One of the most difficult experiences of being a new parent is getting a handle on your baby's sleep (or lack thereof). Even though your baby does sleep a lot at this age, it's often not during the times you'd prefer to be sleeping (did someone say nighttime baby party?!) So once the third month rolls around and your baby is no longer mixing up their nights and days, the fog you've been under due to lack of sleep finally starts to lift. Then all of a sudden, your baby who you thought had become a great sleeper starts waking up every couple of hours again. "Why, why, why??!" you think to yourself.
Luckily, you'll find comfort in knowing you're doing nothing wrong. Yet you're still longing for more sleep and wondering what is going on. Around 4 months of age (give or take) your baby will likely experience the 4-month sleep regression. The "fourth trimester" is over and your baby's sleep is maturing. This is yet another milestone for you and your baby to work through together.
Here we'll give you a better understanding of:
- what sleep regressions are,
- why a sleep regression happens around 4 months of age, and
- what to do to help your baby sleep better during this transitional stage.
What is a sleep regression?
The word regression in this case, according to Webster's Dictionary means, "a reversion to an earlier behavioral level."
So when we're talking about babies and referring to their sleep regressions we're talking about their sleep getting worse. You'll have seen progress in their sleep patterns, their ability to fall asleep, and their ability to sleep longer stretches. We're not just talking about one or two sporadic nights of this. A sleep regression is an obvious period of time where your baby seems to have taken a step backwards in the good sleep habits you've worked so hard to help them achieve. But don't be alarmed! This is actually a very positive change your baby goes through even if it doesn't seem that way to you at the time.
Sleep regressions generally happen around the ages of 4 months, 8 months, and 18 months. It's important to remember, however, that your baby is an individual. Other factors may cause your baby to experience the sleep regression a little earlier or a little later, or to go through a regression that doesn't fall into any of these timeframes at all. Signs that will let you know your baby is experiencing a sleep regression include:
- difficulty going down for naps or bedtime
- frequent night waking
- shortened naps
- extra fussy behavior (due to a lack of sleep)
During these 2-5 week periods of time, you'll likely have a hard time pinpointing why it's happening. But there is a reason...and it has everything to do with your baby's mental and physical growth.
This article covers the 4-month sleep regression.
Why 4-Month Sleep Regression Happens
Unlike you, a newborn falls into a deep sleep almost immediately. There are not cycles that they move through. If you've ever used a sleep app yourself to track your sleeping habits, then you know you move through 4-5 different patterns of sleep where your brain undergoes different types of activity. New babies spend a great deal longer in active sleep than older babies and adults - which is when the infant's brain is developing.
Between three and five months of age, babies begin to experience sleep cycles that more closely align with adults'. Whereas before you had to be careful about laying your infant down gently due to her Moro Reflex, now you'll have to be careful about laying her down gently as not to wake her before she is fully "asleep." Let's look at this chart to understand that a little better.
Stage 1 Sleep: Eye movement begins to slow down as your body prepares for sleep. This is the lightest sleep stage when a person can be woken easily.
Stage 2 Sleep: The second stage of sleep is still pretty light. Brain waves begin to slow down.
Stage 3/4 Sleep: This is when deep sleep begins, and gets deeper as you move to stage 4. As you move to stage 4 it becomes harder to be awakened. This is the time when a person's body repairs muscles and tissues, when growth and development occurs, and when you get the energy you need for when you wake up.
REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep: This is the active sleep state where brain growth such as learning and memory occurs. It usually occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. Most of a person's dreaming happens during this time and if you look at your baby during their REM sleep you will notice a lot of eye-twitching.
So what do these cycles have to do with your little one?
As an older baby, he is now moving through 4-5 cycles (when he previously only had 2) and like you, will often wake up between stages. The difference is that you may not remember even waking up because you're so used to going right back to sleep. But this is all very new to your baby! They will have to adjust to waking between cycles and trying to put themselves back to sleep on their own.
Babies who have had less experience falling asleep on their own will probably have a more difficult time adjusting to these new patterns of sleep. They'll wake up and be looking for you! This is when you'll start to notice the frequent night wakings and shorter naps.
Tips for Tackling the 4-Month Sleep Regression
There is definitely no way around this change in your baby's life...plus it means they're right on track for their growth. But there are definitely ways to make the period go more smoothly for both your baby and you.
- Begin to limit sleep props. Sleep props shouldn't be considered bad, but if your baby is used to using one it can make the 4-month sleep regression more difficult. One example is to start putting your baby in their crib sleepy but awake. The sooner they learn to put themselves to sleep on their own the sooner they'll be sleeping through the night.
- Use a weighted swaddle or sleep sack. These are comforting for your baby and mimic the soothing touch your baby longs for from their parents. This will aid them in going back to sleep.
- Continue following your Crib Sleep routine. Consistency is good for your baby. There is no reason to change up the good habits you've created for your baby thus far. Relaxing your baby before bed, dimming the lights, and utilizing white noise are all helpful things you can continue for your baby.
Though this can be a tough stage in your motherhood journey, it's the first of many in which you can practice staying calm in the situation and focused on helping your child. Teaming up with your spouse during this sleep-deprived time can also help ease some of the challenges. And remember..."it's just a stage."