fact is most all babies use sucking as a soothing method. This could be anything from a parent's pinky to a pacifier.”

References: NCBI.NLM.NIH.gov, Parents.com, SleepTightConsultants.com, TodaysParent.com, AmericanPregnancy.org, Forums.LLLI.org

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