If you’re asking yourself that, you may be experiencing the dreaded four-month regression. Here’s what it looks like: Your baby was sleeping 4-6 hour stretches at night. Then suddenly, she started waking every hour or two all over again. On top of it all, falling asleep at bedtime takes longer than ever, and she wakes as soon as you put her down.
What Causes It?
The 4-month sleep regression is in fact, not a regression at all. Instead, it is a sleep milestone. Baby’s sleep patterns become more adult like, and they stay that way for the rest of her life.
When your baby was a newborn, chances are he or she could fall asleep quickly and easily. You could rock your baby, nurse your baby, or bounce your baby to sleep. Most likely, baby fell asleep quickly and transferred easily to her crib or bassinet.
According to The National Sleep Foundation, newborns spend 50% of their sleep time in REM sleep and 50% in NREM, which is quiet sleep. Adults spend only 20 to 25 percent of the night in REM sleep. The greater percentage of newborn REM sleep means that they cycle quickly through the light stages of sleep and into quiet sleep and then REM sleep. It is easier and faster for them to fall asleep, and they are less likely to wake after being transferred.
By 6 months, babies spend only 30 percent of their sleep in REM. Somewhere around the 4th month of baby’s life (give or take), baby’s brain begins to mature, and sleep patterns become more adult-like. Baby spends less total sleep time in REM. It takes longer to move from Stage 1 Sleep, (the lightest of the sleep stages) to Stage 2. According to Tuck Sleep Foundation, Stage 2 is characterized by decreased body temperature, decreased heart rate and an unlikelihood of awakening. Stage 3 is deep sleep. If your baby wakes shortly after being put down to sleep, it’s because she hasn’t quite made it to deeper sleep, and she was easily roused.
What can I do about it?
Unless a baby needs a night-feed or is sick or uncomfortable, she is likely waking because she doesn’t know how to transition to the next sleep cycle. It can be troubling for both the child and the parents if she doesn’t know how to get herself back to sleep.
And because this regression is really a sleep milestone, it doesn’t end on its own one day. But babies can learn to connect their sleep cycles and start to sleep much better.
We all experience normal, partial arousals in the night. Adults wake 2 to 5 times a night. Because most of us know how to get ourselves back to sleep, we are rarely aware of waking.
If a child hasn’t had practice going from drowsy to asleep on her own, it can become a 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, rocking, bouncing, cuddling, or bottle feeding to sleep). These things are known as “sleep props.”
To be clear, nursing, rocking, bouncing or cuddling to sleep is not a problem unless a child or parent suffers disruptive, fragmented sleep because of it. When a baby takes a long time to fall asleep at bedtime, and wakes and needs something external to go back to sleep everyone in the family tends to be sleep deprived. That’s when it often becomes necessary to help your child learn to connect sleep cycles and sleep more easily through the night.
So, if your child needs a prop to sleep at night, one of the best things you can do for your family’s sleep is to put her down for bed awake. This way, she can learn how to go to sleep on her own. You can stay with her, comforting and soothing her as she learns. You can pat, shush, pick her up, and rub her tummy or back. She will most likely cry because the “prop” has been taken away, and she is frustrated. She is crying because of the habit change, which is confusing at first, but she will very quickly learn how to go to sleep without it.
It will only take a few more times, and some comfort during night waking, for her to be able to sleep without the prop. This way, she will learn how to connect the steps to getting herself to sleep. She will very quickly begin to sleep a solid night, which will be so much better for her and for your entire family.
If you are finding that you are struggling through this time, or that you never found your way out of it, I’m here to help. Reach out by email or book a complimentary call, and we can dive deeper into your child’s unique sleep situation. If you want to learn more about how babies can get themselves comfortable in their own beds so they can sleep through the night, I offer individualized babies and toddler plans.
Kim Rogers, M.A., is a certified infant and child sleep consultant. She has additional training in infant mental health from the hospital for sick children and maternal mental health from postpartum support international. Kim works with families in a one-on-one, highly supportive way to help them get the sleep they need.