As a Houston and Austin area sleep consultant, I see a lot of Texas babies going through the dreaded 4-month sleep regression! Y’all, it is the REAL DEAL! In fact, I can credit my daughter’s 4-month regression for igniting my interest in baby sleep coaching and inspiring my company, Bedtime Boss!
In order to understand what’s happening to your baby during this regression, it’s important to know a few things about baby sleep in general. First off, we are not simply asleep or awake. Sleep involves several stages which make up the “sleep cycle” which we go through several times a night.
Stage 1 is that initial stage we’re all familiar with where you can just feel yourself drifting off, but don’t really feel like you’ve fallen asleep. Anyone who has ever seen her husband nod off in front of the TV and tell him to go to bed, and received the canned “I wasn’t sleeping” response, knows exactly what this looks like.
Stage 2 is considered the first true stage of sleep. This is where people who suddenly wake up realize they were sleeping. For any of you power nappers out there, this is as deep as you want to go, or else you’re going to wake up groggy.
Stage 3 sleep is deep and restorative. It’s also knows as “slow wave” sleep. This is where the body starts repairing and rejuvenating the immune system, muscles tissue, energy stores, and sparks growth and development.
Stage 4 is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. In this stage, the brain begins to consolidate information and memory from the day prior. It’s also the stage where we do most of our dreaming.
Once we’ve gone through all of the stages, we either wake up or come close to waking up, and then start the process all over again.
So, what does all this information have to do with the dreaded 4-month sleep regression?
Well, newborn babies only have two stages of sleep; stage 3 and REM, and they spend about half their sleep in each stage. But at around the fourth month, there is a reorganization of sleep, as they being to experience all four stages of sleep, which they will follow for the rest of their lives.
When this biological transition happens, baby moves from 50% REM sleep to 25% in order to make room for those first two stages. Also, keep in mind, REM sleep is a lighter stage of sleep which is why you often wake up immediately following a dream. But, get this. . . Stage 1 and Stage 2 sleep is even lighter than REM sleep, so now your baby is spending significantly more time in lighter levels of sleep; Oh Joy!
With more time spent in lighter sleep, there’s more of a chance that your baby will wake up, and stay up, unless he or she has learned how to fall back to sleep by him or herself.
So, what is a parent to do when this regression hits?
It’s now more important than ever that baby goes down to sleep AWAKE.
Babies typically need whatever it was that got them to sleep to get them BACK TO SLEEP when they naturally wake in the night. (Even as adults we wake up several times throughout the night but have already mastered the skill of getting ourselves back to sleep – flipping over, shifting a pillow, taking a drink of water). Typically we don’t even remember these wake ups.
However, it’s not so simple with babies. If baby is being nursed to sleep every night, chances are the only way baby will fall back to sleep after night wakings is by being nursed back to sleep. If baby is rocked to sleep, chances are baby will need that rocking to get right back to sleep each time he or she awakes in the middle of the night.
By putting your child to sleep, AWAKE, your baby will learn how to fall asleep and use this skill repeatedly when natural night wakings occur. If going in the crib awake is a new concept for your little one, you can definitely except some protest, but learning this skill is crucial.
Here are some other tips that will help your little one sail through this regression:
Baby’s Room should be dark. I’m talking 10/10 on a darkness scale. Babies are not inherently afraid of the dark, however they are responsive to light. A pitch black sleep environment can foster tremendously better and longer sleep for your child.
Play white noise in your baby’s nursery. Even if your baby sleeps fine now without any white noise, it can be a Godsend to block out the Amazon delivery driver, the neighbor’s barking dog, or your blender when a lunchtime smoothie is calling your name. White noise emulates the sound of blood rushing through Mom’s womb, so this sound has been soothing your child since conception!
Bedtime Routine - Bedtime routines are also an essential component to getting your baby sleeping well. Try to keep the routine to about 4 or 5 steps, and don’t end it with a feed. Otherwise, you risk baby nodding off at the breast or the bottle, and that is not good when your goal is to put your baby in the crib awake. At 4 months old, the entire routine, excluding the feed, should take around 20 -30 minutes. If you notice baby getting fussy before bedtime, you’ve probably waited too long.
Four month old babies should really only be going about two hours between naps anyhow, and bedtime can fall sometime between 6:30 pm and 8 pm.
There are sure to be other sleep regressions in baby’s life related to travel, sickness, teething, future milestones, etc. However, the 4-month sleep regression, it’s one and done! It’s also by far the most noticed and challenging regression for most parents. The good news -- by implementing these tips, your baby can sail through it and come out the other side having transitioned into the sleep cycles that your baby will be following for the rest of his or her life!