4 Month Sleep Regression
This is the question I get asked most often in my newborn classes and I can see the anxiety build in the moms as they are so worried about creating any worse habits in their newborn’s sleep. What a lot of parents are not aware of is there are some steps you can take to avoid it all together (yes it’s possible!). First let’s talk about what the regression really is, and then some tips to avoid it, and some tips to work through it if you’re already there.
Newborn sleep (first 3 months) and infant sleep are completely different in that when newborns fall asleep, they immediately enter into the deepest stage of sleep. This is why a newborn can sleep anywhere and through any noises or movement disruptions. A newborn can fall asleep in your arms and when you place them in the crib/bassinet, they will continue sleeping. A 6 month old is less likely to do that. I won’t get into the boring science of it all, but adults and older infants start out in a lighter sleep and gradually make their way through 3 stages of NREM sleep where the third stage is the deepest sleep. Newborn babies go straight to stage 3, but as they are coming out of the newborn phase, they experience the lighter stages of sleep before getting into that deep sleep.
So while you may hear that a sleep regression will only last a few weeks and things will go back to normal, it’s not so much the case at 4 months. It really is a permanent change and I like to think of it as more of a sleep progression because this is where sleep habits really start to sink in.
Think about all the changes that are happening around this 4 month mark. They’re coming out of the newborn stage and into infancy - and this is huge! It means your baby is no longer a non-responsive blob, but instead is becoming more “human” as they are actually smiling back at you, cooing at you, following you around the room with their eyes, and giving you that all mighty belly laugh. They are becoming aware of their environment and all the amazing things about it - this is where the FOMO truly comes into play for infants. They are taking in so much of their environment that they are becoming distracted during feedings (thereby taking in less calories during the day and needing more at night), learning to roll both ways potentially, the startle reflex is starting to go away, and so much more. Of course this is going to disrupt their sleep and cause some problems both at night and during naps. Lastly, these regressions tend to happen around the same time as nap transitions - so at 4 months is where you will start to see your baby consolidate into 4 naps throughout the day.
Now that you know what the regression is, what to do about it? If you haven’t reached the regression yet (or even if you have), I’m a huge advocate of tracking your baby’s sleep and feeding patterns. Often times when things are going wrong, if you can take a look back at how they’ve been sleeping and when they’ve been eating, it can really give you a lot of insight into what changes need to be made. If you’ve been tracking, and baby normally wakes up at 12:00am and 3:00am for a feed, then you can feel a bit more confident that if they start waking up more frequently, let’s say at 1:30am and 4:30am, that they probably are not hungry during those extra wakeups. (If you think you have a growth spurt on your hands, most babies will also increase their calorie intake during waking hours as well - so if they’re not doing that it’s probably the regression you’re seeing). So try getting them back to sleep during those extra wake ups without feeding them to sleep (even if it means rocking, shushing, bouncing, etc.). If you’re starting to see this happen, now will also be a good time to start practicing some independent sleep habits. ALWAYS start at bedtime and frame it in your mind as “practice” and giving your baby a chance to fall asleep on their own. What do I mean by this? Do your bedtime routine and then place your baby down awake in their crib. Step back and just see what they are going to do. Yes they may scream bloody murder, but you can pick them up and soothe and then try again. It won’t be perfect and they won’t figure it out right away, but just as with anything else, practice makes perfect.
If you’re already knee deep in the regression - take a deep breath and know that you will have to make some changes to instill independent sleep habits in the coming weeks. Practice independent sleep at bedtime and don’t expect perfection. Encourage successful feedings during the day by bringing them into a quiet space to nurse/feed, even if it means wearing your nursing cover in your living room to limit distractions. Practice a ton of tummy time so they can practice rolling over. If your baby is rolling from back to tummy, you must take them out of the swaddle. You can go slow with one arm at a time and continue to swaddle their torso, or consider a transitional swaddle such as the Merlin suit or Zipadee Zip. A lot of babies do just fine transitioning into a sleep sack as well.
Don’t expect your baby to go back to what they were doing before, because they won’t. Sometimes as parents we need to take charge and do the hardest most important work of teaching our babies independence skills. Consider getting extra help during the day so you can get some extra rest (e.g. hire a babysitter, doula, even a night nurse for a few nights), even if it’s only a few days a week/month, at least you won’t be in it alone. We were NOT meant to raise babies alone and there is no shame in asking for help.