You were just hitting your stride as a new mom. Your baby had started smiling, cooing, napping at regular times and sleeping longer at night. But then….(bom bom BOM!) the dreaded 4-month sleep regression your mom friends warned you about. Suddenly, your perfect baby is waking up every couple of hours, refusing to nap, and generally being a total cranky-butt. (In spite of being incredibly cute.) What happened??
Why do babies have sleep regressions anyway?
Babies tend to have sleep regressions at 4, 8 and 18 months, but 4 months is the most common, and generally the toughest for parents. The key to understanding sleep regressions is knowing that they’re not actually regressions—that is, they don’t indicate that your baby is moving backward. In fact, they mean just the opposite: Sleep regressions generally happen when your baby is in transition from one phase of development to the next.
And around four months, give or take, is when babies start to make some big developmental leaps forward: They’re becoming more aware of the world, possibly learning to roll over, maybe even starting to teethe. They’re also able to make associations between sleeping and things that happen as they go to sleep, like being rocked or fed (more on that later!)
One of the other big changes is what’s happening in their brains while they sleep. As newborns, babies have less developed sleep staging cycles. But as they get older, they start cycling between different phases of sleep, just like adults: light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep.
And like adults, they actually wake up multiple times a night as part of that cycling. This is actually a normal part of a healthy sleep cycle. Here’s the problem: As adults, we’re able to very quickly fall back asleep after these micro-wake-ups, and often don’t even remember them. But babies this age, transitioning out of the newborn stage, haven’t mastered the skill of falling asleep independently yet.
OK, that’s all very interesting, but what I am I supposed to do?
The first key to surviving the four-month sleep regression: Remind yourself that this too shall pass. Sleep regressions generally last 2-4 weeks. Your baby will sleep again, and so will you. In fact, this is actually a great time to establish some healthy sleep habits that will help your baby sleep better both now and well into the future. (How’s that for turning lemons into lemonade?!)
1. Avoid sleep associations.
If you take just one piece of advice from this list, make it this one! The key to helping your baby learn to self soothe and fall back asleep on their own is to teach them not to depend on you to fall asleep. Rocking them to sleep or nursing or feeding them until they fall asleep creates an association in their little brains between those actions and sleep. So they’ll always need that action to fall asleep. (Which will make life pretty tough for you!) Work gradually toward the goal of putting your baby down in their crib when they’re drowsy but still awake. (PS: Nod has night-by-night, step by step coaching to help you do it.)
2. Stick to your routine (or establish one if you haven’t already).
Another key to helping your baby sleep well is sticking to a regular routine before bedtime and naptime. Ideally you want your baby to sleep in the same place and follow the same order of events each time. So, for example, a diaper change, a snuggle, a tummy-rub in the crib, and then you’re out. During a regression, you may be tempted to just do whatever it takes to get them to sleep at any given time. But don’t. Your best chance of success is to keep things consistent.
3. Create the perfect sleep environment.
Make sure that the room your baby sleeps in is nice and dark at night, using light-blocking shades or curtains if necessary. Quiet is important too; a white noise machine can cover up outside noises and help lull your baby to sleep. Finally, make sure the room is at a comfortable temperature, ideally between 65-70°F (18-21 C°).
4. Try swaddling if you haven’t yet.
If your baby isn’t yet rolling over, try using a swaddle (or re-introduce it if you stopped). That snug feeling a swaddle creates can help them soothe them, and also keep them from inadvertently waking themselves up if they still have the moro reflex—that reflex unique to newborns which cause them to jerk suddenly in their sleep in response to noises, sudden touch or other stimuli.
5. Feed the need!
Your baby may be extra hungry during sleep regressions. Remember, their brains and bodies are working overtime as they make these developmental leaps forward. Let them nurse or feed as much as they want. Because the only thing worse than a fussy baby is a hangry baby.
Sleep regressions are no picnic, and there may be times you’re at your wits’ end. But remind yourself that it’s normal, it’s not forever, and you’re doing the best you can. Are you in the middle of a sleep regression? What’s been helpful for you? Let us know over on Instagram.