What happened to my good little sleeper?
If you’re asking yourself that or have already asked yourself that, you may be experiencing the dreaded four-month regression (that never ends). Here’s what it looks like: Your baby was sleeping well. You thought things were only going to get better. You were getting long stretches at night, then suddenly, your baby started waking every two to three hours again, or every hour, or every 45 minutes.
While this often happens around four months of age, it can happen earlier, and it can happen later, because as you know, every baby is different.
The four-month sleep regression is in fact, not a regression at all. Here’s why: An actual regression in sleep is the result of development milestones (rolling both directions, crawling, walking), or a setback due to sickness, travel or what is known as “accidental parenting” (oh that’s just great). When sleep regressions of these types appear, we see babies go from sleeping well to waking and crying out in the night or having difficulty going to sleep. With consistent adherence to baby’s sleep routine, baby’s healthy sleep habits will soon reappear, often within a week.
But what happens around four months is not really a regression at all. Around four months, baby’s sleep is becoming less like that of a newborn and more like that of an adult. Babies who can’t go back to sleep on their own after they wake from a sleep cycle, will cry out for whatever method was used to help them go to sleep in the first place.
When your baby was a newborn, chances are he or she could fall asleep pretty quickly and easily. You could either hold your baby, wear your baby, nurse your baby, rock your baby, bottle feed your baby, and most likely, your baby fell asleep easily. Somewhere around the fourth month of your baby’s life, your baby’s brain began to mature. Baby became more aware of her surroundings, and she started spending less time in REM sleep. It also became less easy for her to fall asleep. A four-month-old, like an adult, moves more slowly through the stages of sleep, from sleepiness, to light sleep, then to deep sleep. While you can rock your two-month-old to sleep in 15 minutes, and put her down, if you try rocking your four-month-old to sleep she will likely startle awake as soon as you put her down. This is because she was still in the light stages of sleep when you tried to put her down. If you want to continue to rock your baby to sleep, it can take a very long time, maybe an hour, before she finally falls into deep sleep allowing you to put her down without startling her awake.
Around four months of age, your baby also spends more time in non-REM deep sleep. This means that when she finishes a sleep cycle in the night (thereby experiencing a partial awakening), it can be troubling if she doesn’t know how to get herself back to sleep, and transition to the next sleep cycle. Those normal partial arousals we all experience (even adults wake up to 5 times a night) are now very obvious to her. If she hasn’t had practice getting from drowsy to asleep on her own, it becomes a big problem. It isn’t that your baby is waking more often, it’s that she doesn’t have the skills to get back to sleep on her own and is looking for whatever helped her fall asleep at bedtime (nursing to sleep, rocking to sleep, bottle feeding to sleep, etc). These are known as “sleep props”. Nursing or bottle feeding by itself is not a problem, but when it is a vehicle to get baby to go to sleep, problems are known to happen.
On a lighter note, the four-month regression doesn’t affect every baby! There are babies whose parents have worked from the beginning to establish healthy sleep habits, and these babies tend to sail right through this time unaffected, or with very little disruption to their sleep. If you are finding that you are struggling through this time right now, or that you never found your way out of it, book a call with me, so that we can talk about your own child’s individual sleep issues. You can also download my free guide, and if you want a customized, gentle plan to solve sleep problems once and for all, you can sign up for my babies package.