The 4-month sleep regression is no joke.
Earlier this year, around April, we returned from a trip to visit our family. Prior to said trip, my son was sleeping from 9 p.m.-5 a.m., at which point he ate briefly, and went back to sleep until 7:15-7:30 a.m. He was sleeping in his crib, and while we usually had to go into his room once or twice to give him back his pacifier, we weren't complaining. He was 4 months old.
When we got home, we noticed sleep patterns changing. It started with a couple nights of Liam waking up around 11 p.m.-12 a.m. in his crib, inconsolable, and we'd usually end up putting him in his rock 'n play, and all was fine. Then, we moved multiple wakings, every few hours. We went from being able to soothe him by returning his paci or rubbing his belly, to having to nurse, rock, walk, bounce...or any other tactic to get him back to sleep. The second we laid him back down...eyes open, not having it, rinse and repeat. We went from 7-8 hour stretches, to 5-6, to 3-4 to every 2 hours, sometimes less. He slept better as a newborn.
It was then I learned about the 4-month sleep regression, which is a developmental change all babies go through. Basically, around this age, babies start sleeping like we do as adults. They cycle in and out of deep sleep. They have trouble learning how to get themselves back to sleep on their own once they wake up from that first cycle of deep sleep.
We rode it out for a while — maybe a week or so — just to see if it would just go away without much intervention from us. Some babies go through it and you'd never know. Other babies get it bad for a few days. But Liam struggled for 4 weeks. FOUR LONG, TORTUROUS WEEKS.
There is a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture. I was so tired and ridden with anxiety. I'd go to bed anxious and fearful every night because I didn't know how long we would get to sleep, or how many times we'd have to wake up. When I heard Liam on the monitor, my heart would start pounding, and I'd just hold my breath, hoping he would go back to sleep.
Being that I — we — were desperate for sleep, I spent hours on end researching the topic of sleep. Have you ever read that article by the mom who read every sleep book, and she basically concludes that all of the advice contradicts each other? That was me. Every day I came home with a new solution. I bought memberships to sleep sites. I scheduled consultations with sleep experts. I bought gimmicky items guaranteed to make my baby sleep better. I bought e-books. One night I'd be ready to have him Cry It Out, the next night I thought better of it. Next night let's try no swaddle, now let's try one arm out of the swaddle, screw it, let's go back to full swaddle. He's not getting a paci tonight, he's only getting a paci when he wakes up, but not when he falls asleep. Today we'll try schedule A, and next we'll go to schedule B. Tonight it's the sleep suit, tomorrow it's the Zippadee Dee sack. The problem is this, not actually it's that, so we have to do this
I. Was. Crazy. At least I felt like I was.
As a confused, sleep-deprived, new parent, I desperately needed explanations for Liam's behavior. I wouldn't even consider the possibility that his "behavior" was because Liam is just a little baby! I wanted to find an answer, a solution, an easy fix that would not only help us all sleep better. But also because as a parent, I just wanted understand what the hell was going on. I can see now that it was because, on some level, I believed that with understanding comes control. "If I know what it is, I can do something about it."
Finally, we talked to a sleep specialist at our pediatrician's office. He gave us a list of sleep rules that he promised would have us getting a full night's sleep. Unfortunately, said 'rules' were not anything we were comfortable with. But on the upside, we were able to use this opportunity to create some new healthy sleep habits, as well as continue to work on some good sleep habits we had formed. I'm confident these 8 tips helped us survive the regression and teach Liam good sleeping habits!
1. Put baby to sleep in his or her own room. This is a hard one to break if you have been sleeping with your baby in the same room. We had Liam sleeping in his Rock 'n Play in our room. After about 8-9 weeks, we felt like it would be better for everyone to be in our own rooms. So, we kept Liam in his Rock 'n Play, but moved it to his room. The transition went smoothly. Of course, I woke frequently and had to check on the baby to make sure he was breathing. Having the baby in his/her own room will likely lead to baby getting some independence, which will help in the long run of this regression.
2. Sleep should be in a dark room. We have black-out shades. We also had a nightlight, but we got ride of it and even went so far as to put black garbage bags over the windows (under the blackout shades), so that no light crept in. We turned on the night light for feedings and to change him, but other than that, the light stayed off, and Liam knew it's not time to wake up. (This did not affected his ability to nap in his stroller or in the car or in other rooms when it can't be pitch black.)
3. Use a white noise machine. We did this from day one and it's been a lifesaver. Again, it's another thing that signals sleep to Liam, and comforts him. It helped in establishing a sleep routine. Speaking of...
4. Establish a sleep routine. Babies crave routine. It's one of the only things that make sense in their little brains. When they know what to expect, it helps them (and most likely, you too). Our sleep routine starts with a bath. We then do lotion, jammies, a bottle, turn on white noise, put him in his swaddle (now sleep sack), turn off lights, rock for a few minutes, then we lay him down drowsy but awake. Most of the time, he is ready to go in the crib after the lights go out, and actually starts to fuss if we rock him because he just wants to snooze.
5. Put baby down drowsy but awake. This helps instill the ability to have the baby fall asleep on his own. However, as we learned, there is a big difference in the baby knowing how to get TO sleep on his own and how to get BACK to sleep on his own. In any case, if they can do it once, it's likely they can do it again during the night with a little prompting.
6. Get an earlier bedtime. Prior to the regression, Liam had a bedtime of 9 p.m. He was taking four naps, with the last one being a short catnap around 6:30 p.m. We were not keeping him up late because we thought he would sleep later, or anything like that, that's just when he naturally began sleeping for the longest stretches. We learned early on that sleep begets sleep. As babies get older, they need more sleep. So now, the 9-10 hours of nighttime sleep were no longer cutting it — he needed 11-12. Plus, those later naps were actually cutting in to his night sleep, which resulted in him being overtired and thus, waking up frequently. We adjusted to a 7:30 p.m. schedule, and it was a game changer. Now he sleeps solid from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.
7. Limit/Put an End to Sleep Associations. When I was doing all my research, one thing that really resonated with me was about sleep associations. Basically, if your baby NEEDS something in order to fall asleep, that *something* is a sleep association. Not all sleep associations are bad — the white noise machine and a dark room, for example, are good sleep associations. The swaddle, a pacifier, nursing to sleep, rocking to sleep — these are all also sleep associations. The only time it becomes "bad" is when it disrupting everyone's sleep.
The other thing that resonated with regard to sleep associations was the idea that in order to see progress with night-wakings, you should start with bedtime, and work up to night wakings. So if you don't want your baby to need/want to nurse to get back to sleep, don't have him fall asleep like that. So while Liam would go down easily, it was with the help of a pacifier and a swaddle. So when he got to the end of a sleep cycle and woke up and realized his paci was gone, he woke up crying and wanted it back. Makes sense, right? For us, we transitioned out of the swaddle first, then out of the Rock 'n Play. By then, we didn't even need to break the pacifier association.
8. Let the baby fuss. Part of our issue was that, like any parents, we hated to hear Liam cry or fuss. At the first noise we heard, we were usually up and in his room within a minute. So we — and really for this one, it was mostly me — had to at least give him the opportunity to self-soothe before we rushed to his aide. We usually waited at least 5 minutes, and if Liam was still fussing, we checked to make sure all his "basic" needs were met. We tried not to pick him up, unless he was really upset.
Liam also was still waking for at least one nighttime feeding. I was totally fine nursing if he's truly hungry. The problem was, I couldn't tell if he was hungry, and thus would end up nursing him often during the regression because I knew it would get him to calm down (and I was introducing a new sleep association).
To battle this, I looked at our feeding log and determined when a "normal" feeding time was: usually between 2:30-3:30 a.m. When he woke up during the night and it was NOT during this timeframe, I would not feed him. If he did cry during his normal feeding time, I'd feed him and then put him back to sleep drowsy but awake. Try to have this be the only time you pick him up. If that's not possible for you, do your best to ONLY feed him during his feeding time. Eventually, Liam learned that crying wouldn't automatically mean he got to nurse. His overnight wakeups eventually consolidated to be during this "feeding time" and eventually, he stopped waking to feed at all.
In the end, I just had to let go and realize that Liam is a baby. He doing the best he can, and so are we. We can't *make* him do things — but we can give him the tools he needs and help teach him how so that he eventually gets the idea.
Now, every time Liam wakes in the middle of the nigh and fusses, I feel such pride when I see him just go back to sleep, on his own, with no assistance. We were able to teach him that, to give him the tools he needed to sleep and let him figure out what to do from there.
I also learned that I can't control everything. That sometimes there isn't a prescriptive answer. I think perhaps this was my first lesson in realizing that as a parent, I have to let my child learn, succeed, fail and struggle. I have to let him learn how to do something by himself when all I really want to do is fix it, or do it for him.
Now, at almost 10 months old, I'm happy to report — our household is sleeping all night, almost every night.
This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.