When I first heard the words ‘sleep regression’ I immediately became weary. Even though I didn’t know what it was, it was spoken about in such negative tones that I immediately decided to not like it.
Once again, that was before I was educated.
It is, in fact, not a ‘regression’ at all. Rather it is a cognitive ‘progression’. It is a beautiful sign that your baby is thriving and growing just the way he is meant to. It is simply an indication of a growth spurt when baby’s sleep requirements change and mature a bit.
Let me explain.
When us adults sleep, we go through FOUR stages of sleep – known as The Sleep Cycle:
We’re drifting off – but it’s so light that we might deny it if someone says anything.
This is when you have actually fallen into a ‘true sleep’. If someone wakes you up you feel like you were definitely under for a little while. This is the perfect sleep stage if you are having an afternoon nap. You won’t wake up feeling groggy.
This sleep is deep and regenerative. This is when the body rejuvenates and repairs itself. You WILL wake up feeling groggy and grumpy if your afternoon nap has been a bit long.
Stage four is our dream state when REM (rapid eye movement) kicks in. Our brain consolidates information and memories from the day before.
Interestingly enough, we go through several sleep cycles per night – sometimes up to as much as five.
We actually wake up after each cycle – or almost wake up. Some of us are aware of these wakings, but most of the time we have trained ourselves that unless it’s the right time in the morning to wake up, we automatically roll over and go back to sleep.
Babies from new-born to three or four months only go through the last TWO stages of sleep.
They spend about half their sleep in each stage.
When a baby reaches around this age, their brain goes through a particular growth that shifts baby from the two-stage cycle into the four-stage sleep cycle. It’s kind of like a sleep reorganisation.
Baby will now be experiencing an extra two stages of a lighter sleep than they are used to.
This sleep regression is often characterised by changes to your little one’s behaviour. Perhaps they are fussier than normal, or it becomes harder for them to settle. They don’t sleep as long during naps or suddenly they go back to waking up 5 times a night and you just don’t know why.
The tricky bit comes in at this time if baby hasn’t been taught to fall asleep independently yet.
Many parents say they never even knew about this stage as baby had already been weaned off sleep crutches and had been taught how to fall asleep independently. This means as soon as baby was roused after her first four-stage sleep cycle she may have fussed a little bit, but soon was able to fall back asleep on her own. Mom and dad never even knew about it.
The parents of this baby would probably have already established the following good sleep principles:
- Baby would have had just the right amount of well-placed awake and nap times during the day. She would have been encouraged to nap before she became overtired which is detrimental to sleep – day or night. (Sleep training helps with naps.)
- Baby would also have had the right amount of food/milk during the day thereby encouraging a good evening feed thereby encouraging long bouts of sleep without baby waking unnecessarily hungry.
- Baby would have had a lovely, peaceful, quiet bedtime routine in dimmed light where she was bathed, massaged, changed, fed, cuddle/story/singing time, put down into his cot awake and ready for sleep.
- Baby’s room would be EXTREMELY dark – whether it’s day time (naps) or night time. Babies are VERY responsive to light.
- Babies room would also be a nice cool temperature and boring, no distracting toys, etc.
If baby has not been taught the above habits, the following likely happens once the four-month sleep regression takes place:
Once baby’s new four-stage sleep cycles end, baby will start to wake. When this happens, baby will immediately look for what he is used to i.e. being picked up/fed/cuddled/rocked/bounced/pacifier, etc. immediately.
It can be an exhausting, exasperating time for parents.
One of the other challenges for parents during this time is that it can take parents by surprise and confuse them. Is she teething? Could she be hungry? Maybe an ear infection? Is there something wrong with my supply? What about reflux?
It’s likely none of the above, but it’s best to be mindful as you don’t want to be sleep training when baby is sick.
If you want to beat the four-month sleep regression, my suggestion is that you take particular note of the above points.
Below I have added a few more useful points that will help you:
Avoid baby becoming overtired
Give baby about 10 mins before you pick her up
It’s a good idea to start giving baby the opportunity to figure out how to get back to sleep on her own. This is not so easy if baby is fussing or crying, however, keep remembering that if you want baby to learn to fall back asleep independently, this is what you need to do. The sooner the better.
(If you are worried that leaving baby to settle herself and that sleep training will cause psychological damage or that sleep training is cruel – I have written several blogs on this subject so please check them out.)
Identify Sleep Crutches and Habits
Use a white noise machine to block out sound
With baby spending more time in a lighter sleep, noises will startle them easily and wake them up. If you feel baby’s room is exposed to unwanted noises – especially during the day – a white noise machine works brilliantly. We aren’t worried about this one as it doesn’t require winding, resetting, reinserting or parental presence.
Kids pick up on the energy around them and if you are stressed and anxious, they will be too. It’s important to just go with the flow and do whatever works. What worked today may not work for your little one tomorrow, but we can fix anything. The biggest thing is just getting them the sleep they need.
Watch for Milestones
They roll, they smile, their first real belly-laugh, they sit up, etc. All of these amazing milestones can be very exciting for you and very exhausting for them. These skills take practice and babies don’t have the stamina you do them so they get tired quickly. They will often require more sleep during these times, so be sure to watch for signals, track their sleep and their awake windows. Consistency is key.
Remember that sleep regressions are temporary, so remember, this too shall pass. If you have been struggling with a sleep regression for longer than 4-6 weeks, it may be time to seek help, as there may be some new habits that have begun to derail their progress.
Sleep regressions typically occur at 3-4 months, 8-10 months, 12 months, 18 months – 2 years (the last one is regarding speech development).
The good news is that many of my clients tell me (months or even years down the road) that sleep regressions no longer impact their families. Their sleeping babies stay solid sleepers as a result of mastering the skill of sleep that I teach during our time together.
Don’t worry about this though as they didn’t know how to sleep train baby before they met me either;)
I am an expert in all things to do with getting baby to sleep. I would love to help you teach your baby how to fall asleep to independently – whether it’s during a sleep regression or not.
Please get in touch with me if are interested in my sleep training method and if you feel you would like some extra help with establishing a sleep training schedule.