All about the ‘Four Month Sleep Regression’.

Over the first 3-4 months of a baby’s life, many parents report a gradual improvement of sleep (for them and their bub). As their small tummies grow, some babies are able to sleep 4, 5 and even 6+ hours at a time. This often lulls parents into a false sense of security, with many assuming their baby will shortly start sleeping through the night. For some lucky parents, this can be the case. However, for others, an important developmental milestone wreaks havoc, causing sleep to suddenly regress rather than improve. This is often referred to as the ‘four month sleep regression’, and is a hot topic amongst many parents I work with. 

As such, I thought it would be useful to provide you with some more information on this important milestone – including what it is, when it happens, why it happens, and what you can do to reduce its effects…

Contrary to its name, the ‘four month sleep regression’ doesn’t always happen at the four month mark. This permanent developmental change usually happens between three to seven months of age. But, of course, every baby is different! 

The key signs: frequent night wakings and short naps. 

If your baby, who has up until this point been sleeping well on the whole, starts waking frequently during the night and/or at nap time, it could be that the ‘four month sleep regression’ has started. 

For some parents, this developmental change goes totally unnoticed, as their baby has never slept well. However, for others, it is very noticeable and their baby who has been doing long 4+ hour stints of sleep starts waking every 45mins-2 hours. 

Around this age, sleep matures and babies develop stages of sleep, which always result in a brief waking at the end of each sleep cycle. This brief waking is the cause of most sleep issues. 

If you are putting your little one down into the cot already asleep and/or getting them to sleep using feeding, rocking, cuddling, etc. they are not using their own independent sleep skills to get to sleep. This means, when they wake briefly between sleep cycles, they not only wonder where they are (as their sleep environment is different to where they fell asleep), but they also don’t know how to get back to sleep without your help – be that feeding, rocking or cuddling, etc. These are all sleep onset associations – something your baby needs in order to sleep. 

The most common sleep onset associations include:

  • Feeding (breast or bottle);
  • Rocking;
  • Dummy;
  • Cuddling;
  • Patting;
  • Shushing.

The babies who don’t tend to be affected by the ‘four month sleep regression’ are those who go down awake in their cot and are able to put themselves to sleep without external help. This means, when their sleep matures and they wake briefly between sleep cycles, they can put themselves back to sleep quickly and easily. 

The most important thing is to support your little one in going to sleep independently, so when they wake between sleep cycles, they know where they are and how to put themselves back to sleep again. 

I do not recommend any form of ‘Sleep Training’ before 18 weeks. This is for a number of reasons, including ensuring the little one is likely to have gone through the ‘four month sleep regression’. Nevertheless, before this, there are a number of things you can do to help your little one in going to sleep more independently – including:

  • Setting up the sleep environment for success: ensure it’s cool, dark and quiet. Use blackout blinds and white noise for the entirety of sleepy time;
  • Working to the right ‘wake windows’: for your baby to fall asleep quickly and easily, it’s important that they’re neither over or under tired. This means working to the average wake windows for their age, whilst also noting their own unique sleepy cues;
  • Not always defaulting to feeding: it can be tempting to feed every time a baby wakes during the night. However, the ‘four month sleep regression’ isn’t a growth spurt so additional feeds should not be needed. Instead, focus on using other soothing methods to get your little one back to sleep so not to enforce (or reinforce) any feed to sleep association;  
  • Implement a bedtime and nap time routine: having a routine before sleep can help your little one wind down and drift off. It doesn’t have to be long at this age – just a few simple steps to cue the oncoming sleep;
  • Take ‘baby steps’: don’t make big changes overnight. You can slowly move away from sleep associations. For example, with rocking, you can first get them used to a slower rock, then simply being held to sleep, then being in their cot with a firm hold, etc. 

For babies over 18 weeks, you can start to more formally work on sleep. There are a range of methods you can use. Think about which might work best for you and your little one, as well as the one you can be most consistent with (as consistency really is key to success!). In choosing which method I’m going to use with each of the families I work with, I do a deep dive analysis on a whole host of factors including a little one’s personality. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. I would urge you to do your research and always choose a method that you feel comfortable with. I would also recommend steering clear of the ‘cry it out’ method. You should be your baby’s cheerleader, supporter and comfort during this time of change. 

Most parents I talk to fear the ‘four month sleep regression’. However, I do not think it should be feared. If you understand it, and why it is happening, you can always do something about it. If you have a newborn, there are things you can do to prepare for it. If you have an older baby, there are things you can do to support your little one in linking together those sleep cycles so the wakings start reducing. And, if you’re still struggling, there’s always me! If the ‘four month sleep regression’ has turned into a longer term issue, please get in touch and set up your free Discovery Call. I’d love to hear from you!