Have you heard about it? The four month sleep regression? Do you want to know what it’s really like as well as better understand what your baby is experiencing during this time?
Despite the rumours you may have heard about the four month sleep regression, there are ways to embrace it and ease into this next developmental step you and your baby will make together.
Here, Sleep Consultant Kelly Martin covers what the four month sleep regression actually is and how to prepare (or recover if you’ve just been through it and haven't recovered yet)…. The keyword here being ‘yet’.
You’ll also learn hints and tips for managing the four month sleep regression with confidence and learn skills that are key in developing healthy sleep habits.
Let’s start with, ‘what is the 4 month sleep regression?’.
It’s a permanent, neurological change in our baby’s sleeping pattern and is actually a progression rather than a regression. Yes, you read right, it’s a progression of our baby’s development as they discover newfound awareness of the world we live in.
Included in these neurological changes are the maturation of sleep cycles. These sleep cycles become shorter in frequency and often means the emergence of the dreaded catnapping along with more frequent night waking (2-4 hourly). It’s these disruptions to your baby’s sleep that sees the term ‘regression’ used so often.
My first piece of advice is to not see this time as going backwards, but rather the healthy development required for your baby who is moving forward and progressing.
It’s also a pivotal time as your baby moves further away from newborn behaviour to a baby who will begin to reach more and more exciting milestones in the weeks and months ahead.
Expert Tip: Now is a great time to look at the role of any external sleep associations (what your baby associates with falling asleep) think rocking, feeding, holding or using a dummy to go off to sleep.
Whilst these are all useful tools (even God sends) during the newborn stage, now that bub is emerging from the newborn bubble, you can take the time to decide whether you want to continue using these sleep associations long-term, or remove them from your baby’s wind down sleep routine and way of settling to sleep. This can be achieved gently and gradually over a period of time.
Remember there is no “bad” or “wrong” approach when it comes to settling your baby, but we are aiming to give them more than one tool in their tool belt for sleep and settling.
Before we go any further let’s set the scene….
Your baby has been fed or rocked to sleep in your arms (this is called external support). The last thing they remember is being with you and in your arms or at the breast/bottle.
Once they are asleep you pop them into their bassinet or cot for them to continue sleeping. It sounds bliss doesn’t it? But when they wake, they’re no longer in your arms or the place they remember falling asleep. HELP please Mum!
For an adult, this is the equivalent of falling asleep in your bed and waking in your neighbour’s bed an hour later….
- a) Roll over and go back to sleep - it's a bed I will take it.
- b) Freak out and want to go back to your own bed where you initially fell asleep.
Light bulb moment, this is how it must feel for my baby!
Once your baby’s sleep cycles mature at this 4-6 month age, they are now transitioning between sleep cycles more frequently and neurologically adjusting to the same ‘adult’ sleep cycles we encounter when we sleep.
We don’t even realise it, but throughout the night we too experience sleep cycles occurring 2-4 hourly and this is what your baby is beginning to experience too. We just simply change positions and re-settle quickly with a soft ebb and flow due to our ability to independently fall asleep at the beginning of our sleep cycles.
Now that we know this information, how can we improve our baby’s ability to transition between sleep cycles and maximise their opportunity to learn the ability to self-settle- the foundation for healthy sleep habits.
Before we even consider how to approach re-settling between sleep cycles, we want to focus on two important things:
- How does your baby fall asleep initially?
For a baby to learn to fall asleep without an external sleep prop, they need to be comfortable and familiar with their cot. This can take time and patience.
It will still require our hands-on assistance initially, but the goal is to avoid swapping the prop (for example replacing the dummy with rocking) and having an exit strategy to leave the room over a period of time as you gradually reduce your intervention and your baby takes over.
At any step along the way, you can reassess and potentially wean out any external sleep props that are no longer serving you or our little one's sleep cycle transitions.
- Has your baby had the right amount of awake time?
Take a look at your baby’s awake windows and ensure they’re not too long or too short.
As a guide I recommend:
Birth to 3 Weeks: 40-60 minutes
6-9 Weeks: 60-75 minutes
9-12 Weeks: 1.25 up to 1.5 hours
3 Months: 1.5 up to 1.75 hours
4 Months: 1.75 up to 2 hours
5 Months: 2 up to 2.25 hours
6 Months: 2.5 up to 3 hours
7-15 Months: 2.5 up to 4 hours
15/18 months Plus: 4.5- up to 5 hours
I encourage a feed/play/sleep pattern but if they happen to catnap don't automatically jump back into feeding again. Try to keep at least 2.5-3 hours between feeds and be purposeful with each step of feed /play/ sleep to encourage a full feed, active awake time and appropriate pressure for sleep.
If their awake times are significantly less than the average recommendations for their age (natural variance +/- 15 minutes) then this may need fine tuning.
Preparation and Consistency
Don’t be ‘scared’ of the four month sleep regression. If your baby has a solid sleep foundation, it may be a minor blip in the road for a few days to a week or you mightn’t even notice it at all.
If your little one is hit hard, know that this is not the beginning of the end but it is a great time to seek out further support and education so you can feel empowered and confident with your baby’s sleep moving forward; knowing you have laid a solid foundation of knowledge for healthy sleep habits.
Waiting it out is like the age old question “how long is a piece of string”. Yes, technically it will pass and your little one will learn to link sleep cycles independently, but I can’t give you an exact age that this will occur.
Also know that you do not have to go it alone, there is no badge of honour in motherhood for long-term sleep deprivation and there is no shame in asking for assistance in something that you cannot be expected to know everything about- motherhood is a training ground like no other where we are constantly challenged with ever changing expectation.
What do you do if your baby continues to have unsettled sleep?
If things don't settle back down around the 2 week mark, or they’ve never been easy from the get go, then it is most likely your baby has developed a pattern of expectation for settling and re-settling between sleep cycles.
Little ones, just like adults are creatures of habit. This means if we keep doing the same things over and over to settle and re-settle, they will naturally believe this is the ONLY way to settle.
There are no "bad or wrong" ways to settle your baby, but we do want our baby to have more than one tool in their tool kit to help them fall asleep and more importantly stay asleep for consolidated periods overnight to give their body the opportunity to rest, repair and rebuild for the days, weeks and months ahead of busy growth and development.
Above all, consistency is key to making change and achieving long-term success with establishing healthy sleep habits.
Kelly Martin is a certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant and mother of 3. She has worked with thousands of families over the past 4 years to develop a holistic and evidence based approach to developing and maintaining healthy sleep foundations from birth to 4 years of age. You can find Kelly at Kelly Martin Sleep Consultant | Adelaide – Sleep Training and Antenatal Support for information, guidance and support on your sleep journey.