Often called “The Dreaded 4 Month Regression”, this looming event in your little one’s life really doesn’t have to be scary. Instead of terming it a regression it has been reframed as a progression by a lot of baby sleep experts. I do prefer this term but I think it lacks more insight into why it doesn’t need to be dreaded but rather embraced. The more we know about something the more “certainty” there is involved and therefore the less anxiety there is around it.
You don’t have to fear it for the following reasons:
- It is a normal developmental milestone that all babies go through
- It doesn’t always mean sleep will fall apart (some babies don’t even show the typical 1-2 hourly wakes overnight)
- It means your baby is neurologically capable to learn independent sleep skills
- Sleep is fluid, so if sleep does fall apart around this time it does not mean it will last forever
What is the 4 month sleep progression?
This is a developmental milestone that happens anywhere between 3-5 months. It is marked by your little one’s sleep maturing to be more adult-like. When they were newborns, they only had two sleep stages called active and quiet sleep. Once they reach 3-5 months, sleep architecture drastically changes to become more adult-like. They now have four sleep stages and you will notice more distinct sleep cycles which is why baby suddenly starts waking after one sleep cycle of 45-60 minutes in the day and typically 1-2 hourly overnight. This is why it is better to be called a progression rather than a regression. A regression makes it sound like your little one has lost a skill when they are in fact developing and are able to acquire new skills like self-settling. We know a little one has reached this point in development when they show the following signs:
- is between 3-5 months old
- waking after one sleep cycle in the day (40-45 minutes)
- waking every 1-2 hours overnight (usually past midnight)
- all efforts of hands on settling are not working
- baby becomes frustrated by your settling attempts
- is easily stimulated by your presence when trying to settle (temperament dependent)
Set your little one up for success
You can’t prevent the developmental changes that often result in sleep going wonky around this time. HOWEVER, there are things you can do to help set your baby up for an easier experience with the transition and learning your baby’s unique sleep needs and helping them learn how to self-settle (if that’s your goal) is part of it.
One of the reasons I whole-heartedly believe in my Newborn Guide is because it is designed to set your little one up for great sleep hygiene which will make the 4 month sleep progression a lot easier. Things like setting up a sleep environment conducive to great sleep quality, practicing crib settling (with your help), getting nap timings right to avoid difficulty settling, optimising feeds so we know baby isn’t hungry when trying to settle for a nap etc. All of this is also included in my comprehensive 3-12 Month Baby Sleep Guide along with age-appropriate schedules, troubleshooting and a variety of settling methods you can use if you are wanting to teach independent sleep, making navigating this season of rocky baby sleep SO. MUCH. EASIER. Take out the guess work and self-doubt Mama, and give you and your little one the gift of great sleep.
If your little one has been fully assisted to sleep a certain way up until this point, they can become very attached to this settling method. Put another way, this is what they associate with falling asleep. A sleep association is not a “bad habit”, I really don’t like that phrase. It is just what worked really well to get your little one to sleep. And it’s ok if it’s still working for you. But what often happens from the 3/4/5 month mark is that baby may need this to get to sleep and to link cycles overnight. This is not always the case, I have seen plenty babies who can feed to sleep at bedtime and sleep beautifully overnight. But this is unfortunately not always the case. If your baby is being fed/rocked/bounced to sleep for naps and bedtime and then is needing that to get back to sleep frequently overnight, this is when it often becomes unsustainable for Mum and when a lot parents choose to work on sleep.
Side note: Unfortunately, because of the term “regression”, parents are led to believe it is just a rocky period of sleep that will resolve itself after a few weeks (which sometimes does happen). And then when sleep doesn’t improve parents think maybe it’s teething, or perhaps it’s a developmental leap etc. Both of which can disrupt sleep but not for weeks and weeks. I see this so often, parents come to me for help after they are at their “wits end” dealing with disrupted sleep for MONTHS. This is so unnecessary. So much sleep deprivation, so much frustration, when it could have been improved in a matter of days or weeks.
When your little one can be placed in their crib fully awake after a soothing wind down and can fall asleep on their own without any support from you, this is called self-settling. Self-settling is a skill that is quite helpful, allowing your little one to more easily achieve longer naps and link cycles overnight. If you are happy with assisting your little one to sleep and helping them link cycles overnight, then there is no need to change anything! BUT if you are finding your situation unsustainable then you can help your little one learn to sleep more independently. And no, it does not have to involve leaving your baby to cry alone. Read my blog post Should I Sleep Train my Baby as well as Want to Change the Way Your Baby Falls Asleep? Both of these posts will help enlighten you on what it might take and if it is necessary to change the way your baby is being settled to sleep.
Sleep needs have matured
Other factors play a role too during this time of development. Besides the fact that your little one can start to become highly attached to the way they settle and resettle, their sleep needs also go through a big leap. If your little one is still on a newborn type nap routine with very short wake windows, this will show up as nap resistance, catnapping, false starts after bedtime and/or more night wakes. Some clients who I work with don’t even need to change their settling method (otherwise known as sleep training/coaching) because just by optimising the schedule to be more age appropriate, sleep improves. If you don’t want to get my Full Baby Sleep Guide, then a more affordable but really helpful start is grabbing my 3-12 Month Sleep Schedule and Troubleshooting Guide or if independent settling is what you want to work on check out my Happy Self-Settler Guide for gently shifting the way your little one is settling which also contains all my routines and schedules.
If after optimising the schedule your little one is still waking 2 hourly overnight, the next step will likely be to help your little one learn to fall asleep in their crib so that when they wake between sleep cycles they can easily return to sleep and get consolidated sleep overnight.
All the best navigating this period of sleep Mama! I’m here if you need me 😉