The Four Month Sleep Regression

The four 4 month sleep regression.

Suddenly awake multiple times at night? Finally understand what the word "regression" means as it relates to sleep?

You hoped it wouldn't hit your house.

As a sleep consultant, I have found that the word regression pops up in nearly every imaginable circumstance. If a baby has been sleeping well for a week or months and suddenly hits a hiccup, it receives the "R" label. Some believe there's a regression at eight months or a year.

I have some news for you: the dreaded four-month regression is absolutely REAL, and it's PERMANENT.

But why? And what exactly is going on? I know you're probably sleep deprived right now, so I'll try to keep this simple.

Sleep isn't exactly on or off, but instead has many stages that we call the "sleep cycle." We move through this cycle several times a night.

Stage 1: You can feel yourself drifting off, but do not feel like you're asleep. You may look asleep to others but may quickly respond with "I wasn't asleep" when someone wakes you.

Stage 2: Considered "true sleep," this stage is where people will agree that they were asleep. This is also the "power nap" stage that gives energy without the groggy feeling of a long nap.

Stage 3: This stage is deep and regenerative and known as "slow wave" sleep. The body repairs and rejuvenates the immune system, muscles tissue, energy stores, and begins growth and development.

Stage 4: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Our brains begin to consolidate information and memories during this stage. It's also when we dream.

After Stage 4, we wake or come close to waking. We then cycle back through the stages again. The process of waking at the end is where the issues arise and begin the "regression."

Newborns vs. 3 and 4-month olds

Newborn babies only have two stages of sleep; stage 3 and stage 4 (REM), and they spend about half their sleep in each stage. At around the third or fourth month, babies add in the first two sleep stages, both of which are lighter sleep. They'll follow this cycle of including all four stages for the rest of their lives.

More Light Sleep

When Stages 1 and 2 are added into a sleep cycle, the total amount of light sleep is increased. REM, which is light sleep is reduced by half to make room for the even lighter Stages 1 and 2. Now, with even more time spent in light sleep, there's more of a chance that baby's going to wake up.

Now, waking is not the issue. It's natural to wake up and we do it even as adults.

Why Adults Handle it Better

As an adult, we are aware of more truths than our child. We know our surroundings, that it's nighttime, that we don't have to wake up yet, and that we can go back to sleep. This happens so quickly that we often don't even remember waking during the night.

Why a 4-Month Old Struggles

A four-month old baby, of course, lacks these critical thinking skills. To a four-month-old baby who fell asleep in her mother's arms, the reasoning could go much more to the tune of, "OK, what's going on? Where's that familiar face, my pacifier or food, and mommy's voice singing to me? Where's Mommy?!"
I can completely understand why a baby would begin to freak out, which stimulates the fight-or-flight response. At this point, there's not chance a baby isn't going back to sleep without assurance that everything is just fine and probably a little snuggling.

Why Rocking to Sleep Suddenly Rocks the Peace

Another factor in this four month fiasco, I find, is that up until this point, parents have helped their baby fall asleep. Whether a parent has used a pacifier, simply rocked or breastfed, or used some similar technique, the baby has been distracted and relaxed to go to sleep. By the four month mark, a parent is tired and their arms may need a small break. Not happening.

A baby is now spending more time in light sleep, and therefore has a higher probability of waking up. For an already tired parent, there is now an even bigger issue. What was once helping your baby fall asleep has now created a sleep association that upon waking, causes crying and an adrenaline rush. When this starts happening every hour, it seems like more than a nightmare. Night after night of constant waking now means parents are in a near-zombie state, even during the daytime.

It is NOT a Regression.

You may be surprised to find that all of these sleepless nights are actually caused by a "progression." A regression is defined as a "reversion to an earlier mental or behavioral level," and that's certainly not what's happening here! We want our children to acquire this new level of sleep.

But What Can I Do? I'm Desperate!

So, onto the big question. What can a parent do to help a little one adjust?

  • Keep it dark! REALLY dark. Babies are not afraid of the dark, but definitely, are responsive to light. The last thing we want is for their brain to be secreting hormones to wake up and be alert because of light in their room.

  • Add a little noise. A white noise machine can help muffle little sounds that might otherwise wake your baby during those light sleep stages.

  • Routine. Bedtime routines are also an essential component to getting your baby sleeping well. Short, simple routines are great. Feeding your baby at the beginning of the routine will reduce the risk of nodding off while eating. PJs, stories, and a lullaby can come after the feed. Twenty to thirty minutes is a good average routine length as it's short enough for baby to recognize and long enough to get baby ready for bed and into bed awake.

  • Keep it timely. If baby is becoming fussy before bedtime, you've probably waited a little too long. Four-month-old babies should only be going about two hours between snoozes, and bedtime should be between 7:00 and 8:00 at night.

Are there true regressions?

Yes! There are definitely times that your child will have poor sleep phases. Illness, travel, and cutting teeth are just a few reasons to have several bad nights in a row. When babies begin to crawl, walk, or even have a major jump in talking, they may have more night wake-ups as they are eager to practice these fun skills. But, the most difficult change, at four months, is a one-time deal.

Parents who take the opportunity to teach their baby the skill to string sleep cycles together with independence certainly to not rob themselves or their child of snuggles and emotional attachment. A refreshed parent and child both have more to give! By giving them a gift they'll enjoy for the rest of their lives, they are also giving quality rest so that their time awake is more enjoyable.

Of course, some children will adjust like a fish to water. Others will be more resistant. Significant changes are hard on adults, so we should expect it to be at least a little challenging for a tiny baby. Whether you are approaching the four month mark, are in the middle of it, or are way past it and STILL struggling, I can assure you that your child CAN learn to sleep through cycles with ease. Like anything in life, we must be given the proper tools and the opportunity to learn.

If you are ready to help your child sleep his or her best at night, but just aren’t sure how, I’m here for you!

Initial consultations are always free. That may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. I’ve been in your shoes! Let’s chat. You and your baby need sleep.