Babies and Sleep

author

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Ealena Callender

Written by

Eric Suni

At a baby’s first birthday, parents are often amazed by just how much their child has grown and developed. In addition to getting bigger, more active, and more responsive, many 12-month-olds have shown progress in an area of great importance for parents: sleep.

But sleep patterns children at this age can still go through ups and downs. Even babies who have started sleeping through the night may suddenly struggle to fall asleep or wake up frequently during the night.

When babies seem to take a step backward in their sleep routines, it is frequently referred to as a sleep regression. While sleep regressions can happen at many points, it’s common for one to arise around the 12-month mark.

Sleep regressions are not usually a lasting problem. In addition, knowing what can provoke sleep regressions and how to cope with them can enable parents to best support their child’s sleep.

How Does a Child’s Sleep Change Around 12 Months?

As an infant gets older, the trend in their sleep pattern is toward longer sleep periods. A greater proportion of their total sleep happens at night even though they continue napping during the day. As they turn one, toddlers need less total sleep each day; the recommendation for children who are 1-2 years old is for 11-14 total hours daily.

Many babies start to sleep through the night at around six months of age, but this is far from universal. Sleep development in infants is highly variable, so many children’s sleep patterns don’t follow that timeline. For example, one study found that only 72% of 12-month-olds slept for six or more hours consecutively at night. As a result, while parents should expect to see a trend toward more and longer nighttime sleep, many will not be so fortunate.

Of course, these sleep fluctuations occur alongside a tremendous change in other aspects of development. One-year-olds show greater emotional engagement, increased communication, heightened cognitive skills, and expanded physical abilities including spending more time standing and cruising (walking while holding onto furniture). These and other developmental milestones may influence a baby’s daytime activity and nighttime slumber.

What Causes a 12-Month Sleep Regression?

Around their first birthday, some children confront a new round of sleeping difficulties. This 12-month regression can happen regardless of what the child’s previous sleep experience has been.

Determining a single cause of a sleep regression is challenging because it can be affected by multiple factors. Given the diversity of changes a child is experiencing, it’s typically hard to pick out a single reason why they are having a sleep problem.

Contributors to a 12-month sleep regression include:

  • Restlessness and overstimulation related to physical growth and increased activity levels
  • Separation anxiety that builds up with heightened emotional and social development
  • Teething and associated pain and discomfort
  • Adjustment to new sleep patterns, schedules, or sleep training
  • Though not common at this age, some children may start having frequent nightmares

Do All Children Have a 12-Month Sleep Regression?

Not all one-year-olds will experience a sleep regression. Sleep development in infants is highly variable, so many children’s sleep patterns don’t follow the same timeline. For example, one study found that only 72% of 12-month-olds slept for six or more hours consecutively at night. While 12-month sleep regressions affect some children, others may see their sleep improve or remain basically the same at this age.

What Are the Symptoms of a 12-Month Sleep Regression?

Symptoms of a 12-month sleep regression can take various forms. Most commonly, parents will notice:

  • Waking up more often during the night
  • Being fussy and having a hard time calming down and getting back to sleep after nighttime awakenings
  • Showing agitation, crying, or resisting sleep at bedtime
  • Taking longer naps during the day

How Long do Symptoms of a 12-Month Sleep Regression Last?

In most cases, the symptoms of a 12-month sleep regression don’t last longer than a few weeks; however, every child’s situation is different. How long a sleep regression lasts can depend on the factors causing it, the one-year-old’s sleep habits and environment, and their overall development.

After a 12-month sleep regression stops, it doesn’t mean the end of all sleeping problems. Like adults, babies and toddlers can go through good and bad periods in their sleep. Encouraging healthy sleep habits at a young age can help to reduce the chances of sleep issues as a child gets older.

How Can Parents Cope With Sleep Problems in a One-Year-Old?

There’s rarely one single solution to put an end to the 12-month sleep regression. But, parents who use this opportunity to focus on positive sleep habits can help pave the way for their child to be a good sleeper as they grow. To strengthen these habits, consider the following:

  • Have a consistent routine before bedtime. Research demonstrates that a stable routine can make it easier for children to fall asleep and stay asleep. As part of this process, make sure your child has time to wind down, get comfortable, and say goodnight.
  • Keep a steady sleep schedule. If you can stick to a consistent schedule for naps and sleep at night, it can help your child adjust and be ready for sleep.
  • Allow one favorite item in bed. A toy or stuffed animal may be a source of comfort, but just make sure that it isn’t a choking hazard.
  • Eliminate barriers to sleep. Excess noise, light, or stimulation can make it hard for your one-year-old to fall asleep, stay asleep, or self-soothe during the night.
  • Make daytime active. Providing your child plenty of daytime activity, especially if it involves exposure to natural light, can help foster a healthy circadian rhythm that reinforces sleeping during the night.

These tips, while helpful, aren’t a guarantee. Despite following them, you may find that your toddler continues to have sleeping problems. It can take time for a child to settle into a pattern of healthy sleep, so try to have patience and stick to these best practices.

Addressing Nighttime Awakenings and Separation Anxiety

It’s understandable to want to respond as soon as your child cries out, but this can be counterproductive over the long-term if they don’t learn to self-soothe and calm down. Try to wait for a short period before responding in order to encourage them to get back to sleep on their own.

Many one-year-olds struggle with separation anxiety. Crying out may be their response anytime you move too far away. Several strategies may help with this issue:

  • When reassuring your child during the night, don’t turn on the lights, take them out of bed, or otherwise provide stimulation
  • Try to avoid getting too close when checking on your child, and each time you check on them, stay a little bit further from their bed
  • Always use the same goodbye ritual that involves a smile or other show of warmth
  • Practice separation during the day with short periods apart, including time your child spends with another trusted adult

Dealing with separation anxiety can be hard for parents because they’ve spent so much time building up fondness with their child. But having a consistent approach to reduce separation anxiety can enable your child to self-soothe and have fewer sleep problems.

Managing Sleep Problems From Teething

Teething can be an ongoing struggle for parents, especially when it causes fussiness around bedtime. Some strategies to give relief to a teething child include:

  • Providing a teething ring or other soft and cool object to chew on
  • Massaging the gums with a cool, wet washcloth
  • Providing medication, such as acetaminophen, if approved by your child’s pediatrician

When Should Parents Talk With a Doctor About Sleep Problems in a One-Year-Old?

Questions or concerns about your child’s sleep can always be brought up at regular check-ins. Because most sleep regressions go away quickly, they are rarely a serious issue. Talk with the pediatrician if sleeping problems are serious, last for more than a few weeks, or if you notice other changes such as:

  • Lack of growth
  • Lack of weight gain
  • Abnormal breathing or snoring during sleep
  • Major changes to habits related to feeding, urination, or bowel movements

Self-Care For Parents

Being a parent is hard, and it’s important to remember that no baby’s sleep is perfect. Occasional sleep difficulties are normal and are not a reflection of parents or their children. Setting reasonable expectations and not being too hard on yourself are major parts of self-care for parents.

In addition, take time to reflect on whether you’re meeting your own health needs, including whether you’re getting the sleep you need. If not, consider how you can, make time for yourself so that you can be healthy and provide the best support for your child.