What is the four-month sleep regression? Its effects are frustrating, exhausting, and just plain confusing. 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 we know, every baby is different.
The four-month sleep regression is in fact, not a regression at all. I'll explain why. An actual regression in sleep is the result of development milestones (rolling both directions, crawling, walking), or a setback due to sickness or travel. When sleep regressions of these types appear, we see babies who go from sleeping through the night turn into babies who wake and cry out in the night or have difficulty going to sleep. With consistent adherence to baby’s regular sleep routine, baby’s healthy sleep habits will soon reappear, often within a week or two.
What is happening around four months is different from an actual regression. Baby’s sleep is becoming less like that of a newborn and more like that of an adult, and 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 begins to mature.
He is more aware of his surroundings, and he spends less time in REM sleep. It is also less easy for him to fall asleep. A four-month-old, ‘like’ an adult, moves more slowly through the stages of sleep, from being sleepy, to light sleep, then to deep sleep.
While you can rock your two-month-old to sleep in 15 minutes, and put him down, if you try rocking your four-month-old to sleep he will likely startle awake as soon as you put him down.
This is because he was still in the light stages of sleep when you tried to put him down. If you want to continue to rock your baby to sleep, it can take a very long time, maybe an hour, before he finally falls into deep sleep allowing you to put him down without startling him awake.
Around four months of age, your baby also spends more time in non-REM deep sleep. This means that when he finishes a sleep cycle in the night (thereby experiencing a partial awakening), it can be troubling if he doesn’t know how to get himself back to sleep, and transition to the next sleep cycle. Those normal partial arousals we all experience (even adults wake up to 4 times a night) are now very obvious to him. If he hasn’t had practice getting from drowsy to asleep on his own, it becomes a big problem.
It isn’t that your baby is waking more often, it’s that he doesn’t have the skills to get back to sleep on his own and is looking for whatever helped him fall asleep at bedtime (nursing to sleep, rocking to sleep, bottle feeding to sleep, etc). These are referred to as his 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, it can lead to sleep problems.
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.
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