by Dr. Rebecca Kempton, Pediatric Sleep Specialist, Founder of Baby Sleep Pro
You’ve done it! You’re patting yourself on the back, tossing congratulations around and commenting on every sleepless night baby blog post, claiming that you’re a total success. Your baby is sleeping on your schedule, and you’ve clearly got this whole sleep thing mastered. And then – it happens. The 4-month sleep regression. Suddenly your newly serene world of bedtime bliss has been yanked away. And, what’s left in its place? Nights filled with crying wakeups and fussiness (that’s not to mention your baby’s daytime behavior, too!). Why, oh why, is this happening and what can you do about it?
What is sleep regression and what are the signs?
You’re reading this, so it’s fairly likely that you’re already experiencing the signs of the 4-month sleep regression. Just in case you’re not sure, the signs of sleep regression often include:
- A baby who doesn’t want to fall asleep or a baby who wakes often (both during the night and during daytime naps).
- You’ll see this most often during the biggest chunks of sleep time; they may go from sleeping 8 hours straight to waking every hour.
- A suddenly fussy baby, a baby who’s hungrier more often (this may also signal a growth spurt), or a clingy baby (more than before). You may see this behavior during awake times, too.
Why does this happen at 4 months?
Understanding the answer to this question requires understanding what regressions are and why they happen in general. Sleep regressions typically happen when there’s a change, either mental or physical. Now let’s get to that 4-month mark. Why then? Your baby’s brain is developing, becoming more adult-like in terms of how their bodies are falling into their natural rhythms. As a result, around 4 months baby’s sleep patterns change, becoming more mature. She’ll begin to sleep somewhat as you do, cycling in and out of light and deep sleep. So, in reality, it’s not actually a regression at all, but a step forward into what will largely be her sleeping patterns for life.
Is the 4-month regression temporary?
It’s tempting to think, “Hey, this will pass. I just have to wait it out.” But, that may not be the best plan of attack. Yes, it’s true that your baby’s fussiness, restlessness and seeming inability to sleep well will all eventually go away (or at least get better). That said, the 4-month regression marks a pretty permanent change in the way your baby sleeps. That doesn’t mean you’re in for a lifetime of sleepless nights. In its entirety, symptoms of sleep regression can last on average around two weeks. If you act now, by either incorporating your own research or working with a sleep specialist, baby can get to a point of working through wakeups on her own in as little as a few days.
How can I help my baby to sleep better at this trying time?
Don’t panic! The next steps are to make a plan on how to help your baby learn to sleep for longer stretches independently. Here are some tips on how to get started.
At first, the best way to help your little one is to keep doing what you’ve been doing. Abruptly changing your routine may make falling asleep even more of a challenge for your child. If you’ve been rocking or nursing baby to sleep, continue. If you haven’t had to rock baby to sleep, you might need to for the time being. Holding, cuddling and snuggling with your 4-month-old may help her fussiness and get her back to sleep sooner. Eventually, you may want to start teaching baby to handle wake-ups on her own.
How do I help my baby to self-soothe?
Some babies naturally adapt to a slightly new sleep schedule. Lucky! If yours doesn’t, don’t panic. Gradually help your baby to fall asleep on her own. This includes putting her to sleep in her crib during nap and night times. Don’t get down on yourself if she isn’t quick to self-soothe or fall asleep without your help right away.
Here are a couple of tricks to begin with:
- If you haven’t established a consistent bedtime routine prior to this point, now is a great time to ease into one. Over time, you’ll want to begin the transition to helping her learn how to handle the sudden wakeups on her own.
- Try putting her in her crib when she’s drowsy, but not completely asleep. This transition may take time and patience.
- Try taking daytime sleep from 4 to 3 naps. As you go through this transition, push up bedtime to an earlier time (sometime between 6 and 8 pm).
There are several long-term tactics to use and the approach depends on your personal parenting style and your individual baby’s needs. Those approaches include:
- Focusing on comforting baby and creating comforting nighttime rituals to help baby through this time.
- Using a fading strategy, where you offer reassurance and then gradually step back.
- Teaching baby independent sleeping by putting them to bed more awake and encouraging more sleep time.
How can I get my care providers on board during the day?
For babies who are with other care providers during the day, communication is going to be key. Your daycare will most likely be pretty responsive to any changes in approach and new times for naps. You just need to let them know you’re working on creating an independent sleeper and request they follow your schedule or routine before baby is put to bed. Providing a print-out or digital copy of that schedule may be helpful, include tips for recreating the sleeping situation they have at home (such as finding a darker environment for baby to sleep).
My baby still won’t sleep through the night, now what?
She’s only 4 months, not 4 years. Even though you’re frustrated, frazzled and desperate for your baby to get on some sort of sleep schedule, a magic fix isn’t exactly realistic at this point. Yes, she is developing a more mature sleep cycle. But, she’s still just a baby and may still need to eat at night and be comforted when she wakes. Even though this is a trying time, take care of yourself too! Survival skills are so important. That may mean your schedule changes a bit to ensure you and your partner get the sleep you need in order to function each day. Some survival tips include:
- Shift your own bedtime earlier. The first half of the night is usually the most undisturbed, so try to get what rest you can while they’re
- Take shifts with your partner throughout the night, where one partner gets up first and lets the other stay sleeping – and vice versa in the second half. This way, you can get a better chunk of sleep, resulting in a tired parent rather than a sleep-deprived
- Keep this mantra in your mind: A little bit of work on the early end of the sleep regression will result in much better long term sleeping skills for baby.
Unless something else is going on with your baby (such as sickness), continue helping her to sleep without your total assistance. Feed her when she wakes, and then put her back in the crib for a few more hours of snooze time. Eventually, your baby will get the hang of sleeping, making her way past this regression. That’s not to say this is the last regression – but, if you can get through this one, you can make it through the rest of them, too!