As a mom and sleep consultant, I get asked all the time about “Sleep Regressions”. “Is my baby going through one”, “Is there a regression at this age”, “How long will it last”? I have heard mom’s refer to a “sleep regression” at almost every month of a baby’s life…. Yes, there are developmental factors that can sometimes interfere with sleep such as learning a new skill. Crawling, standing, walking and talking for instance are big ones that often come with some sleep disruptions. However, there is really one real “Sleep Regression” or developmental leap that directly affects our babies sleep. The Dreaded 4 month Sleep Regression!
The 4 month Regression is real. And it’s permanent.
Does that sound scary? Don’t worry, it is actually not so much of a regression as a progression in a baby’s sleep. It’s permanent because your child’s sleep cycles are changing to be more like what you and I experience.
So in order to understand what’s happening to your baby during this stage, first you need to know a few things about sleep in general. So here’s the sleep science behind it all.
Many of us just think of sleep as a black or white situation. You’re either asleep or you’re not. But sleep actually has a number of different stages, and they make up the “sleep cycle,” which we go through several times a night.
Stage 1 is that initial stage we’re all familiar with where you can just feel yourself drifting off, but don’t really feel like you’ve fallen asleep. This is what is often referred to as “drowsy”.
Stage 2, 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.
Stage 3 is deep and regenerative. Also known as “slow wave” sleep, this is where the body starts repairing and rejuvenating the immune system, muscles tissue, energy stores, and sparks growth and development.
Stage 4 is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is where the brain starts to kick in and consolidates information and memories from the day before. It’s also the stage where we do most of our dreaming.
As adults, once we’ve gone through all of the stages, we either wake up or come just to the surface of sleep, but we usually quickly drift back into a new cycle and barely realize the woke at all.
So what does this have to do with the dreaded regression we were talking about?
Well, newborn babies only have 2 stages of sleep; stage 3 and REM, and they spend about half their sleep in each stage. But at around the third or fourth month, 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.
When this change takes place, baby moves from 50% REM sleep to 25% in order to make room for those first two stages. So although REM sleep is light, it’s not as light as these 2 new stages that they’re getting used to, and with more time spent in lighter sleep, there’s more of a chance that baby’s going to wake up.
That’s not to say that we want to prevent or avoid baby waking up. Waking up is absolutely natural, and we continue to wake up three, four, five times a night into adulthood and even more in old age.
As adults, we’re able to understand things when we wake up that a baby is not. We will recognize that we are safe and in our bed, we will see that it is still nighttime, and drift back off to sleep. Usually so quickly that, the next morning, we don’t even remember the brief encounter with consciousness.
A four month old baby, of course, lacks these critical thinking skills. To a four month old baby who fell asleep at her arms, maybe while feeding, it may be alarming to them when they wake up an realize that the situation has changed. They are now alone in their crib and because they have been rocked, or fed, or sang to sleep, they aren’t sure how to get themselves back into the next sleep cycle.
Now that baby’s 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, because although they may be helpful in getting your little one to that initial nodding off stage, the lack of them when they wake up means that baby’s not able to get back to sleep again without some outside help. Cue the fight-or-flight, the crying, and the adrenaline.
So, the good news for anyone experiencing the dreaded Four Month Sleep Regression is that it’s not, in fact, 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. This would be much more aptly titled the “Four Month Sleep Progression”
So,on to what you are here for. How to solve it.
First step is to make sure that your baby’s room is very dark. You might think that baby’s room is dark enough, or that baby might not like the dark, and that it’s comforting to have a little bit of light coming through the windows or seeping in from the hallway. Newborns and infants are not afraid of the dark. They are, however, responsive to light. Light tells their brains that it’s time for activity and alertness, and the brain secretes hormones accordingly, so we want to keep that nursery absolutely pitch black during naps and bedtime. You can find blackout film relatively cheap on Amazon, but in a pinch, aluminum foil or black trash bags can work well.
With your baby spending more time in lighter sleep, noises will startle them easily and wake them up, so a white noise machine is a great way to drown out outside noises so your baby is less likely to wake up prematurely.
Bedtime routines are also an essential component to getting your baby sleeping well. I suggest a bedtime routine that is around 30 minutes in length (including the feed). It will help cue your baby’s body and brain that it is time for bed if the routine is done in the same order each night. Your baby will then learn what is about to come next. If you’re noticing baby getting fussy before bedtime, you’ve probably waited too long. Four month old babies should really only be going about two hours since their last nap ended, and bedtime should be between 7 and 8 at night.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, it may be time to make sure that your baby is going into bed awake and learning to fall asleep without sleep props in the beginning of the night. Once your baby learns to fall asleep at bedtime without being rocked or nursed to sleep, they will more quickly learn how to connect sleep cycles and get back to sleep on their own in the middle of the night.
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 four 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 that they’ll essentially be following for the rest of their life. Four glorious stages repeated multiple times a night.
And by taking this opportunity to teach them the skills they need to string those sleep cycles together, independently, prop-free, without any need for nursing, rocking, or pacifiers, you’ll have given them a gift that they’ll enjoy for the rest of their young lives.
Of course every baby is different. Some babies may easily adapt to these changes while others may take a bit longer. If your baby is one that is struggling to fall asleep without your help of continuous nursing, bouncing, rocking, sucking or singing, please reach out. I have helped many a parent’s in this same situation and I know I can help you get through this as well.