The dreaded 4-month sleep regression…
Many of my patients’ parents have heard those words and are anxious about what that means for little one’s sleep.
“Is this something we can prevent?”, “How long will it last?”, “What can we do to make it stop?”
As a pediatrician, these are all of the questions I’m commonly asked.
And these are questions that many who are in the thralls of sleep training or who are just thinking about getting started tend to contemplate.
It kind of seems like this nebulous situation that is out of our control and bound to happen no matter what…. so we just better brace ourselves.
And I’m here to tell you that that’s not the case!
Understanding what a “sleep regression” truly is, will help you better deal with it if and when your baby goes through it.
So I’ve laid out some ways to properly handle the 4-month sleep regression so that you can maintain your sanity and your sleep…
What Is A Sleep Regression?
Sleep regressions are periods in your child’s “sleep life” during which they seem to experience disruptions in their normal sleep pattern.
So your once “good sleeper” who was sleeping peacefully for 10-12 hrs at night without even a peep, is now waking up every 1 to 2 hrs and you can’t figure out why.
These sleep regressions tend to occur at around ages 4 mos again at 8mos, and then again at 18 mos.
And the causes are multi-factorial, with no one change bearing the entire blame.
I do want to provide some reassurance that what is causing these sleep regressions, are actually perfectly normal and natural developmental milestones.
So instead of thinking of your baby as abnormal, or difficult for going through these sleep changes, you should actually feel encouraged that your child is developing as they should!
Causes of the 4 Month Sleep Regression
4 months is a really exciting time for your baby.
They’re growing and changing so much every day.
They are probably just starting to roll over, they may be crawling, starting to have some teeth peek through and are generally more aware of the environment around them.
As exciting of a time as this is for your child, the amount of stimulation that may be occurring can definitely interrupt their sleep.
And once your baby starts to roll, that means bye-bye to the swaddle! Which means that your baby may be more easily startled while sleeping, leading to more frequent awakenings.
The other really important change that occurs during this time is a change in sleep architecture, to one that reflects more of an adult-like sleep pattern.
Changes In Sleep Pattern at 4 Mos
Your child’s sleep can be divided into 2 subcategories: Neonatal sleep and Infantile sleep.
The Neonatal sleep stage occurs until the child is about 12 – 16 weeks of age postnatally.
In Neonatal sleep, your baby spends about half their time in the equivalent of what is known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and the other 50% of their time in NREM (non-rapid eye movement), which includes the lighter stages of sleep.
And the initial stage of sleep they enter when they first drift off is usually the deep REM sleep
Adults, in contrast, spend only about 25% of their sleep in REM sleep and cycle through NREM about every 90 minutes.
So when your baby transitions from Newborn to Infantile sleep, their sleep architecture looks more like that of adults, with closer to 30% of their sleep being spent in REM.
So what does all of that mean???
It means your baby who was once having long periods of deep sleep, is now cycling through shorter periods of alternating deep and lighter sleep.
And that they are more likely to arouse throughout the night at the end of those sleep cycles.
And if they haven’t learned how to self soothe and fall asleep on their own, this can lead to frequent crying and fussiness that requires your help to fall asleep.
So How Long Does the 4 Mos Sleep Regression Last?
The good news is that this disruption in sleep doesn’t last forever.
It will take your baby some time to get used to the new skills they just learned and their new sleep architecture, but once they do they can definitely return to long and peaceful sleep.
With that being said, the 4 mos sleep regression usually lasts about 2 to 6 weeks.
So don’t worry, there is an end in sight!
And luckily there are some things you can do to make that process a little easier.
Which brings me to my next point…
Tips For Managing the 4 Month Sleep Regression
Tip # 1 Sleep Train
When it comes to dealing with this new sleep architecture and the many night wakings that follow, the best thing you can do is sleep train!
And now is the perfect time to do it, as their sleep more closely mirrors what their child and adulthood sleep will look like.
And we know they are old enough to maintain their nutrition overnight (barring any pre-existing weight or growth concerns) and mentally mature enough to learn how to self soothe.
If you follow the steps I laid out in Sleep Training 101, your little one will not only know how to fall asleep on their own at night but when their sleep structure changes and they start to have these wake ups, they will also know how to put themselves back to sleep.
Even if sleep training was completed prior to this regression, it may take them a few nights to get used to this new change in sleep.
But lucky for them, you’ve already prepped them with the skills they need to handle this transition.
Tip #2 Do Not Create New Sleep Associations
I touched a little bit on this in Sleep Training 101, but I want to make sure I explain a little more here.
If you’re used to your baby sleeping throughout the night, it may be a little unsettling for you to see them suddenly waking up more frequently.
They are likely to cry and fuss a little bit as they may not be as familiar with their surroundings or are just a bit startled.
So it’s very tempting for you to rush in to pick them up and soothe them after every cry….. which of course they’re going to love!
I mean who wouldn’t like extra snuggle time with mamma (or dadda) in the middle of the night?
But by doing this, your baby is learning to need you to fall asleep and is, therefore, creating a new sleep association.
This doesn’t mean you can’t check on your baby, but once you’ve made sure they’re okay, try giving them a little time to figure it out before going in to save them.
Tip #3: Make Sure Baby is Well Fed During the Day
This may sound like a no-brainer but as your baby is going through so much growth and development, they may also require more feeds during the day and night.
Daytime can be particularly exciting with so much going on around them that they may not eat as much at one sitting as they normally do.
And this could lead to an increased desire to feed at night during the more frequent night wakings.
So nip increased night hunger in the bud by adjusting feeds during the day and also making sure baby is not distracted while feeding.
Tip #4: Be Patient!
Perhaps the MOST important of all the tips!
As I mentioned before, this stage will come to an end.
Your little one will master these new skills, you will equip them with the necessary tools to learn to sleep on their own and they will get back to better sleep.
Just take a deep breath, be consistent and enjoy these moments with your precious little baby.
I hope this helps! Feel free to leave any additional questions or comments below.
And as usual, happy sleeping!