One of the most difficult experiences of being a new parent is getting a handle on your baby's sleep. 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 suddenly, your baby who you thought was a great sleeper starts waking up every 1-2 hours again. "Why, why, why??!" you think to yourself. You’re wondering what is going on and probably worried you’re doing something wrong (you’re not!). 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,
- signs of the 4-month sleep regression,
- why a sleep regression happens around 4 months of age,
- how long the 4-month sleep regression will last,
- what to do to help your baby sleep better during this transitional stage,
- and how to emotionally cope during a sleep regression.
Be sure to pay extra attention to the information about the 4-month sleep regression presented by our top sleep expert, Sarah Mitchell B.Kin., D.C., from helpingbabiessleep.com.
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 saying their sleep is getting worse. Up until this point, you'll have seen progress in their sleep patterns, their ability to fall asleep has improved, and they are finally sleeping in longer stretches. And just when you’re ready to celebrate, BAM! They suddenly go back to their previous (less desirable, shall we say) sleep habits.
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 backward in the good sleep habits you've worked so hard to help them achieve. But don't be alarmed!
Sleep regressions are actually a very positive change your baby goes through even if it doesn't seem that way to you at the time. It means they are growing just as they should be. But it’s still a challenging period for many parents and the emotions you feel are completely valid because missing out on sleep is…well, tiring!
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, so these are give or take. 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.
In this article, we’re talking specifics of the 4-month sleep regression.
Signs of the 4-Month Sleep Regression
Signs that will let you know your baby is experiencing a sleep regression (at 4 months or other times) include:
- Difficulty going down for naps or bedtime – Your baby may start crying now when you walk away even though they used to go down independently.
- Frequent night waking – Yep, this is an obvious sign…and probably the worst part of it all.
- Changes in naps - For many babies, their naps will become shorter in duration during the regression period; however, others may end up taking longer naps by day if they have a sleep deficit going on at night.
- Extra fussy behavior - Due to a lack of sleep, more crying is likely.
- Restlessness while sleeping – Even while they sleep, you may notice that it doesn’t look like the deep, sound sleep you are used to seeing from them.
During these periods, 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.
Here's what our sleep expert has to say when we asked her, "what is a sleep regression?":
"A sleep regression is when your child's sleep is slightly irritated. The signs of a sleep regression are taking longer to settle into sleep for naps or bedtime. Your child may wake up more frequently in the night and take shorter naps during the day. Sleep regressions are related to PROGRESS... your child is either physically growing, such as getting molars, or growing neurologically, such as learning to roll over, hover on all fours or walk. There are also sleep regressions related to separation anxiety, and in the toddler years testing boundaries." -Dr. Sarah Mitchell, Certified Sleep Consultant
What is the 4-Month Sleep Regression and Why Does it Happen
As a parent, it's nice to have a reason for what your child is experiencing. And the 4-month sleep regression isn't a random occurrence.
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 an infant's brain is developing. And we know they have a lot of growing to do!
Between three and five months of age, babies begin to experience sleep cycles that more closely align with an adult’s. 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. Because this is happening around the same time that your baby develops object permanence (the understanding that when things go away they aren't gone forever), you end up with an upset tiny human who is longing for some snuggle time with mom and dad.
Dr. Sarah Mitchell, Certified Sleep Consultant explains very well why a baby may suddenly have such a hard time going back to sleep:
"The cause of the 4 month sleep regression is related to "object permanence." The fact that you exist even if your child can't see you. And so he/she tests that theory by calling for you more. There's also a leap into having greater awareness of baby's surroundings. Where previously you may have had your child napping in the car seat and running errands and having a big long nap, now she may wake up after 45 minutes and not fall into another sleep cycle as she's distracted by her surroundings. "Hey, we're in the grocery store! We were in the car last time I checked.... Interesting! I'm gonna check this place out - forget that nap."
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. But for how long?
How Long You Can Expect the 4-Month Sleep Regression to Last
If you're currently in the middle of the 4-month sleep regression you're probably close to pulling your hair out and wondering, "When will my baby be through this...please tell me this is almost over!"
Two to six weeks is about how long a typical 4-month sleep regression will last. But of course, I'm going to say it - every baby is different. Lucky parents might have a baby where this particular regression will go mostly unnoticed, while other parents will find that they just can't get their baby back to a great sleep schedule even many weeks later.
The babies who usually have an easier time moving through the sleep regression are the ones who have been set up for success before its onset. Parents who have spent night after night following a crib sleep routine as we outlined here, will often have a baby who is already pretty comfortable settling themselves on their own. If you've typically fed or rocked your baby to sleep however, the transition could be much more difficult. It's based around how much your baby relies on you to fall asleep.
Here's what Dr. Sarah Mitchell had to say:
"Regressions are a bit of a tease, because they imply that things will go back to normal. This isn't always the case with the 4 month sleep regression. I often hear from parents who are shocked by this regression as they previously had a 3 month old who slept in 6-8 hour stretches and now wakes up every 3 hours in the night. Usually these parents are either rocking or feeding to sleep. You can keep doing what you're doing and the regression may fade somewhat in a few weeks, however many people decide to work on sleep habits around 4-5 months to overcome the effort they have to do to get their babies into sleep and resuming sleep in the night."
This is a big reason why we at Dreamland Baby recommend starting a crib and nighttime routine once your baby is ready - around 8 - 12 weeks of age. This includes helpful sleep aids such as a weighted swaddle or sleepsack and a calm, soothing environment - all which we discuss more below in our tips to help you through this tough time!
Solutions 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 ways to make the period go more smoothly for both your baby and you. Here are our 7 top solutions to help you through:
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. The weight of a Dreamland Baby swaddle or sleep sack is its unique feature that parents and babies love, just like this mom has experienced:
"This is truly a great product! My baby was going through the whole sleep regression and waking up every hour. Since we got this weighted sleep sack he’s back to sleeping through the night and maybe waking up only once for a feeding. Baby is getting better sleep and so are we!” - Rene G
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.
Check out our article on the top baby sleep aids – chances are there’s something there you’re not already using that could help your baby sleep.
Move up your baby's bedtime.If your infant's naps are affected by the 4-month sleep regression, starting bedtime a little earlier can help them get the sleep they need while also allowing for better sleep. Overtired babies can actually sleep worse, so an earlier bedtime can really help.
Feed plenty during the day and possibly implement a dream feed. Eliminating nighttime hunger as much as possible can cut back on the number of times your baby ways during this period. By anticipating nighttime hunger and extra waking, this is a proactive step in helping your baby stay comfortable through the night - even with more frequent waking.
Get ready to sleep train. In our article, “A Helpful Guide for Sleep Training Your Baby,” we go in-depth about how the 4-month sleep regression is a signal that your baby is ready for more “mature” sleep. We talk all about how sleep training doesn’t mean just letting your baby cry; instead it’s all about giving them the tools they need to become an independent sleeper.
- Don’t intervene as soon as you hear fussing. A large part of sleep training is letting your baby learn to work through falling back to sleep on his own. When that 45-minute mark rolls around and your baby’s acting like it’s time to get up, give it a little time. Even if it’s not successful the first few times, eventually he’ll fall right back to sleep while you breathe a sigh of relief.
Coping Emotionally Through a Sleep Regression
This can be a tough stage in your parenthood journey. Most parents have a difficult adjustment that first month with their little one’s sleep, so it can feel overwhelming when you feel like your baby has suddenly reverted back to that around the 4-month mark. We’d love to tell you this is the only time it’s going to happen, but it’s not. Baby sleep can be erratic even when you’re putthing everything into place as you should be. But feeling all the emotions is more than ok. Let’s talk about what you can do to better handle these tough periods.
Practice staying calm. The calmer you are, the calmer your baby will be. If they can see you are stressed and anxious, this will make them even more so. Take deep, even breaths to relax. And if you need a few minutes to yourself, simply put your baby down safely in the crib and take that time you need. When you come back, you’ll be calmer and more able to help your little one.
Sleep as much as you can. We know, we know…you’re trying, right?! But we really encourage you to sleep when your baby sleeps. It’s normal to want some wind down time to play on your phone or watch your favorite show once you finally get your baby to sleep, but that is the exact time you should be sleeping. Going to sleep as soon as your baby does will mean you get a lot more ZZZs in the long run. And this means you’ll be much better equipped to handle the stressful stuff when you’re awake.
Remind yourself that this is nothing you’re doing wrong. As parents, we want to be able to fix things with our children. And when your baby is having a hard time, it’s easy to think it’s a reflection on your parenting. But it’s not! Every baby goes through difficult sleep periods. Making sure you have a good sleep routine in place will help a lot, and then know you’re doing the best you can.
Be a team. This is the perfect time to lean on your spouse and work together to help your baby. Taking turns to comfort your child will help you both through this challenging and sleep-deprived time. When one parent gets stressed, it’s best to have the other parent take over. This can help you both get the sleep you need, as well.
- Talk to someone. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re the only one in the world going through a tough situation. Talk to a friend who’s gone through this. Speak with your pediatrician for confirmation that you’re doing all the right things. Or, seek out an online support group full of parents going through the exact situation you are.
Like anything hard with your little one, this is just a stage. I wish I could tell you this is the only sleep regression your child will go through...but as your child grows and changes, there will be others. It’s best to figure out how to handle your emotions in these stressful times early on as it will help you throughout your parenting journey.
Some Final Advice for More Sleep Regressions Ahead
The 4-month sleep regression is the first of several your baby will experience. These are all normal parts of a healthy child's growth and development! So, how do you get through it? The following information presented by Dr. Sarah Mitchell, Certified Sleep Consultant, is great advice for both now and as your baby becomes a toddler.
"You cannot prevent the four-month sleep regression. However, children who are less reliant on external factors to help them fall into sleep can experience this regression to a lighter degree. For example, if your baby is used to falling asleep in arms, and now is waking up in the night more frequently, he'll expect for you to come in and fall asleep in your arms again. A child who is used to falling asleep in her crib will surface in the night and be in her crib and not require as much help falling back into sleep."
As much as it's wonderful that our children want to be with us 24/7, it's not a good habit to get into. Your child's sleep is important and so is yours (as well as your quiet, well-deserved alone time!) Sleep regressions are challenging, but they don't have to last for long if you stay consistent with your expectations. Whoever said parenting was easy? But hey...you got this!