So, your newborn slept like a Rockstar!! The nurses at the hospital made the “You got a good one” comments which left you filled with hope and confidence that you created a little sleeping miracle!
Those first few weeks were pretty easy compared to what your friends warned you about! That solid sleeper of yours was clocking long naps and extended stretches throughout the night which felt like parental bliss! You were able to rock or feed them to sleep, contrary to what everything you read had warned you about.
Around 10, 11, 12 weeks, things slowly started to change. But not that bad! Just a few more wake ups than normal here and there, which were manageable.
But over the next few weeks, things got bad. Oh, they got real bad!
Your once sound sleeper was now up all night long, possibly every 1-2 hours like clockwork!
“What are we doing wrong? Maybe it’s the bassinet. We need a new one.”
*Googles: ‘how to help my baby sleep’ at 3am*
“Oh! We need this magic sleep suit! That will do the trick!”
“Maybe he’s too cold! Maybe he’s too hot!”
“I bet it’s the formula. Let’s switch formula!”
“I must’ve eaten something wrong that messed up her belly through my milk!”
Your baby came out a terrible sleeper and then around 3-4 months, things got worse when you didn’t even think they could!
Do either of these scenarios sound familiar?!
Insert: [THE 4 MONTH SLEEP REGRESSION]
I will start by saying that this regression is real and most babies will go through it, regardless of how well they’re sleeping beforehand. Some may not. If you are one of the lucky ones, count your blessings and don’t tell any of your mom friends about your luck!
For the rest of us, let’s dive into the nitty gritty about why this sleep regression comes and rocks our world!
The Science-y Part:
Like a puzzle, sleep includes different pieces. While many people think that you’re either asleep or you’re not, there’s actually more to it than that.
Our sleep contains different stages and the stages make up the sleep cycle.
This is the initial stage of sleep. This is where you feel yourself drifting off to sleep but you wouldn’t actually admit you’re sleeping (ya know, when your husband says that he’s just “resting his eyes”).
This is considered the first true sleep stage. If you’re woken from this stage of sleep, it’s definitely clear that you were sleeping and there is no “resting your eyes” around it. This stage of sleep is just enough “deepness into sleep” that you’ll want to get for a power nap.
Now, we get into the deep and regenerative sleep. This is also known as “slow wave” sleep. In this stage, the body starts repairing and rejuvenating the immune system, muscle tissue, energy stores and triggers growth and development.
This is where we get into Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep. In this stage, the brain consolidates information and memories from the day before. We will also do most of our dreaming in REM sleep. If your child has nightmares, this is where they will most likely occur.
**Side note: If your baby is sleeping in short spurts majority of the time, they aren’t reaching Stages 3&4, which are both very important for your baby’s brain and body! Read those two stages again with this in mind to understand why sleep is so incredibly important!**
After completing the stages of sleep, we come to a period of awakening where we either fully wake up or come close to waking up and then start a new cycle of sleep.
So, what does this mean in regard to the sleep regression?
As newborns, babies only have 2 stages of sleep; Stage 3 and Stage 4 (REM). They spend 50% of the time in each of the two stages. Stage 3 is a deep sleep and REM sleep is on the lighter side, but not as light as Stages 1 and 2. Which is why it seems like a newborn can sleep through a rock concert!
At around 3 or 4 months old, their sleep is reorganized, and the other 2 stages of sleep are added in, permanently. This will be the pattern of sleep that they follow for the rest of their lives.
Once this happens, your baby spends a lot less time in that deep sleep. The time spent in each of the stages becomes less to make room for the other two stages that are coming into play.
Therefore, with less deep sleep comes more of a chance for waking up! But the waking up isn’t the problem. In fact, it’s totally natural and we all come to these brief awakenings throughout the night!
Here’s the difference:
As adults, when we have these brief bouts of consciousness, we’re able to identify certain comforting truths that a baby may not be able to. We’re able to realize that “Perfect! I’m still in my bed. I have a few more hours left before I have to wake up and I feel safe. Back to sleep I go!”
And we drift off!
On the other hand, a four-month-old baby doesn’t have these thinking skills. To them, the last thing they remember is falling asleep in their mother’s arms nursing while being rocked and gently sung to. Their thoughts may look more like this “HOLD THE PHONE! Where’s Mom?! She was just right here! Feeding me and singing to me. And now I’m alone! What’s happening?!”
Now that baby is fully awake and startled by the change in scenery, it’s time to cry the house down! This activates the flight or fight response and what should have been a brief “wake and check” before falling back to sleep has now turned into a freak out (rightfully so). At this point, baby will become difficult to put back to sleep.
Do you see why a sleep prop that wasn’t a problem as a newborn becomes a problem as baby gets older? They may be helpful tools in getting your baby to fall asleep during that initial stage of sleep, but the lack of the props when they wake up means that baby is not going to go back to sleep without some help. When this happens for each sleep cycle, parents can find themselves in a pretty tough situation.
This regression is actually not a regression at all. It should be called a Progression because their sleep is maturing and so are they. And it’s up to us, as the parents, to give the baby the skills they need to successfully progress through these changes that life will continue to throw at them.
So, how can we help our babies through this change?
Step 1: Black out their room! With more time spent in that light state of sleep, this will be important! Any natural or artificial light can trigger your baby to wake fully. So while you may think that little stream of light coming from the cracked door is comforting to baby, it’ just restricting them from getting the sleep that they need. Newborns and infants are not afraid of the dark. But, they are very responsive and sensitive to light.
Step 2: Use a white noise machine! Noise disruption is another issue we’re faced with. With baby spending more time in lighter sleep, they will be easily startled by noise. “But my baby used to be able to sleep through the vacuum and my toddler playing pots and pans!” You’re right! And that same baby used to spend about 25% more time in a deep sleep. So while those noises were happening, your baby just didn’t hear them as much. Now they do and it’s time to conform!
Let’s pause for a second. I get asked all of the time about white noise machines and blackout curtains becoming sleep props. And the answer is: Yes! They are definitely sleep props but they’re what we call ‘Positive Sleep Props’ which means that they don’t require constant intervention. You turn the sound machine on and it stays on. You hang the curtains and close them at night and then they don’t move.
Step 3: Establish and stick to a bedtime routine! Keep this routine about 4 or 5 steps and no longer than 30 minutes in length. You’ll also want to make sure that the feed is not the final step. If you leave it at the end, you risk baby falling asleep at the breast or bottle which will create the association that we want to avoid in order to help baby move through sleep cycles without disruption. At the end of the routine, baby should go into their crib awake.
Step 4: Pay attention to the timing of bedtime! Ideally, bedtime should be between 7pm and 8pm with about two hours of awake time between snoozes at this age.
Step 5: Teach your baby to fall asleep without needing a prop! This will give them the ability to string those sleep cycles together without waking up in that startled mindset.
Some little ones take to the process of learning independent sleep quite quickly while others may be a bit more resistant. Both scenarios are normal. Even if your child is resisting, we can help them work through it with a little more time and patience.
If you are needing help with this, I am here for you! Just visit my website and fill out the Contact form or give me a call and we can work on a more personalized approach for your little one. One of the most common things I hear from parents as I work with them is “I cannot believe I waited this long to get help!”. If you’re even thinking about hiring a consultant, now is the time!