4 months sleep regression: what it is, how to recognise it, and tips to survive this first challenging sleep phase. Note it may also arrive earlier and is therefore sometimes referred to as the 3 month sleep regression.
What is the 4 Months Sleep Regression?
The 4 months sleep regression refers to the time during which your baby’s sleep patterns mature and they begin to transition from newborn sleep to cycles of light and deep sleep.
Note: the 4 month sleep regression happens anywhere between 3 – 5 months as is sometimes known as the 3 or 5 month sleep regression.
When your baby is around 3 – 5 months old, you may* notice a change in their sleeping patterns. At around 10 – 12 weeks old babies begin to produce melatonin, kickstarting the development of their circadian rhythm, which governs the body clock and follows a 24 hour cycle.
Unfortunately for tired parents, many babies respond to the development of this new system by waking more easily during the new, lighter cycles of sleep.
*It’s worth noting that many parents, such as myself, will not notice any difference in their baby at this time, because frequent waking in newborns is common, normal – and healthy.
Signs Your Baby is Going Through the Four Month Sleep Regression
These are the signs you might notice if you suspect the first sleep regression, at 3 months or 4 months:
- More protesting around naps and bedtime
- Disrupted schedule
- More frequent waking at night
- Increased fussiness upon waking
- Notably reduced total sleep time
- ‘Practicing’ skills during the night
Note that for early or premature babies, their adjusted age is used for determining sleep regressions, so you may notice these signs a little later.
What Does the 3 – 5 Sleep Regression Look Like in Practice?
Gone is your sleepy newborn, replaced with a baby who has sleep cycles more like those of an adult. You’ll probably notice more frequent night waking and shortened naps.
Instead of a drowsy infant, you’ll likely become aware of your baby experiencing distinct sleep cycles, lasting around 45 minutes.
This is when you’ll quickly develop the reactions of a ninja to bridge the gap between cycles in a single nap with rocking and shushing.
Why Do Babies Have a Sleep Regression at 4 Months?
We’ve already seen above what the physiological reason behind the sleep regression at 4 months, but there’s actually more going on, and that’s behavioural.
If your baby is anything like my two were, you’ll nurse or cuddle them to sleep and then carefully move them to their cot.
This is fine when they’re not waking in the night. But if they’re disturbed – which is essentially what happens in their lighter sleep, thanks to their new melatonin production – then the change in environment can be enough to fully wake them.
Instead of having a little fidget and then falling straight back to sleep, the confusion of having moved to their bed (or more likely the lack of comfort of being close to you) means that they wake fully.
Does the 4 Month Leap Affect the 4 Month Sleep Regression?
Yes, it’s part and parcel of the same phase.
One feature of the 4 month leap is the melatonin production we talked about earlier, but there are other things going on too.
While developing their circadian rhythm is a physiological leap, the others that happen around this time are cognitive and largely relate to motor skills:
- Sitting (4 – 7 months)
So what’s the link between all this learning and sleep disruption? Babies need lots and lots of practice to master these incredible new skills they’re developing – and a preferred time to do this is when they wake up, and it’s warm and quiet.
But don’t worry, there are things you can do to discourage this behaviour and promote nighttime for sleeping, which we’ll come to later.
How to Overcome the 4 Months Sleep Regression
This is where my opinion is going to differ to some baby sleep ‘professionals’, because while I deeply sympathise, I’m not sure attempting to ‘fix’ a sleep regression is the healthiest perspective. That implies there’s a problem, when in fact your baby is doing exactly what they’re designed to do.
Remember that the ultimate goal is for your baby and your family to be healthy and happy – not for your baby to sleep through at any cost.
Parental expectations have been determined by social ideologies and social ‘wish lists’, which have little to do with who babies are biologically.Dr. James J. McKenna, Director of the Mother-Baby Behavioural Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame and member of La Leche League International’s Health Advisory Council
Recent research backs up what I always knew from instinct: sleep training is not a silver bullet solution for disrupted nights with a tiny baby.
- Protection from life-threatening sleep apnea or SIDS;
- Reasons beyond nutrition, including emotional reassurance and physical touch;
- It’s biologically normal for babies to feed round the clock until 4 – 6 months;
- Helps protect nursing mothers from a variety of diseases including breast and ovarian cancer;
- Regulation of breastmilk;
- Prevention of blocked ducts and mastitis.
All that said, sometimes circumstances make better sleep a priority, and I know many excellent parents who’ve implemented sleep training. I don’t judge those who make different choices to me, I only hope to help inform those decisions.
If you’re at the point of wanting to explore sleep training options, including gentle sleep training, this may help:
8 Tips to Manage the 4 Month Sleep Regression
Thankfully, there are some things you can to do to help support healthy sleeping habits for your baby…
1. Lots of tummy time!
Placing your baby on their tummy offers them lots of opportunity to practice those new skills they’re learning, which is vital to deter them from doing so at less desirable times, ie. the middle of the night.
2. Establish a consistent bedtime routine.
A warm bath followed by cuddles and a book in a room with subdued lighting is a great example. You may also like to give your baby a massage or moisturise their skin before dressing them in their pyjamas.
The objective is to make the environment soothing and cosy to induce drowsiness and help them associate the ritual with bedtime. Making the routine calm, consistent, and predictable also helps to relax your baby and facilitate a smooth transition to sleep.
Many mothers nurse at this time which is fine, but if you want your baby to learn to sleep without you then you should make the routine one that can be replicated by any caregiver.
3. Try encouraging your baby to fall asleep independently, in their cot.
This one is worth a go, as you may have a unicorn baby who responds well. But while it’s the ideal, it’s also arguably unrealistic.
Most babies of this age will protest, in which case you’ll need to decide whether to relent or implement some form of sleep training.
4. Continue following guidance for safe sleep.
If you decide to attempt any kind of sleep training, it’s recommended to wait until your baby is 6 months old. Whatever you decide is right for your family, be sure to continue following guidance for safe sleeping.
4. Keep the bedroom dark.
Light is a cue to wake, especially as babies begin to develop their circadian rhythm. Plus if it’s light enough to see then as they stir infants can easily become distracted and stimulated by their surroundings, causing them to fully wake instead of rolling over and going back to sleep.
With this in mind, using blackout blinds are a great way to discourage early waking, and can help your baby to settle between sleep cycles.
If you hear your baby stir, give them a moment before going to them. Sometimes they’ll be between sleep cycles and you may be surprised that given the opportunity, they’re sometimes able to fall back to sleep.
6. Pay attention to sleep cues.
Falling asleep should be just about the simplest job a person has to do, especially a baby who has no worries and no chores running through their head. Sadly that’s not how it works.
Babies are most likely to fall asleep without any fuss if they’re tired – but not overtired.
Fortunately, there are cues you can watch for to help the process along:
- Losing interest in people and toys
- Staring into the distance
- Jerky movements
- Sucking fingers
7. Keep feeds and changes short, quiet, and dark.
Many baby sleep experts will discourage you from feeding your baby at night by this age, however it’s important to remember that some babies still require the calories.
And arguably more important – babies may wake to nurse for comfort, which is equally valid.
That said, try to keep feeding and changing as short and quiet as is practical, and avoid using any light unless absolutely necessary.
If your baby has a dirty nappy you should obviously change them, but when it comes to wet nappies you can use your discretion: unless they’re getting sore or leaking through, they can probably wait till morning.
8. Be realistic and patient.
My youngest daughter didn’t begin to sleep through the night until she was three. At four she continues to wake very early, usually before 5.30am, despite busy school days.
All babies are different and need our patience. While we can set them up for success by providing an environment conducive to healthy nighttime habits, we can’t force them to sleep better or longer. But they will get there in their own time.
The best thing you can do in the meantime is take care of your own needs so that you can cope with night time wakings for as long as they continue.
4 Month Sleep Regression FAQ
Q: Is the 4 month sleep regression a myth?
A: It’s not a myth. It’s the natural result of your baby beginning to produce melatonin for the development of their circadian rhythm, in addition to a big cognitive leap they experience at around 4 months.
Q: Why is my 4 month old baby not sleeping?
A: While it’s hard on parents, the reality is that it’s totally normal for babies to have disrupted sleep at this age. There’s lots going on in their tiny bodies, and if affects their sleep in the same way that starting a new job might affect yours.
Not only are they learning and practicing new skills, they also have physiological changes occurring (the production of melatonin and the development of the circadian rhythm), all of which impact sleep.
Q: Do all babies have a sleep regression at 4 months old?
A: While all babies go through these changes, not all babies will have discernible changes to their sleep. Some will never have had predictable sleeping patterns, and therefore the changes will go unnoticed. Others may deal with the changes better and continue to sleep well as a result.
Q: Is the 4 month sleep regression permanent?
A: It is. It marks a permanent transition in your baby’s sleep pattern, from newborn sleepiness, to light and deep sleep, in cycles lasting around 45 minutes.
Q: Does the 4 month sleep regression affect naps?
A: One of the more notable signs of the 4 month sleep regression is that your baby may take shorter naps. Infants often wake after 30-45 minutes of sleep – but with some gentle rocking or shushing you may find they can fall back to sleep for a second cycle and maybe even a third.
Q: How long does the 4 month sleep regression last?
A: Sleep regressions typically last for two to six weeks.
The most valuable thing you can do in order to support your infant at this time is to continue providing them with a consistent bedtime routine to help them wind down and anticipate bedtime.
Q: How can I prepare for the 4 month sleep regression?
A: Look after yourself so that you’re able to cope with the inevitable disrupted sleep, and follow the above tips.
Q: Do all babies experience a 4 month sleep regression?
A: While all babies experience the physiological and cognitive changes associated with the 4 months sleep regression, they don’t all respond in the same way and some will escape disrupted sleep.
Q: Does swaddling help with the 4-month-old sleep regression?
A: Since babies are learning to roll at around this age, swaddling is not recommended; it can prevent an infant from turning back over from their tummy, posing an increased risk of SIDS.
Q: My 4 month old baby won’t sleep unless held. What should I do?
A: Many sleep consultants will recommend practicing with your baby to encourage them to self-settle and sleep independently, and by all means this is an option.
On the other hand, while holding your baby constantly can be exhausting, futile efforts to push them towards independence can prove a different kind of exhausting. If this doesn’t feel right for you, then don’t do it.
Instead, try using a soft baby carrier so you can continue with your day. Or try this trick to get your baby to nap without being held, and without any tears.
How to Cope With Sleep Regression
Since sleep regression is so often linked to developmental milestones and your child desperately making attempts to master skills, it’s critical to provide plenty of time for them to play and practice.
Proper sleep is vital for child development, and adults need enough sleep to ensure proper cognitive functioning and mood regulation. If you’re particularly sleep deprived during a period of sleep regression, be sure to reach out for help.
And now here’s my final word on sleep regression…
Yes, it’s a thing. Yes, it sucks big time. BUT – save your money for treats that will make you feel better rather than wasting it on ‘experts’.
This is a short time and there are no guarantees. Plus natural sleep disruptions (regressions, teething, illnesses) will keep sabotaging your efforts so you have to start from scratch.
If you’re determined to sleep train (not my bag, but hey, I’m not judging a desperate parent), you don’t need a professional to tell you what to do – trust your gut and do what feels right.
How to Get More Rest When Your Baby Doesn’t Sleep
The only thing you really need to do is keep a relaxing routine at bedtime, be consistent, and respond to your child’s needs.
Everything else will come, naturally…almost like an instinct – almost like we were designed to know best where our babies are concerned! Yes, that’s sarcasm in case you’re too tired to be sure.
With my babies I developed and employed a gentle sleep solution sleep for when they just weren’t playing ball. I couldn’t personally do controlled crying, so this was the next best thing. And it worked with them both, in as much as it helped me to survive that period.
So, co-sleep if you need to, or follow my tip above for getting more zzz’s, just do what you have to to get through.
But please, please, please don’t be sucked in to spending your money on sleep consultants for something which ultimately can’t be fixed – because it is not broken!
Babies are designed to wake frequently. It’s hard, but it passes. And nearly five years in – I swear, you adapt and it gets easier.