Just as you thought you had the hang of this parenting business, and your baby had started sleeping for longer stretches at night, your world is turned upside down. Suddenly your tricks for getting your baby to sleep stop working, they fight naps during the day and constantly wake up during the night.
You spend hours rocking your little one to sleep, only for them to wake up as soon as their head touches the mattress and you have to start all over again. Sound familiar? Between 3 and 5 months babies can go through what is referred to as the dreaded 4 month sleep regression, but knowing how to adapt to your baby’s needs can help you get through this difficult period and return some sanity to your sleep deprived household.
What exactly is a “sleep regression”?
Put simply, when a baby’s sleep habits start going downhill and they are fussy and clingy during the day, it is referred to as a “sleep regression”. Your peaceful baby that has a fairly predictable nap schedule and is sleeping well at night may become cranky, start to fight naps, nap for less time, find it difficult to fall asleep, wake more frequently during the night, etc…
It can be a very frustrating time for a parent, as your baby’s usual sleep schedule has gone out of the window and you’re dealing with exhaustion and uncertainty about how to get through this stage.
Sleep regressions are also associated with nap transitions, in this case, when your baby is ready to go from 4 naps a day to 3. This means your baby’s schedule may need tweaking, and bedtime bringing forward to compensate for more awake time during the day.
Not adjusting to this change quickly enough may contribute to your baby being overtired and waking more during the night.
Although difficult to go through, rest assured that sleep regressions are a healthy developmental milestone that most babies go through at certain age related stages (typically at 3 to 4 months, 9 months and 18 months). Yes, I’m afraid there are more to come, but knowing why sleep regressions occur will help you make a plan to get through this stage, and help your baby learn healthy sleep habits.
What causes it?
Newborn babies are able to sleep just about anywhere and for longer periods of time. They don’t have distinct stages of light and deep sleep, and pretty much go in to a deep cycle from the moment they fall asleep, unlike older babies and adults.
Around the age of 4 months, your baby’s brain is maturing and their sleep patterns will start to change and become more like an adult’s, cycling between light REM sleep and deep non-REM sleep. This is a permanent change, and not something that will disappear in time, but it is a sign that your baby has reached an important milestone.
Your baby may wake after a light cycle before going in to a deep sleep, and not know how to self soothe and fall back to sleep. Many babies rely on their mom or dad to rock, hold or feed them to sleep. You can continue to use these methods as a short term solution to help you get some rest, but make a plan to slowly wean your baby from these sleep associations. At this age, babies are ready to learn how to fall asleep on their own.
How do I help my baby through this stage?
Your usual methods for helping your baby fall asleep such as rocking, feeding or singing may stop working, as they become more aware of their surroundings and can become overstimulated. It is easy to enter a vicious cycle, as an overtired baby will wake more frequently at night and refuse or fight naps during the day.
If you’re spending hours trying to get your baby to nap or fall asleep at night, it may best to adapt and try a different technique, such as putting your baby down in their cot whilst drowsy but still awake, and letting them fall asleep on their own. There are different methods of gentle sleep coaching (including “controlled crying”, “cry it out” and “no tears” methods), and the right one for you will depend on you and your baby.
Your best defense to tackle a sleep regression is to find a schedule which suits your baby and stick to it. Make sure you and your partner agree on your approach, so you can offer each other support and be consistent in your methods.
During a sleep regression your baby may shift to an earlier wake up time, and therefore their bed time should be adjusted to make up for this. Remember, putting your baby to bed later will not help them sleep in in the morning, and may contribute to your baby’s over tiredness.
The key to creating healthy sleep habits is finding a schedule best suited to your baby’s natural sleep rhythm, and try to follow through with it as much as possible.
How long will it last?
It’s difficult to say how long a sleep regression lasts, as each baby is unique and will take different times to adapt to a new sleep schedule or coaching method. Some parents may notice better sleep patterns from one day to another, whilst others won’t notice their baby’s gradual improvement until they start feeling more rested.
However, if after a month you have seen no improvement, you may have fallen in to the trap of making a temporary survival technique in to a new sleep habit (such as nursing every time your baby wakes up or rocking your baby for hours).
In this case, you may need to consider gentle sleep training techniques to promote healthier sleep habits, and help your baby learn how to fall sleep on their own and self soothe so they can sleep through the night.