“Sleep regression,” this is a common term I hear being a sleep consultant, and often it is directed toward every circumstance imaginable. If several nights pass with your little one not sleeping well, parents automatically start saying it’s a “regression.” While many people believe there are several sleep regressions, 8-month, 9-month, 1-year regressions, teething and growth spurt regressions, there is not evidence to support this idea.
Research does support that there is a 4-month regression, and for good reason. Permanent changes are happening in your baby’s brain when it comes to sleep.
Let’s Talk About Sleep
Sleep is not a situation where the brain is on-or-off, or it’s happening or it’s not. There are actually 4 different stages of sleep that make up the “sleep cycle,” and we go through them several times a night.
Stage 1 is when you first lay down at night and you know you are drifting off, but you know you aren’t asleep. Have you ever looked over at your husband or partner to see them nodding off in front of the TV? Only to tell them to go to bed, and get the response “I wasn’t asleep!”? If you have then you know what this stage looks like.
Stage 2 is considered the first “true sleep” stage. When someone is in this stage they recognize that they were asleep. If you are wanting to take a “power nap” this is as far as you want to go. If you go past this stage you wake groggy.
Stage 3 is where regeneration starts and is considered deep sleep. This stage is known as “slow wave sleep,” and the body starts repairing itself. What kind of things are repaired, you ask? In the 3rd stage of sleep, the body is able to rejuvenate and repair muscle tissue, the immune system, energy stores, and sparks growth and development.
Stage 4 is known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep. This stage is when the brain starts storing memories from the day and consolidates information. Think back to those all night study sessions you pulled in college. Do you remember any of that information? If the answer is no, this is most likely why. We also do most of our dreaming REM sleep.
We travel through all of these stages every night multiple times. As adults, we wake up or come close to waking up, and then fall back asleep, repeatedly until the alarm goes off.
Sleep Stages and Your 4-month old
So, we have covered the stages of sleep, now let’s discuss how this in relation to your 4-month old.
Newborns only have 2 stages of sleep, stage 3 and REM, spending about half their sleep in each stage. Around 4-months of age, their brain begins to reorganize sleep, moving them from 2 stages to all 4 stages of sleep.
Once this shift happens, your baby begins spending only about 25% in REM sleep to make room for the first two stages. More time spent in lighter stages of sleep, means that there is a higher chance your baby is going to wake up at night.
Our goal is not to prevent your baby from waking up, waking up is natural. As adults, we wake 3 to 4 times a night and even more in our older ages. The goal is to teach our little one how to self settle to return to sleep.
When you wake at night, you are able to identify comforting thoughts to be able to return to sleep that baby can not. As adults, you are able to recall that it is nighttime, you are in your bed, and your alarm hasn’t gone off yet. Knowing these truths allows you to relax back into sleep. Usually this happens so quickly that you are not even aware of the brief wake-up.
From the view of a four month old, there are key pieces of critical thinking that are missing. Imagine falling asleep all warm and cozy in your mother’s arms after finishing your nice warm milk. Only to awaken thinking, “The last thing I remember, I was in my mother’s arms, having dinner, and she was humming to me. Now, it’s dark, I’m alone, and there is no food.”
The natural response for a baby when they realize that mom is not around is to call out, or in some cases flip out a bit. The flight-or-fight response is activated and the next thing you know, your little one is not going back to sleep without reassurance that everything is okay.
Sleep Props or Sleep Associations
Other factors that affect the 4 month sleep regression, are things known as sleep props. Sleep props include things such as rocking your baby to sleep, a pacifier, allowing your baby to feed to sleep, or other tactics that are helping your baby fall asleep.
Baby spending more time in light sleep, means there is a higher probability of waking, making sleep props a bigger issue. Sleep props or sleep associations can be a hard thing to navigate, due to them being so helpful in getting your baby to sleep. The problem happens when your baby wakes and is not able to get back to sleep without them or other outside help. This is where parents find themselves in the endless cycle of helping their bundle of joy get back to sleep multiple times a night.
So, where is the good news in all of this you ask… The 4-month sleep “regression” should really be called the 4-month sleep “progression”. A regression is baby regressing to an earlier mental or behavioral level, but this is the opposite of what your little one is experiencing.
Helping Baby Sleep
Let’s get to what you are really wanting to know. What can you do to help your baby adjust to these new sleep stages?
First, remove all the light from your little one’s room. It may seem counter intuitive, as most think that some light is comforting, but this is not the case. You want the room DARK, I’m talking can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. Use blackout curtains, or tape garbage bags over the windows if you have too.
Babies are not afraid of the dark, rather they are responsive to light. Light tells the brain that it is time for activity and alertness, then the brain starts secreting hormones accordingly.
Second, noise is the other nemesis of daytime and night time sleep. Baby spending more time in lighter stages of sleep means the mailman ringing the doorbell, you dropping something in the kitchen, or the dog barking at the neighbors, will startle your little one and wake them up. I recommend a white noise machine to your nursery to help combat the inevitable noise.
Is a white noise machine a sleep prop? Yes, in a way it is. The difference is it doesn’t take any work on your part for it to work. There is no need for winding, reinserting, or resetting for it to be used to help baby sleep. Since, there is no parental assistance needed for this sleep prop, it is not one we need to avoid.
Third, bedtime or sleep routines are a major component to getting your little one to sleep well. Create a routine to do every night before bed that consists of about 4 to 5 steps, but does not end with a feed. When you don’t allow your baby to nod off with a bottle or at the breast, you are preventing the association of feeding and sleep.
Keeping the feed near the beginning of the routine, and ending with a song, book, or pajamas toward the end helps your baby not associate feeding with sleep. The whole routine should last about 20-30 minutes, and your baby should go into their crib awake.
If your baby is getting fussy before bedtime, chances are you are probably waiting too long to start the routine. Two hours between naps or sleep is really as long as 4 month old babies should be going between sleep, and bedtime should be between 7 and 8 pm.
Actual regressions are going to happen throughout your little one’s youth. You will travel, there will be illness, they will cut teeth, and many other things that will cause a few nights of bad sleep. As for the 4-month “progression,” it only happens once and will follow them for the rest of their life.
Teaching them how to string their sleep cycles together, prop-free, without any assistance from mom or dad, is a gift they will enjoy for the rest of their lives.
Your little one might take to this new process of sleep with little resistance. If that is the case enjoy, but if your baby does not ease into this transition know that there is help. Reach out to me through my website and book a free 15 minute call so I can learn the specifics of your situation. I can help create a more personalized program for your little one and get everyone sleeping better.
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