Just as you were starting to feel like you had the hang of this sleeping baby situation, your sweet newborn decides to change thing up on you as you approach the 4-month mark. This is fondly (or dreadfully) referred to as the 4-month sleep regression.
While some have heard of it before it afflicts their family, others are in denial that it will happen to their already sleeping champ of a baby, and other families are caught completely off guard and can’t figure out what they have done wrong.
Regardless of the many emotions that surface when your baby enters this phase, it is normal and survivable although undeniably painful at the time.
What is the Four Month Sleep Regression? What Are The Signs?
This time period is often a rocky one due to a variety of events that seem to happen simultaneously.
Most importantly, this is the moment of time when your baby has a significant “burst” of developmental awareness.
This means that some babies (although not very alert babies) for the first several months of life are not very interested in things that are going on around them other than probably the sound of their mother’s voice and whether they are being fed.
Their world is rather limited to the immediate vicinity. As they move into this 4 month period, they suddenly become aware that there is an entire exciting world all around that they want to engage with and investigate.
When everything around you is so stimulating, it can certainly make it hard to sleep. This means that your child is likely to become very distractible at this point.
Remember the days of continuous cluster feeding when you could catch up on all of your Netflix marathons and your baby was none the wiser? Now, you turn on the TV as you sit down for a feeding, and suddenly your baby cranes his neck to see the screen too, to the detriment of the feeding.
Or you try to feed your child in a public place or where your other children or even the dog are running around and forget it, not going to happen. Everything else is way too interesting to spend precious moments eating.
For many babies, there is also a growth spurt at this time. While growth spurts are hard to predict and there are several of them, especially in the first 6 months of life, many babies will begin eating more around this four-month mark.
This can certainly account for increased night wakings and the reluctance on your child’s part to go back to sleep without a feeding.
As your baby moves out of their 4th trimester (that initial 3 months after birth when he is adjusting to the world out of the womb, and you may be still helping him simulate that in utero experience with your 5 Ss –sucking, swaddling, shushing, side lying and swinging); many of the tricks you might have used in those early months may stop working.
While this can be frustrating because it means that you have less ability to soothe your baby to sleep, it is a sign that your child is growing and developing and needs less intervention from you in order to soothe.
This is not to say that all babies are ready to soothe independently at this stage but that this skill is starting to become more developed.
Lastly, some babies like to learn new tricks at this time such as rolling from their backs to their bellies.
It is likely that if your child is doing this when they are not in their bedtime space, you will have some warning that they are capable of rolling back to belly and are no longer swaddling, as this can be dangerous.
If your previously sleeping baby suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night and finds himself on his belly, he is likely to wake up mad and need some help getting comfortable again in order to back to sleep.
When Does Sleep Regression Start and How Long Does It Last?
On average, I find most parents report that they begin noticing changes in their babies around 15 weeks (for babies born prematurely, this would be 15 weeks adjusted).
Not all regressions happen to all babies, so it is possible to get through this period and not notice a significant difference in your child’s sleep.
On average, I find that the regression lasts anywhere from 2-4 weeks. If it is not resolving by four weeks and especially if your baby is beyond 18 weeks, it may make sense to start making some changes because this is an indication that your child might be ready to be more independent with their bedtime.
How do We Survive the 4-Month Baby Sleep Regression?
Your baby is in the midst of significant changes! This is a good thing because it means that your baby is growing and developing.
At this time, your child’s brain is starting to cycle in and out of stages of sleep just like the adult brain.
That means: your child is starting to notice that there may be a difference between what happens when he is falling asleep at bedtime (example: he is held to sleep, nursed/bottle fed, rocked or bounced to sleep) and what happens when he now goes through those newly developed sleep-cycles.
If he went into his bedtime space asleep, he is going to be more likely to wake at when the next sleep cycle occurs.
During this time, there is going to be a fair amount of survival that needs to happen. This is a tough time for your baby too as his brain is growing rapidly and the world around him is quickly expanding.
It is fine to do whatever you need to do to meet his needs. Many times a day, I tell parents that there is nothing that they are going to do regarding their baby’s sleep in the first 6 months that is going to cause a long term problem (and even then, it can all be changed, there are just varying degrees of how hard that process can be).
Please keep in mind that he may be in a growth spurt so he is likely to have an increased need for nutrition so feedings may be more necessary than they might have been a few weeks ago.
You may need to be a bit creative about how you are helping your child go to dream-land during this time as things that worked in the past may not work as well at this point (sadly, this is often the point when those 5 Ss stop working so well).
Ensuring that your baby is not overtired will help him sleep more easily so watch for sleepy cues and try to get him down before he is overtired.
This may also be the time when you have a harder time convincing your child to sleep when you are out and about because of all the stimulation that the outside world is now bringing in. If your baby still sleeps while you are out, it may be helpful to cover the car seat or carrier to reduce some of this stimulation.
How to Get Out of this Regression?
Babies are not born with the ability to soothe themselves to sleep. Some are better at this than others from younger ages, but when this happens is often based on your child’s temperament.
Babies with easier temperaments can often start to soothe themselves and fall asleep independently starting at 8 weeks of age.
Please note, this is not through sleep training. This refers to babies who can be put down awake in their bedtime space and, after a brief period of rocking themselves side to side, lifting their legs up and dropping them down—soothing behaviors—fall asleep on their own without needing a sleep crutch.
If this is happening before the 4-month regression, when you get to the other side, sleep can often fall back into place as your child has the skills he needs to be a great sleeper from here on out.
If your baby goes into his bedtime space asleep at bedtime, the four month regression can often bring about wakings every 2 hours (or more!) throughout the night, and he may be tough to soothe at some points.
I typically tell parents that if you have come through what is a usual point in time when the regression should be over (about 18 weeks), and your baby’s sleep is still very challenging, this can be the point in time when it may make sense to start to work on developing some improved sleep skills.
This will likely involve some sleep training. This type of training is not something you ever have to do if it is not in keeping with your parenting comfort zone or it may be something you feel would be better for your child if you held off until 6 months.
I often find, however, that when parents are going through a circus act of tricks to convince their baby to go to sleep, and none of them are really working, it can be because your child is telling you that he is ready to do some of the work himself.
Not sure if your baby is in the midst of their 4-month sleep regression, feel free to contact me for your free 15-minute phone consultation.
Author: Linda Szmulewitz
Linda Szmulewitz is a licensed clinical social worker, a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach through Kim West, LCSW-C, aka The Sleep Lady ®, a DONA trained postpartum doula and the mother of two children.