What happened to my good little sleeper?!
Just when you're little one is finally starting to get the hang of this sleeping business, and you're really starting to enjoy these longer stretches of alone time, BAM! Almost out of nowhere you get hit with the unwelcome 4 month sleep regression. And I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is the first of many regressions your baby will navigate through as he or she grows, learns and develops.
Unfortunately, every baby will endure this sleep regression, although every baby is different and each will overcome it differently. Sometimes the 4 month sleep regression is relatively mild and can be brief; (yay!) but for others the regression is a pretty rough transition that includes a lot of crying, (from babies and parents both) and can last throughout most of early childhood if not properly handled. Often the 4 month sleep regression introduces new sleep crutches, associations or props as a way for parents to cope with and survive the changes happening to their little one and therefore educating yourself is very powerful in preventing these new sleep habits from lasting.
Furthermore, keep in mind that typically these regressions occur around the same time as a nap transition and it is important to respect that there are two different issues playing a very big role in the sudden sleep disruptions and each issue needs its own separate TLC.
The 4 Month Sleep Regression - So what is it?
A sleep regression is a short period of time (that feels like forever) where your baby's sleep suddenly changes - waking more frequently in the night, taking short naps (or fighting naps altogether) or waking up really early in the morning. As a parent you're left feeling confused, frustrated and like you're failing in some way. Please believe me when I say that this is normal and you're not doing anything wrong! There are plenty of ways you can still help your baby feel secure and loved as he or she grows through these developmental stages without encouraging poor sleep habits.
This regression is a tough one, though, and likely the most difficult regression your baby will encounter because this is the biggest biological sleep change their little bodies will ever go through. Plus, these changes are permanent, so strap in for a bit of a bumpy ride!
Somewhere between 3-5 months of age your baby will transition from newborn sleep to sleep more similar to that of an adult. Up until now your newborn's sleep has only included 2 very deep sleep stages, "Quiet Sleep" and "Active Sleep". Because these two stages both have your baby in a deeper sleep you were likely able to nurse or rock him or her to sleep and then place them in their crib without any issues, or you could go out for dinner with friends and your little one would dream peacefully beside you the entire time. This is because when a newborn falls asleep they immediately enter into that deep sleep state and will cycle between these two stages throughout a sleep period. REM (active) sleep is when you notice them twitching, breathing irregularly, smiling and when you see their little eyes darting around beneath their eyelids - REM meaning Rapid Eye Movement. Non-REM (quiet) sleep is identified when your baby is breathing deeply and lying very still. You might notice a brief sucking motion or a sudden startle. REM and Non-REM sleep both make up about 50% of your newborns sleep patterns. Newborns usually fall into REM sleep immediately after falling asleep.
Now, as your baby is transitioning into 'adult sleep' they are no longer falling right into (and staying in) a deep sleep state. I won't bore you with further details about the stages of sleep, however, it is important to know that the chances of you rocking your baby to sleep and successfully placing them into their crib are probably a thing of the past as your baby now cycles in and out of sleep stages, light and deep sleep - something he or she didn’t do as a newborn.
*If you are interested in the different stages of sleep, I found Richard Ferber's book "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems" very informative*
Alongside the changes to a baby's sleep cycle, there are others factors that contribute to 3-5 months sleep problems. Babies are becoming much more aware of the world around them - they are beginning to babble, explore things with their hands and mouth, recognize familiar faces and many are beginning to roll over. With so much going on in their little world they can become overwhelmed, confused and upset when they are trying to sleep but their tiny brains are busy trying to process all of this new information. Around 3 months of age a baby's circadian rhythm is also starting to develop and their sleep will start to consolidate more at night and they will start to spend more time awake during the day. The circadian rhythm also known as a "body clock" is a 24 hour internal body clock that tells us when to eat, sleep and wake as well as other physiological processes.
The good news is that, as your baby masters each new milestone, there will be periods of sound sleep again - until the next developmental leap! Try to think of it as progressing, not regressing!
So what else does a Sleep Regression look like?
If you're reading this I'm sure you already know whether or not your baby is experiencing his or her first sleep regression, however, there are a few more signs to watch for and to be aware of while navigating through the next few weeks. Of course, each baby is different, but this is a list of common Sleep Regression signs as listed on the Baby Sleep Site:
Changes in appetite
You will begin to notice that your baby is eating a different amount than you've been used to and it can be more or less than usual.
Multiple Night Wakings
This is usually a very tell-tale sign of a regression. If your baby had been enjoying some nice stretches of longer nighttime sleep this will seem very out of the ordinary.
Often your baby will be more fussy and cry a lot more, often inconsolably, and your usual bag of tricks just doesn't seem to work like it used to. (but it will again!)
Naps tend to get hit hard with this regression and are usually short or even non-existent.
Surviving the 4 Month Sleep Regression
Its important to know that your baby's sleep will even back out over the course of a couple weeks, but to also realize and accept that these changes are here to stay. Utilizing these important steps will help everyone involved transition through this time in a much easier way and also ensure healthier sleep habits in the future.
Respect wake time and sleep time needs.
As your baby is growing his or her body is working hard to produce melatonin. Melatonin is now the driving force encouraging positive sleep in your little one and helping them stay well rested has never been so important. An overtire baby is fussier and much harder to put down and will have greater difficulty responding to these changes. At 4 months of age your baby will still be sleeping a lot and an age appropriate schedule is so so important and typically you want to keep your baby on a 1.5 hour wake time window. Of course, you may need to play around with wake times to suit your little one's specific needs, but adjust no more than 15-30 minutes either way.
Never fear an early bedtime
As the shift from 4 naps to 3 begins there will be days when your little one just naps poorly and although it can feel counter intuitive to put your baby to bed earlier, with the fear of an early wake up, the opposite is actually truer. Babies who sleep more just sleep more. Night time sleep is much more restorative than day time sleep and so opting for an early bedtime is far more beneficial than fitting in a sub-par catnap later in the day. Having said that, you will also toggle between 4 naps and 3 naps until your baby solidifies his or her 3 nap schedule and both time and practice (and a great sleep journal) will set that schedule on the right track.
Cap the last nap
Wake my sleeping baby?! I know. But by not allowing the last nap of the day to end past 5:00pm you are ensuring an age appropriate bedtime and allowing time for your baby to get a healthy night's sleep - crucial in restoring both their little bodies and minds.
Avoid Negative Sleep Associations
As a parent you will do whatever it takes to get your baby to sleep, and there is nothing wrong with that to a certain degree. Once you've acknowledged that the 4 month sleep regression is definitely present it is ok to help your baby through it, however you see fit. But try very hard not to introduce new negative sleep associations that will only be harder to eliminate further down the road when the dust settles. Trust me, you DO NOT want to be pushing your baby around in a stroller each night at 2am trying to get them to sleep. Its just not healthy for either of you. Instead, if your baby really needs the extra help to fall asleep try switching it up each night to avoid adding that permanent crutch. If they need to be rocked to sleep try a swing one night, car seat the next, stroller after that etc.
Routine routine routine
This is big, huge! With so many biological and hormonal changes going on your baby is craving normality and will thrive off of a consistent bedtime routine. These sleepy cues will signal to baby that he or she will be sleeping soon and encourage their new sleep hormones to begin. A strong bedtime routine might look like this: dinner, bath, diaper/jammies/sleep sack, lullaby and into bed. Your nap routine will be a similar but shortened version of this routine. I cannot stress this one enough.
The circadian rhythm, as mentioned above, is influenced by external factors such as sunlight, darkness and temperature. The circadian rhythm goes hand in hand with the cycle of daytime (light) and nighttime (dark). When it’s dark your eyes send a signal to your body to release melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy and helps you get to sleep. When it's light out, melatonin is suppressed. Melatonin decreases during the morning hours and another hormone called Cortisol is released to help us wake and be alert. Going to sleep at about the same time and waking at about the same time helps keep the circadian rhythm and these hormones regular, hence the importance of a consistent sleep routine. Be sure your baby's sleep environment is conducive to sleep by keeping it dark (like, daaaark) and cool. Include white noise to help block out the sounds of everyday life and you will notice your baby's sleep change for the better.
Be patient and consistent!
You can’t change that the fact that your little bundle of joy is going through all of these new changes and so instead we have to just acknowledge that it is happening, swallow our pride, accept the changes and try to keep everything as consistent as possible. By working on healthy sleep foundations you can come out on the other side of the regression with some strong healthy sleep habits in place and if further sleep coaching is needed in the future you will have already laid some really significant ground work which will only make it easier on your little one in the future.
I hope you have found some relief and some guidance in reading this blog and know that help is always available if you are struggling. If you feel you need further assistance in developing a proper sleep schedule for your little one you can view the package I offer here or if you simply have further questions or concerns you'd like to talk about you can reach me via the contact page. Help is never too far away!
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