The dreaded four month sleep regression
As a sleep consultant, I hear the term “regression” used for just about every imaginable reason. It’s the easiest thing to think of when a baby who has previously slept better stops doing so well. Essentially, if a baby doesn’t sleep well for a couple of nights, parents can start dropping the ‘R’ word. So, here I’m going to give you the lowdown on the dreaded four month sleep regression, and suggest some things you can do about it.
Some people believe regressions happen regularly, for example an eight month regression, a nine month regression, a one year regression, as well as teething regressions, growth spurt regressions, and so on. Yet others see these as simple hiccups caused by extenuating circumstances.
Whatever your take on regressions, it is worth talking about the four-month regression. Everybody agrees that there is one, and for good reason. There are real changes that happen around the 3-4 month mark, and they’re actually sleep changes – not just something else happening that affects sleep. What’s more these sleep changes are permanent.
Sleep happens in stages
In order to understand what’s happening to your baby during sleep around the four month mark, you first need to know a few things about sleep in general. So here’s the science-y part, written in plain English.
Many of us think of sleep as an on-or-off situation. You’re either awake (on) or asleep (off). But sleep actually has a number of different stages, and they make up the “sleep cycle,” which we repeat frequently throughout the night. Here are the stages:
Stage 1 is the 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. Anyone who has ever seen their partner nodding off in front of the TV, told them to go to bed, and gotten the canned response of, “I wasn’t sleeping!” knows exactly what this looks like.
Stage 2, is considered the first “true” sleep stage. This is where people tend to realise, 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, muscle tissue, energy stores, and it sparks growth and development. There is a Stage 4 in deep sleep too, but as you can’t see the difference from the outside, let’s just lump it together.
Stage 5 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.
Once we’ve gone through all of the stages, we either wake up or come close to waking up, and then start over again until the alarm goes off (or, if you’re well rested, you naturally wake refreshed for the day).
Newborn sleep vs infant sleep
So what do sleep stages have to do with the dreaded regression we’re talking about?
Well, newborn babies only have two stages of sleep: Deep Sleep (stage 3) and REM Sleep, and they spend about half their sleep time in each stage. However, around the third or fourth month of life, there is a reorganisation of sleep, and that’s when they embrace the 5-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% REM sleep in order to make room for those first two (very light) stages, 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, however, we’re able to identify certain comforting truths that baby might not be aware of. When we wake in the night, we’re able to recognise that, “Hey, I’m here in my bed, it’s still night time, my alarm isn’t going to go off for another three hours, and I’m reasonably certain that there are no monsters lurking under my bed. I can go back to sleep”. And we do (hopefully). This can actually happen so quickly we don’t even remember that brief waking the next morning.
A four month old baby, of course, lacks these critical thinking skills. To a four month old baby who fell asleep at her mother’s breast, the reasoning could go much more to the tune of, “OK, last thing I remember, there was a familiar, beloved face, I was having dinner, and someone was singing me a soothing song about a Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Now I’m alone in this dark room, my food has gone, and I have no idea where Mum is.”
That could be an exaggeration, but who knows what really goes on in the mind of a four month-old baby?
Now that baby’s suddenly realised that Mum’s not around, and they’re not entirely sure where she’s gone, the natural response is to do a little freaking out. That stimulates the fight-or-flight response and, next thing you know, your baby is not going back to sleep without a significant amount of reassurance that everything is OK.
And then there’s the sleep prop issue
Another major contributor to this 4 month fiasco can be that up until this point, parents have been using sleep props. Either they’ve been putting their baby to sleep with a dummy, or by rocking them, or breastfeeding them, or some similar technique where baby is helped along the road to falling asleep. And don’t get me wrong, that’s absolutely OK for a newborn who needs the help.
But 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. Although they may be helpful in getting your little one to that initial stage of nodding off quickly, 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. When this starts happening every half an hour, parents can find themselves in a nightmarish situation.
So it’s not really a regression
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 now the big question…
What can you do to help your little one adjust?
First of all, get all of that light out of your baby’s room. I’m not kidding. You might think you’re your baby’s room is dark enough, or that your baby might not like the dark. Surely it’s comforting to have a little bit of light coming through the windows or seeping in from the hallway. At this age, it’s not.
Keep it dark
Your baby’s room should be dark. I mean can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. Tape garbage bags over the windows, or use cardboard if you have to (no it’s not pretty, but it works).
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 baby’s bedroom absolutely pitch black during naps and bedtime.
Mask the noise
Another enemy of daytime sleep, (and night time sleep for that matter, although not nearly as often) is noise. Whether its the dog telling you the neighbours have a cat, or the flushing of the toilet… With baby spending more time in lighter sleep, noises will startle them more easily and wake them up, so a white noise machine or an appropriate app can be a great addition to your baby’s nursery.
“But wait, isn’t that a prop,” you’re asking. Well, yes, it is, but it doesn’t require any resetting, reinserting, or parental presence. It’s just there and it can be on as long as baby’s sleeping, so it’s not a prop we need to avoid.
Start a routine
Bedtime routines are also an essential component to getting your baby sleeping well. But there’s a knack to doing one well. Try to keep the routine to about 4 or 5 steps, and don’t end it with a feed (otherwise, you risk baby nodding off at the breast or the bottle, and that will create the dreaded “association” that we talked about earlier).
Try to keep the feed near the beginning of the routine and plan the songs, stories, and getting into PJs towards the end. The whole process should be about 20 – 30 minutes long, and baby should go into their cot while they’re still awake.
If you’re noticing your baby getting fussy before bedtime, you’ve probably waited a little too long. Four month old babies should really only be going about two hours between snoozes, and bedtime should be around 7pm at night.
There will likely be “true” regressions later on
Now, sleep is never “perfect”. Yes there are going to be regressions, actual regressions, later on in your little one’s youth. 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. Five 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 dummies, you’ll have given them a gift that they’ll enjoy for the rest of their young lives.
Of course, some kids are going to take to this process like a duck to water, and some are going to be a little more resistant. If yours starts out swimmingly, count yourself lucky, take delight in your success, and feel free to gloat about it on Facebook.
The most common thing I hear after working with clients is, “I can’t believe I waited so long to get some help!” So if you’re considering hiring me as a sleep consultant, now is absolutely the best time. I also offer a free 15 minute evaluation to get to know your little one’s individual situation, so book a call now and we can move forward as soon as you’re ready to get your little one sleeping through the night!
Because everyone needs a good night’s sleep!