Surviving Sleep Regressions

Sep 6, 2019

It’s here, the dreaded sleep regression – and things were going so well. You finally got baby on a loose ‘schedule,’ they were going down well for naps, sleeping through the night and then BOOM, sleep sucks again.

This is commonly when I hear from many new parents, as they don’t quite know what happened. Things were seemingly starting to turn and all of a sudden sleep stopped, almost overnight. A sleep regression is characterized by changes to your little one’s behavior like perhaps they are fussier, naps become increasingly hard for them to settle or sleep longer and suddenly, the baby is back to waking 5 times a night and you just don’t know why. 

How to Recognize the 4 Month Sleep Regression 

Well, everything you spent the past few months on seems to go into the toilet overnight. In all seriousness, your baby is growing, becoming more awake, alert and aware and according to the Wonder Weeks app, your baby is engaging in new ways with the world around them. In addition, they are growing, starting to explore with rolling and even beginning to realize their actions can deliver results from you – the start of cause and effect in this big new world. The challenge for parents is that they don’t see it coming and do not know what to do when it arrives now and for any other regression that happens. 

  • Are they teething?
  • Is it perhaps that they are hungry?
  • Shoot, do they have an ear infection?
  • Maybe it’s my supply? 
  • Is the reflux kicking back up?
  • Are they scared of being alone in that big crib

It’s likely none of the above, often at 4 months, your little one has a lot of cognitive changes in their sleep habits and patterns.

Changes in Infant Sleep Patterns

Where you used to be able to have them conk out anywhere, suddenly they struggle to even go down in your arms and certainly not the crib. They are going from 2 stages of sleep, deep and light, to 5 cycles of sleep, which mimic adults’ sleep patterns. Where things become a challenge for your sweet bundle of joy is that they need to learn how to sleep with these new cycles. It may take them progressively longer to fall asleep at bedtime or for naps, even with your help of rocking, swinging, bouncing or feeding to sleep. You may also find just as they are about to drift off, TWITCH and then they are up again. That is because their new startle reflex has appeared. If they don’t know how to go back down independently, they are looking for you to help…. 5,6,7 times a night. The startle reflex is one I solve with my favorite swaddle transition product – the Merlin Magic Sleep Suit. It’s a lovely product to help kids no longer startle themselves awake, but provide the freedom and flexibility for the baby to move freely about the crib and still suck on their fingers, if they so desire. 

Around 4 months of age, many babies are actually capable of sleeping through the night, or at least for a prolonged stretch of 8 hours without the need for intervention. The challenge is that if they don’t know how to go back to sleep in between regular sleep stages, they are going to look for you. A true sleep regression should only last 2 – 4 weeks, anything longer means that your little one has picked up some new habits you will want to toss out the window. So how do you beat this 4 month sleep regression? 

  • Drowsy but Awake.

Start by putting the baby down in the crib drowsy, but still awake after feeds, this will help them to develop the skill of independent sleep and not become reliant on you for every waking. Offer gentle verbal reassurance through perhaps shushing or with a touch to their belly or head, until they put themselves to sleep. I tell families to start with 1 nap a day at this age where they can practice this & try again at bedtime. The important thing here is to ensure they are not already overtired, which brings me to my next tip, awake windows. 

  • Avoid overtired

How long should the baby be awake between naps? At 4 months of age, they can handle about 90-120 minutes of awake time before they go into overtired, and struggle to get down at all. It’s best to always look to avoid overtired, knowing that sometimes it’s just not possible, but don’t always rely on their cues, because when you see the ‘sleep cues’ it means they are already past the ideal sleep window. 

  • Don’t Stress

Kids can feel what you are putting down and if you are stressed and anxious, so are they. It’s important sometimes to just go with the flow and do whatever works. For me, I walked my son Max at the same time every day, to ensure I started to get him on a schedule and the fresh air was good for me in my postpartum state of sadness and depression. (More on that another time.) It’s important to remember that what worked today may not work for your little one tomorrow, we can fix anything, the biggest thing is just getting them the sleep they need to feel refreshed. Sleep always trumps how they do it, for now. 

  • Identify Sleep Props & Habits

Be aware of the things you do to get baby to sleep and try not to add any more to the list. This can be hard when you are both so completely sleep-deprived you stuck your cell phone in the freezer and you would do anything for 3 hours of shut-eye. If you are rocking to sleep, start doing it a little less, or pausing to stillness, slowly becoming still for longer and longer. While it can be hard, the more sleep props you create, the more you not only need to break but you also need to identify which one works when and why, which can lead to overtired, frustration and upset for everyone. It’s OK to have things that help get your little one to sleep, just don’t create a list that is too long to manage. 

  • Be Supportive

Baby is going through a lot of changes right now, so be supportive of them during this major development. Offer positive praise, reassuring touch and support as they navigate this new course. I like to remind clients that it’s about balance. Sure, we want them sleeping in the crib, but baby-wearing, a snuggle nap, a cuddle on the couch are al things that can and should happen. Connecting with your baby, offering support, reassurance, and love go a long way. Everything in moderation with sleep, enjoy those snuggles because they don’t last forever. 

  • Watch for Milestones

They roll, they smile, their first real belly-laugh, they sit up, all of these amazing milestones the first months can be very exciting for you and very exhausting for them. These skills take practice and babies don’t have the stamina you do, so they tired quickly. They often will require more sleep during these times, so be sure you watch for signals, track their sleep and are staying in the awake windows based on their age and mood. 

  • Consistency is Key

No, you can’t put a 4-month old on a set schedule every day. The main reason is that their naps will differ each day in timing and duration, based on when they woke, so you need to look at awake windows between naps and your guidance for how a day will look. A lovely sample routine is to help identify naps or that it’s bedtime look like this: 

  • A bath or warm washcloth to the face
  • Infant massage
  • A book 
  • Kisses & bed

Be consistent in the routine you use for naps and bedtime, so that the baby also begins to recognize sleep is coming & ensure they have a nice full tummy, so they sleep well!

Sleep regressions are temporary, this too shall pass. If you have been struggling with a sleep regression for longer than4-6 weeks, it may be time to seek help, as there may be some new habits that have popped up. We have all been there. Sleep regressions typically occur at 3-4 months, 8-10 months, 12 months, 18 months and again at 2 years. The amazing news is, that many of my clients tell me months or even years down the road, that sleep regressions no longer impact their family. Their sleeping babies stay solid sleepers as a result of mastering the skill of sleep that I teach during our time together. 

If you are unsure of what suddenly derailed your baby’s sleep or perhaps they still are struggling from birth to consolidate at all, check with your pediatrician or setup time to speak. We can help you identify what is happening and offer free preliminary sleep evaluations to all families, plus, we are damn good at what we do. We also host a FREE Facebook group, Slumber Made Simple, a place where tired parents can come for weekly training Tuesday, live Q&A and tons of downloadable content you won’t find anywhere else!

My name is Courtney Zentz, a Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Postpartum Doula, Lactation Counselor and founder of Tiny Transitions. As an award-winning sleep consultant, I help exhausted parents teach their infants & toddlers to sleep well every night with gentle, customized solutions and both group and private coaching options, so your family can all be at their best. Based in Philadelphia, I work in-home and virtually to provide the support families around the globe that need to all be at their best. In addition, Rosie Hawley, the newest addition to the Tiny Transition team is a New Jersey Sleep Consultant, supporting families in NJ and across the country too! (Plus, she’s got a newborn at home, so she’s in the trenches with you momma!) Read more about us here!