I knew very little about sleep before I had babies. Why would you? You never think twice about it. That is, until you don’t get enough of it. Then you can become strangely fanatical about it. Or is that just me?! J
The four-month sleep regression was something that was talked about in my mother’s group well and truly before our babies even reached that stage. I was worried about it and didn’t understand it and we had no idea how each of our babies were going to react and come out the other side. How much would their sleep be broken? Would they ever sleep normally again?
So what is it?
In a nutshell, the four-month sleep regression is a developmental leap that occurs anywhere between 3-5 months. During this change, your baby moves from newborn sleep stages to having sleep cycles that are aligned to adult sleep cycles. Just when you thought you were getting into a bit more of a rhythm and predictability with your newborn, they then can start waking a lot more and become fussier.
Is it really a regression?
Not really! It’s a fundamental shift in terms of the sleep patterns of your baby. It is not a temporary change, it is a huge developmental change in your baby’s brain that is a permanent change. Your baby is growing up and they will have these sleep cycles forever.
Will the sleep regression impact my baby’s ability to sleep through the night?
Sleeping through the night is actually a myth! It’s important to understand that night wakings are a regular feature of normal, healthy sleep. Both adults and babies will wake up multiple times a night as we move from one sleep cycle for the next. The difference is that adults know how to fall back to sleep whereas this is a skill that babies need to learn.
Tell me the science behind it?
It can be easily explained in a simple table:
|Time Spent in REM||25%||50%|
|Time Spent in Non-REM||75%||50%|
|Number of Cycles/Night||4-6||More than adults!|
|Duration of Cycle||90 minutes||30-50 minutes|
Definitions (Defined by the National Sleep Foundation)
REM: Rapid eye movement. Light but active sleep when dreaming occurs.
Non-REM: Non-rapid eye-movement.This is broken down into 3 stages:
There are also other things going on for your baby at the same time!
In addition to your baby’s brain changing to the same sleep cycle as an adult, during this time there are also a lot of other changes happening:
What does this all mean for my baby?
Every time your baby reaches the end of a sleep cycle moving into a lighter state of sleep, they now have the opportunity for a complete wake up. Even though as adults, we go through the same cycles, we most likely don’t even remember these wake-ups. For your baby however, if they have been reliant on a sleep association, or a sleep prop to get them to sleep, if that association is not there when they wake, they are unable to get back to sleep on their own.
Let’s relate that to us. What if we went to bed and we fell asleep blissfully all snuggly and warm in our own bed. The next thing we know is when we wake up next, we’re lying on the kitchen table! Of course you would wake up with a startle and wonder how on earth you got there! It’s no different for our babies.
What can happen next?
So often, when our babies wake during the night, what do we do? We feed them! Especially if they are going through a growth spurt we assume that they are always hungry. But THEN what happens is that after they have been fed and put back down to bed, they can wake up anywhere between 1-2 hours later. So we feed them again! You can see how quickly you then can get into a repeat pattern of your baby continuing to wake up because they can’t fall asleep on their own, but now they have become reliant on a feed to go back to sleep. And so the sleep deprivation begins.
It can be such a challenging for parents to not know if their baby is genuinely waking up hungry, or if it has now become a habit wake. This can continue for a long time and as a result the whole family can suffer from utter exhaustion.
So, what can I do about it?
Your baby is still young and it is very common for babies at this age to need to feed at least once at night. The best time to introduce a dream feed is somewhere between 9.30pm-11pm at night.
Babies thrive on routine. It doesn’t have to be a long elaborate, drawn out process. You can simply have in place a routine that lasts between 20-30 minutes. Do 3-4 steps in the same order every single night! It helps cue to your baby that sleep is approaching and it prepares them for bed.
So many babies are going to bed far too late which puts them in a sleep-deprived state. A common myth from many parents is that if you put your baby to bed too late, they will sleep longer. The opposite is actually true! Not getting enough sleep will make a baby overtired, their cortisol levels will increase making it even harder to fall asleep and it will lead them to being more fussy during this stage.
Your baby is learning to roll and move around and explore their new world. Make sure you give them plenty of time during the day to practice these new skills. Tummy time, and lots of time on the floor will help them master these new skills.
As adults, when we wake up in between sleep cycles, we might change our sleep position, fluff our pillow and make ourselves comfortable again. It’s completely natural that when our babies wake, we feel like we need to leap out of bed and comfort them straight away. Try to give your baby a few minutes to see if they will re-settle first before you pick them up. If they are in the process of settling on their own, you may be depriving them the chance to go back down by intervening too soon.
Any major sleep regression can be a challenge and exhausting for the parents. Make sure that you’ve got support around you and if you can, alternate with your partner when you’re needing to settle your baby.
We’ve created an online course for babies between 3-12 months that can help you work on reducing unnecessary night wakings and to eventually teach your baby to settle themselves on their own. We talk you through step-by-step how to respond to your baby and provide you with tools and methods that work for your family to help you all get a better nights sleep.