As a Baby Sleep Consultant, the majority of parents I talk to have had their babies sleep go through a regression or two. In any mommy group, you will hear the ‘R’ word dropped all the time. You will hear about the 4-month sleep regression and then an 8-month regression, a 9-month regression, a 1-year regression, as well as teething regressions, growth spurt regressions, and so on. There are lots of factors that impact your baby’s sleep and cause regressions. Developmental milestones, both cognitive and physical can wreak havoc on sleep, but the 4-month sleep regression is in a league of its’ own.
The 4-month sleep regression, it’s scientifically proven to be real. It is caused by a biological change in the way that baby sleeps – but don’t worry, it does get better.
In order to understand what’s happening to your baby during this stage, let’s talk about a few things about sleep in general first.
Many people think of sleep as an on-or-off situation. You’re either asleep or you’re not. But sleep actually has a number of different stages. These stages make up our sleep cycles, which we go through several times a night.
This is the initial stage of sleep that we’re all familiar with. You can feel yourself drifting off, but don’t really feel like you’ve fallen asleep. Anyone who has ever seen their partner nodding off in front of the TV, told them to go to bed, and gotten that annoying, “I wasn’t sleeping!” response knows exactly what this looks like.
This is the stage which is considered the first ‘true sleep’ stage. This is where people tend to realize, once woken up, that they actually were sleeping. For anyone taking a power nap, this is as deep as you want to go, or else you’re going to wake up groggy.
This stage is deep and regenerative. It is also known as slow-wave sleep. This is where the body starts repairing and rejuvenating the immune system, muscle tissue, energy stores, and sparks growth and development.
This stage is also called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is where the brain starts to go to work to consolidate information and memories from the day before. It’s also the stage where we do most of our dreaming.
Once we’ve gone through all of the stages, we either wake up or come close to waking up. Then we start all over again until the alarm goes off.
So, what does this have to do with the dreaded 4-month sleep regression we were talking about above?
Well, newborn babies only have 2 stages of sleep: Deep Sleep and REM Sleep. They spend about half their sleep in each stage. Around the third or fourth month of life, there is a reorganization of sleep, as they embrace the 4-stage method of sleep that they’ll continue to follow for the rest of their lives.
On average, this change takes place when baby is between 3 and 4.5 months old. Baby moves from 50% REM sleep to 25% in order to make room for those first two stages. Although REM sleep is light, it’s not as light as these two new stages that they’re trying to get used to. With more time spent in lighter sleep, there’s a much higher chance that they are going to wake up.
We don’t want or need to prevent or avoid baby waking up. Waking up is absolutely natural. It is just how our bodies work. As adults, we wake up three, four, five or more times a night into adulthood and even more in old age.
What happens when we wake up during the night
When we wake up, we’re able to identify certain comforting truths that baby might not be quite as aware of. When we wake in the night, we’re able to recognize, “I’m here in my bed, it’s still nighttime, my alarm isn’t going to go off for another three hours, and everything in my environment is the same as when I went to bed. I can go back to sleep”
And back to sleep we go. Usually so quickly that, the next morning, we don’t even remember thinking about how we can go back to sleep or the brief periods we were awake.
A 4-month-old baby lacks these critical thinking skills. To a 4-month-old baby who fell asleep at their momma’s breast, the thoughts could go much more to the tune of, “OK, when I fell asleep, I was cuddling with my momma, while eating my favorite food. Now I’m alone and everything it is completely different.”
You can compare this to if you went to sleep in your nice comfy, cozy bed and all of a sudden you wake up and realize you are out on your front lawn. You are going to be pretty alarmed.
Now that baby suddenly realizes that Momma is not around, and they’re not entirely sure where Momma has gone, the natural response is to be alarmed or even a bit freaked out. That stimulates the fight-or-flight response and, next thing you know, baby is not going back to sleep without the reassurance that everything is alright and help to recreate a situation in which they are used to falling asleep.
Another factor causing struggles with the 4-month sleep regression
The other major contributor to this 4-month sleep regression fiasco, I find, is that up until this point, parents have either been putting their baby to sleep with a pacifier, or by rocking them, or by breastfeeding them, or some similar technique where
Now that baby is spending more time in light sleep and therefore has a higher probability of waking up, this suddenly becomes a much bigger issue. These sleep props or sleep associations can be very sneaky indeed. Although they may be helpful in getting your little one to sleep initially, the lack of the same sleep props when they wake up means that baby is not able to get back to sleep again without some outside help. Cue the fight-or-flight, the crying, and the adrenaline responses. When this starts happening every half an hour, parents can understandably find themselves in a nightmarish situation.
Some good news about the 4-month sleep regression
So, some good news for anyone experiencing the dreaded 4-month sleep regression is that it’s not, in fact, actually a regression at all. A regression is defined as “reversion to an earlier mental or behavioral level,” and that’s actually the opposite of what your baby is experiencing. They are experiencing a sleep progression, as sleep cycles begin to mature. But I’m betting that good news probably doesn’t make a parent in the midst of this change feel better in the slightest. In terms of the amount of wakeups baby is having and the amount of sleep parents are getting, this definitely feels like a regression.
The cause of the 4-month sleep regression is a real biological and permanent change. This brings up to the big question: What can you do to help your little one adjust
First off, get all of the light out of baby’s room. I’m completely serious about ALL the light. You might think that baby’s room is dark enough, or that baby might not like the dark, or that it’s comforting to have a little bit of light coming through the windows or seeping in from the hallway.
Nope. That’s a big fat NOPE.
Baby’s room should be dark, dark, dark! I mean a clear, moonless night kind of dark. Get some blackout curtains, Tape garbage bags over the windows or cover them with tinfoil. Get creative and get the room dark.
Newborns and infants are not afraid of the dark. They lack the cognitive capacity to imagine scary things in the dark. When baby has a reaction to their newly darkened room it is usually related to the change itself, not being scared of the dark.
However, they are very responsive to light. Light tells their brains that it’s time to be active and alert. Then their brain secretes hormones accordingly. So we want to keep their nursery pitch black during naps and bedtime. This allows their bodies and brains to release the hormones that help with sleep, such as melatonin.
The other nemesis of daytime sleep, (and nighttime for that matter, although not nearly as often) is noise. Whether it’s the Amazon delivery person ringing the doorbell (it’s cool you don’t need to ring the doorbell, my app alerts me that you delivered my package), or the dog warning you that the squirrels are back and for sure going to attack the house this time (yup, this is absolutely the time we are all in real danger, thanks for letting me know!), or something falling on the floor three rooms away, there is always some noise that can wake up baby. With baby spending more time in lighter sleep, noises will startle them easily and wake them up. If you don’t have one already, a white noise machine is a great addition to your nursery.
Wait, isn’t that a prop? Well, in a way, it is, but I like to think of it more as a sleep cue. Something that doesn’t require any winding, resetting, reinserting, or parental presence. It’s just there and it can be on as long as baby is sleeping. As a sleep cue, it is something that babies recognize only happens when it is time to transition to sleep. Sound is one of the strongest sleep cues for babies, so this is an extremely beneficial tool for you to use.
Bedtime routines are also an essential component to getting your baby sleeping well. Try to keep the routine to about 4 or 5 steps, and don’t end it with a feed. Otherwise, you risk baby nodding off at the breast or the bottle, and that will create the dreaded association that we talked about earlier.
Try to keep the feed near the beginning of the routine so they can fill their tummies while wide awake. Then plan on getting into cozy pajamas, singing some calming songs and reading stories towards the end. The whole process should be about 20 to 30 minutes long, and baby should go into their crib while they’re still awake.
If you’re noticing baby getting fussy before bedtime or during their bedtime routine, you probably waited too long. Four-month-old babies should really only be going about two hours between snoozes, and bedtime should be between 7 and 8 at night.
What about going forward after the 4-month sleep regression?
Now, there are going to be regressions, actual regressions, later on in your little one’s childhood. Traveling, illness, cutting teeth, all of these things can cause your little one to have a few bad nights in a row. But when it comes to the 4-month progression, I’m happy to report that this is a one-time thing. Once you’re through this, your baby will have officially moved into the sleep cycle pattern that they’ll essentially be following for the rest of their life. Four glorious stages repeated multiple times a night.
By taking this opportunity to teach them the skills they need to learn to fall asleep independently so that they don’t need your help to recreate their normal situation for falling asleep multiple times throughout the night, you will give them a gift that they’ll enjoy for the rest of their lives. You are helping your baby be able to easily and comfortably get their sleep that they need to thrive each day.
Of course, some kids learn new skills like this quickly. But, some are going to be a little more resistant and need more help to help them learn and master the skills to sleep well. If your baby falls into the first category, enjoy the great nights of sleep you have!
For those of you in the latter camp, know that your baby absolutely can learn these skills! They likely have different needs in the learning process to help them sleep well.
Sleep is possible for you and your baby
If you are struggling with your baby’s sleep, aren’t sure what steps to take or what to do next, you are in the right place! I’m happy to help get you and your baby sleeping well. Reach out today for your free evaluation call to take the first step to a personalized sleep plan for your little one to help them learn the skills to sleep independently.
If you’re beyond exhausted, wandering around like a zombie and just want to see a light at the end of the tunnel, now is absolutely the time. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, just like there was for these parents.
You and your little one can be on the path to great quality and long stretches of blissful sleep each night, very soon!
Cheers to healthy, happy sleep!