Congratulations! You’ve survived the hazy newborn fourth trimester and things will get easier from here… right? Well, the answer to that in many respects is 'yes', but there are also many developmental changes that happen now which could potentially make things get a little worse before they get better. Sorry to break the news!
Your baby is developing and growing at a faster rate than ever. There are major changes happening right now and these affect your little one’s perspective of the things around them, how they perceive the world, how their body moves, how they look and… the structure of their sleep cycles. This is where the sleep regression comes in.
So what specifically do we mean by the four month sleep regression?
A very young baby only has two sleep stages: quiet and active. The quiet stage is a deep sleep which they can be more difficult to wake from. The active stage is when they might be grunting, moving, and even crying out in their sleep. Newborns can be very noisy sleepers, particularly in those early hours.
However, the sleep cycles change when a baby is around three to five months of age and become more like the sleep cycles we have as adults. This is a permanent change. Now your baby will have four sleep stages, which include REM sleep (the light stage in which we dream).
Babies can take a while to adjust to their new sleep stages as they are not used to transitioning between them. Often a baby, who was sleeping well as a newborn, may start waking more often as they transition into lighter sleep. This is also known as the four month sleep regression!
The problem often occurs when a baby of this age keeps waking and doesn't know how to get back to sleep independently so calls out for you to help. Therefore, how your baby falls asleep initially at bedtime becomes extremely important at this age. This is because your baby will expect you to intervene every time they wake and help them back to sleep by doing whatever you did to get them to sleep at the start of the night. This can be exhausting when you are up almost every hour resettling your baby.
But don’t worry, there are many ways in which you can help your child settle independently and it is important to select a method that’s going to work for your family and suit your child’s temperament. Not every method will work with every child because they are all unique. There are a number of things you can try though:
1. Make sure your baby’s tummy is full
Continue to feed regularly during the day. Your baby has woken up to the world and will be taking in all of their surroundings. This might distract them from taking a full feed and sometimes this can result in extra feeds at night. If this happens to you, try feeding in a quiet room where there is little going on so your baby gets maximum calories during the day.
2. Introduce a bedtime routine
If you haven’t already then now is a great time to introduce a simple bedtime routine. Babies learn through repetition and repeating the same small steps in the same order each night before bedtime will help your baby recognise it’s time for sleep. Around 7pm is a good time because this is when your baby's sleepy hormone (melatonin) is at its highest so they are likely to drift off much easier.
3. Work on self-settling
If you are helping your baby get to sleep in some way, such as feeding, rocking, or cuddling to sleep, they will now expect this every time they wake. If you are happy with this, it’s absolutely fine to continue doing it. But teaching your baby to settle independently (also known as self-settling) is a life skill and something that the vast majority of babies need to be taught by their caregivers eventually, so it’s worth considering. Once your child has learned this skill it is a huge leap in their development and they will be able to sleep for longer periods without the need for your input.
4. Prevent overtiredness
Your baby will now be able to stay awake for longer periods of time but it’s still really important that they get adequate sleep during the day as naps directly affect the quality of night sleep. If your baby does become overtired then their body will produce extra adrenaline (cortisol) making it harder for them to settle to sleep and stay asleep.
Naps can still be very varied in length at this age and don’t tend to become longer until around five months when your baby may settle into a clearer three nap routine. Ideally, a four month old baby should be having around three and a half to four hours of day sleep and around 14.5 hours of sleep in 24 hours. Wake windows (the time a baby spends awake between naps) should be between 75 and 120 minutes. Babies of this age can vary greatly so you may need to tweak wake windows until you find the perfect fit for your baby.
As your baby approaches four months, remember that not all parents will notice the four month sleep regression. Some babies cope really well with these developmental changes so please do not fear what may be to come.