Ah, the four words that strike fear into the hearts of mothers all over the world; 4-month sleep regression! Who knew that this seemingly harmless number and baby milestone could do such catastrophic damage in the world of parenting? Sleep regression is like Oprah – there isn’t a mother out there who doesn’t know about it!
As a sleep consultant, I hear this phrase every single day. It’s no coincidence that my most common age group for inquiries is 4.5 months. Parents often see their baby go from waking just once or twice a night for a feed and going down for a sleep easily with no problems to multiple nighttime wakes. In some extreme cases, a baby will wake as often as every 1.5 hours!
Of course, this leaves everyone sleep deprived and parents often have feelings of failure. But I’m here to tell you that YOU ARE NOT FAILING! In fact, I want you to take this word out of your parenting dictionary – it’s banned. You are doing a GREAT job, especially when you consider that we can’t be experts at everything. The good news is that you can call an expert when you feel a little lost.
What is sleep regression?
Sleep regression is the term used for the dramatic change in a baby’s sleep pattern. For the first few months, you baby was probably sleeping beautifully but then some time around the 4-month mark, your little bundle of joy started waking up and crying at all hours of the night.
With some help from mom or dad, baby falls asleep at bedtime and they sleep for three hours and then boom! The baby wakes. You feed and rock and put baby back down like a total Mommy-Ninja and back to bed you go. Two hours later, same thing. 90 minutes after that, same thing. You are at wake-up number four and it’s 5:00 a.m. and your baby just will not settle! After a 45-minute-long battle you give up and head to the living room. GAH! Exhausted yet?!
Sleep deprivation and stress sets in for the parents, and your baby isn’t doing much better either.
Why do babies have sleep regression?
Around three to four months of age, your child’s sleep will evolve. It’s at this time that it begins to mimic adult sleep and it is a permanent change in their sleep structure.
Your baby will now see sleep in cycles and these sleep cycles last around 30 minutes, following a predictable order that should knit nicely together for peaceful night’s sleep. Each sleep cycle ends with a brief wake up, allowing your baby to assess the environment and check that they are safe. This happens to adults too, only our wakes occur following 90 minutes of sleep.
When your baby fell asleep at your breast or in your arms, they expected to wake to the same conditions in order to feel “safe”. When you transferred them while they were sleeping, your baby woke to different conditions and this change set off their instinctual alarm bells. The reaction is a crying baby trying to say, “Hey, Mom! Dad! SOMETHING ISN’T RIGHT HERE!”. So, your baby starts to wise up and every time you put them in the crib to sleep, they spring awake and then you do all your sleep-inducing measures again.
It is at this same age that your baby’s’ nighttime sleep begins to consolidate itself. Prior to the regression, your baby may have slept until 7:00 a.m. or 8:00 a.m., but now the mornings start to fall into a more natural circadian rhythm awake time of 6:00 – 7:00 a.m. For most families, this means you need to look at your bedtime and you’ll likely need to adjust to an earlier bedtime in order to get more nighttime hours in for your baby. An overtired baby will wake more frequently, cry from frustration, and likely present behaviours at bedtime that look like hyperactivity or witching hour.
At this same age many children begin rolling, usually only one way. Babies do not have sleep paralysis like we do, their sleep is very active and at night they are practising all those essential skills they learned during the day. They roll in their sleep and can startle themselves awake. This is a difficult milestone and one that can be quite stressful for parents since, for a lot of us, tummy sleeping brings on feelings of anxiety.
The important thing to do is remove your baby from their swaddle or sleep sack for a week or so until they have mastered rolling. Be sure to give your baby lots of tummy-time during the day, which will help your baby become more comfortable with being on their tummy or rolling front to back.
You will need to accept that there is only so much you can do. You cannot spend your nights going in 15 times to roll your baby onto its back. I recommend using a 3-strike rule. Roll your baby twice to their back. If they roll for a 3rd time, your baby is likely choosing to be there and they just don’t know how to manage that position. Instead of rolling your baby onto its back, stay with your little one and offer comfort and settle them until they fall back to sleep.
Never move your baby once they are asleep, this could wake them and cause a lot of stress for you all.
How to avoid a sleep regression
They key to success is understanding your baby’s ever changing needs and having an open mind. You will need to be flexible with schedules in order to accommodate your child’s natural sleep patterns. Babies change week-to-week with everything! Accepting this fact will help you understand that what once worked for your baby (rocking, holding, feeding to sleep) will not always be the way your baby can get to sleep. When strategies stop working, you need to change gears and find something new to get your baby the sleep they need.
Sometimes, a little sleep coaching is needed to break the cycle of over-tiredness and to introduce healthy sleep habits to reinforce good quality sleep. At such a young age, it can feel like a daunting task and it is important that you use gentle methods that are proven to help your baby “unlearn” the old bad habits. That being said, it is crucial that you take your baby’s needs and development into consideration. There is not a single sleep method out there that will work for your baby if they are constantly overtired and if their schedule is not meeting their needs. I cannot stress the importance of napping at appropriate times or intervals, along with an age-appropriate bedtime in order to achieve the best sleep solutions for your baby.
While many believe that the “4 months sleep regression” is a phase or developmental milestone that will resolve with time, for most families that is not the case. Your baby – and you – need help to learn to sleep, without the need for external tools. If you are aware of the developmental challenges your baby is facing and are prepared to accept some changes in routine in order to meet the demands of your baby’s new sleep needs, you will be able to dodge this dreaded regression and go on to have great sleep.
Sleep at this age is very complex and often there are layers of things troubling sleep. Hiring a professional can take the guesswork out of it ,so life can get back to normal and you do not have to relive challenges for future sleep changes.
I really hope you found this helpful and if you have more questions I would love to chat with you. Please call or email me or comment on my Facebook page. There are no silly questions.