You’ve got the schedule down. Baby is FINALLY sleeping more… and then, WHAM! Suddenly she’s not. Welcome to what is commonly referred to as the 4 month sleep regression. Some may refer to this phase as increased wakefulness, but it all amounts to the same thing: you and baby have newly found your groove, and now baby just isn’t acting like herself.
This (very common) sleep regression is characterized by a distinct change in your baby’s behavior. Some indicators that you’re experiencing the 4 month sleep regression are:
- Increased fussiness
- Multiple night wakings (especially if your baby has just begun to sleep longer stretches during the night)
- Reduced naps or “disaster naps”
- Changes in appetite
This article is going to tell you a bit about why it happens and what to do about it.
Recognizing the 4 Month Sleep Regression
To put it simply, your baby’s sleep schedule just turned on its head. The good news? This probably means that your baby is growing. According to research done by Rijt and Plooij, authors of Wonder Weeks, your baby is becoming more engaged in the world around him. As your baby realizes that he can interact with his world, he also begins to realize that his actions affect others, and that he has a bit more control of his surroundings. More commonly, this sleep regression is associated with growth spurts. You may notice that your baby has outgrown his current wardrobe, or has begun to increase his mobility (it’s not uncommon for babies to learn to roll over during this time).
Parents often can’t figure out why their sweet baby is suddenly a sleep deprived, fussy, cranky, overtired baby overnight. They begin to question if it could be an ear infection, teething, lack of supply (for breastfeeding moms), or maybe he’s got reflux…the list goes on. What parents don’t often realize is that around this time your baby’s sleep rhythms have also changed (just to throw more into the mix of their little world changing).
Infant Sleep Patterns
As an infant, your baby probably slept just fine anywhere and everywhere. This is because while an infant does cycle through sleep, there aren’t distinct sleep stages like an older baby or adult may experience. According to Dr. Richard Ferber, newborn babies spend much of their sleeping hours in deep, restorative sleep, which is why once your little one dozes off, it’s difficult to wake them until they’re ready to be changed or fed again.
How 4 Month Old Sleep is Different
Now that your baby is older, she is beginning to enter the adult world of sleep, which means that she will be cycling in and out of very distinct stages: deep sleep and active sleep, just like you. The problem is that your baby doesn’t know how to deal with this new sleep cycle. If you’re rocking or feeding your baby to sleep, you may find that it takes a full thirty minutes for them to be fully asleep, only to have your baby wake fussy less than fifteen minutes later. This is because your baby has a startle reflex when they enter active sleep, and it often wakes them up. If they don’t know how to get back to sleep, they look for the person who can help: mom or dad.
As if that wasn’t stressful enough for you, your baby actually does most of her deep sleep at the beginning of the night. So while she may go to sleep for about five hours (interestingly, that is the technical definition of sleeping through the night at this stage, but many 4 month olds are capable of sleeping longer), she will begin to wake at regular intervals later in the night. This is where it gets challenging. Your baby is growing, the world is becoming far more interesting for them, and they have to learn to fall asleep on their own. No wonder your baby is cranky! If you’ve experienced this phase, you aren’t alone. This sleep regression should only last between two and fourweeks. Any longer than that, and you have created a new schedule (and not one that you’ll want to keep).
7 Tips to Help You Through the 4 Month Sleep Regression
1. Do what works.
Remember, a lot is changing for your baby, so try to ‘go with the flow’, at least for now. This may mean that your baby is napping in a swing, the stroller, or a car so that he can get sleep during the day. What worked yesterday may not work well today, so be prepared to try a few different options. At this young age, it’s okay to rock, feed, or pat your baby to sleep, as you are not going to create any negative sleep associations that will need later correction. Your goal is to get your baby sleep.
2. Watch for your baby’s sleepy cues, and try to respond to them quickly.
Depending on your baby, her sleepy cues may be anywhere from subtle to over the top. Watch for things like yawning, disinterest, rubbing her eyes, and increased fussiness. Remember, your baby’s wakefulness window at this age is only between 1 and 2 hours, which means that your baby’s fussing may be more that just fussing, she may be telling you that she needs sleep. When you see these signs, act quickly and help her get to sleep so that she does not become overtired, which will make falling asleep much harder on both of you.
3. Once your baby’s fussiness begins to calm down, consider introducing ‘drowsy but awake’ at bedtime.
This will encourage and help him learn to put himself to sleep. Stay by his side and offer physical and verbal reassurance. If he does nothing but cry for 15 minutes despite your soothing help, pick him up and rock, hold or fed him to sleep and try again the next night or whenever you both feel up to it. Don’t be discouraged if your baby isn’t ready to learn to put himself to sleep just yet. Many babies aren’t ready for sleep coaching until closer to six months, and it’s okay to take a break if you’re both frustrated.
4. Be wary of creating a new sleep crutch. Go ahead and keep whatever crutch is working, but try not to lengthen the list.
This can be hard advice to follow when you are both desperately seeking sleep. If you’ve created a habit of rocking your baby to sleep, keep rocking her, but don’t add feeding her to sleep into the mix. Likewise, if your sleep routine includes feeding and patting, that’s okay, but don’t add rocking to sleep. Lengthening the list of your baby’s sleep crutches just means more work later one. While it’s okay to use the tools you have to help her sleep, use what’s been working, rather than introducing new techniques.
5. Offer LOTS of additional snuggles and reassurance.
During the 4 month sleep regression, both you and your baby are likely exhausted (and rightly so!), and extra snuggles, cuddles and soothing words go a long way. While your baby can’t really offer you reassurance, you can speak calmly to your baby, wear him, hold him, and snuggle with him to help ease him through this developmental change.
6. Watch for signs of growth.
Yes, this is a trying time, but you’ll be amazed at all of the new discoveries that your baby will make during these weeks. You may find that your baby learns to roll over, or perhaps she’s beginning to master sitting up. These developmental changes are both exciting and exhausting for her. You may also find that your baby literally grows during this time, as her body is changing and developing, which can lead to her needing even more sleep, so be sure to watch for those sleep cues!
7. Follow your flexible schedule as much as possible.
Babies thrive on consistency and routine, so be sure to provide it. If you haven’t already, this is a great time to create a calm, soothing bedtime routine that consists of 3-4 items (such as book, song, bath, then bed) that you can use before bedtime. You can abbreviate the same routine before naps, cutting out the bath, and choosing just one or two items from your nighttime routine to help your baby learn that it’s time to sleep. Within your flexible schedule, be sure to include consistent feedings so that your baby isn’t’ hungry, especially if he’s experiencing a growth spurt.
Remember, this sleep regression is actually a good thing! Your baby is growing and changing. And it’s temporary; your baby will return to her longer stretches of sleep at night again. If your baby isn’t back to her sweet self in a few weeks, please consider contacting her doctor to see if there may be an underlying medical issue.