Parents of newborns initially don’t have to worry about the nightmare that is the four-month sleep regression. Of course, new moms and dads have to wake up at night for feedings and diapers, but since 4-month-olds sleep about 16 hours a day the first three months, there are usually opportunities to bank on that sleep training and catch up on some zzzs — that is, until the four-month mark hits. That’s when the 4-month sleep regression marks the end of your baby’s dreamy circadian cycle and a brief but blissful period of being a relatively rested parent.
A sleep regression essentially means that an infant’s natural sleep patterns are changing and causing them to wake more frequently, sleep less soundly, and transition with napping schedules. Four-month-old babies undergo the first of many sleep regressions that typically take place around four, nine months, and 18 months old.
Several things can cause a sleep regression, but the shift in sleep habits are most often attributed to natural growth and development in a baby (such as crawling and teething) that create changes in sleep patterns that will contribute to these developments. In other words, your baby growing up can mean less sleep for you. But it doesn’t have to. You can diminish the impact of sleep regressions by preventing poor sleep habits and avoiding an inappropriate sleep schedule that makes bad situations worse.
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At four months of age, babies start to get busy for the first time. They begin rolling over, squirming, and gaining more motor control. They also start to sleep less. At this time, babies sleep closer to eight hours at night uninterrupted and can get away with four hours of napping spread throughout the day — instead of getting 16 hours of sleep sporadically spread throughout the day and night (as is the case with a newborn).
Babies at this age need less sleep because they are entering the phase of more normalized, adult-like scheduling that they’ll adhere to for the rest of their lives — plus their schedule can now differentiate between night and day. Gone are the times of the womb-sleep schedule.
Previous to four months a baby is still on the same schedule they were on in uterine, and can immediately enter a deeper non-REM sleep, according to certified infant and child sleep consultant Pam Edwards. This is why you have been able to rock or nurse your 2-month-old baby to sleep and just put them down for a nap wherever — the car, the living room, a football stadium — without any disturbances waking them up. But at four months, babies don’t enter deep sleep as quickly (like an adult) and can easily be stirred within the first 30 minutes of falling asleep. So rocking, holding, and singing to a baby becomes stimulating — not sleep-inducing. Reducing all distractions, noise, light, and keeping a steady room temperature is imperative to beating a sleep regression.
In addition to controlling your child’s sleep environment, it’s important to get your baby on your schedule, and stick to it, since this will be similar to the schedule they are on for the rest of their lives. Think of this as sleep training 101. A baby who was previously sleeping in until 7 or 8 AM will begin to wake up at a more natural “sunrise” hour — around 6 or 7 AM. Instead of hoping that a later bedtime will promote them to continue sleeping in, put them to bed earlier and guarantee a (full) good night’s sleep. This will prevent a shorter sleep cycle from creating an overtired baby who will, in turn, wake up even earlier, more frequently, and grouchier. Get on board with the “early to bed, early to rise” pattern and stick to it — anything less is going against baby’s natural sleep rhythms, according to family sleep consultant Hailee Schollaardt.
Aside from natural adjustment to the circadian world around them, a baby’s physical development also contributes to changing sleep pattern. At four months, most babies become more mobile — making swaddling unsafe. But swaddling still promotes sleep, so you’re stuck between a sleepsack and a hard place. In this case Edwards suggests trying the Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleepsuit (until they start rolling in their sleep). “It’s a fantastic tool for babies who aren’t able to be swaddled but just aren’t ready for a sleepsack quite yet,” writes Edwards in a post on the Wee Bee Dreaming sleep consulting site.
Promoting an early bedtime, creating a calm sleep environment, getting good naps, and switching up the way you swaddle and help you to prevent any of your baby’s sleep regressions from turning into a lack of sleep for your family. Just remember that sleep really isn’t that tricky — we all need it, and your baby wants it. Provide the schedule, environment, and guidance for good rest and it will come (not always, but it will come).