It is very common for babies to be impacted by the 4-month regression, but I like to term it as a “progression” instead of a progression. A regression is defined as “reversion to an earlier mental or behavioral level,” and that’s the opposite of what the baby is experiencing. The child is progressing! The baby is going through a developmental change, and that is a positive thing. They are thriving! It can have an affect on the baby’s sleep, but it is important to remember that not all babies will struggle with their sleep during this change.
I hear the term “regression” used regarding just about every imaginable circumstance. Essentially, if baby doesn’t sleep well for a couple of nights, parents start assuming it is some sort of a regression. Some people subscribe to the idea that there’s an eight-month regression, a 9-month regression, a 1-year regression, as well as teething regressions, growth spurt regressions, and so on. Others see these as simple hiccups caused by extenuating circumstances. I believe that developmental milestones can cause sleep issues, but typically the reason that the child struggles with a “progression” is because they are already overtired and often lack independent sleep skills. Because it is talked about very frequently, parents are sometimes worried about the “progression” months before it even begins! I find that many parents have a lot of anxiety related to this, and the sleep deprivation that parents are experiencing does not help with this. My words of wisdom would be to follow the tips below, and to remain calm and positive. Learn about healthy habits for your little one’s sleep, so you can help them get the sleep that they need. This is another step in the parenting journey. I also encourage parents to reach out for support during these exhausting times, in whatever form that they see fit.
Regressions or “Progressions” happen in babies because they are going through a developmental change. Many of us just think of sleep as an on-or-off situation. You’re either asleep or you’re not. But sleep has several different stages, and they make up the “sleep cycle,” which we go through several times a night.
- Stage 1 is that initial stage where you can just feel yourself drifting off, but don’t really feel like you’ve fallen asleep.
- Stage 2 is considered the first “true sleep” stage. This is where people tend to realize, once woken up, that they were sleeping.
- Stage 3 is deep and regenerative. Also known as “slow wave” sleep, this is where the body starts repairing and rejuvenating the immune system, muscles tissue, energy stores, and sparks growth and development.
- Stage 4 is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is where the brain begins kick in and consolidates information and memories from the day before. It’s also the stage where we do most of our dreaming.
Newborn babies only have 2 stages of sleep; stage 3 and REM, and they spend about half their sleep in each stage. But at around the third or fourth month, there is a reorganization of sleep, as they embrace the 4-stage method of sleep that they’ll continue to follow for the rest of their lives. When this change takes place, baby moves from 50% REM sleep to 25% to make room for those first two stages. So, although REM sleep is light, it’s not as light as these 2 new stages that they’re now getting used to. With more time spent in lighter sleep, there’s more of a chance that baby’s going to wake up. That’s not to say that we want to prevent or avoid baby waking up. Waking up is absolutely natural, and we continue to wake up three, four, five times a night into adulthood and even more in old age. As adults, however, when we wake in the night, we’re able to recognize that it is still time for sleep so quickly that the next morning, we don’t even remember the brief encounter with consciousness. A four-month-old baby though lacks these critical thinking skills. To a four-month-old baby who fell asleep at her mother’s breast, now that baby’s awake and suddenly realized that Momma’s not there, and they’re not entirely sure where they’ve gone, the natural response is to start crying. That stimulates the cortisol hormone and, next thing you know, baby’s not going back to sleep without a significant amount of reassurance that everything is OK. The other major contributor is that if the parents have either been putting their baby to sleep by rocking them, or by breastfeeding them, or some similar technique where baby is helped along on the road to falling asleep and baby’s now spending more time in light sleep, baby now has a higher probability of waking up and needing this tactic to fall asleep again. These sleep props or sleep associations can be very sneaky, because although they may be helpful in getting your little one of to dreamland, the lack of them when the baby wakes up means, that baby’s not able to get back to sleep again without some outside help. Cue the crying, and the adrenaline. When this starts happening every half an hour, parents can find themselves in a difficult situation.
Symptoms that parents may notice during the “progression” are difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, troubles with naps, such as short naps or inconsistent naps, crying more at bedtime, in the morning or in the middle of the night. Yes, they can be crankier, but that is because the child overtired, not because they are in pain or suffering.
So, what can you do during this time…?
Tips and Tricks:
- Make sure that the room is dark.
- Try to put baby down awake.
- Try white noise, such as a sound machine.
- Establish a predictable bedtime routine.
- Try for a bedtime between 7:00 pm and 8:00 pm.
- Catch baby BEFORE they get fussy.
- Don’t rush in the minute they get fussy in the middle of the night, give them a little bit of time to fall asleep independently.
Parents, my biggest piece of advice for you would be to hang in there! Remain consistent with the tips above and remember that your baby is developing and thriving, and that is something to be proud of! Try activities when you have a break such a yoga, meditation, or journaling. Remember that it is also OK to reach out for support during these times, and so important to take care of your mental and physical health as well.
For those of you struggling, I’m happy to help in any way I can. Book a complimentary sleep evaluation call with me (you can find the link on my website), so we can chat about what is going on with your child’s sleep. We can talk about whether a more personalized program is the right choice for your little one. The most common thing I hear after working with clients is, “I can’t believe I waited so long to get some help!” So, if you’re considering hiring a consultant, now is absolutely the time. I can get to know the specifics about your little one’s situation, and we can move forward as soon as you’re ready to get your little one sleeping through the night!