Survival Tips From 3 Baby Sleep Experts
Though occasional sleep disruptions can occur at anytime — babies are only human, after all — popular opinion in many modern parenting circles holds that many babies are absolutely guaranteed to experience a dreaded thing called the 4 month sleep regression. The phrase alone has the power to induce terror in exhausted new parents, for whom every night’s sleep is fragmented and fraught. Sleep, when you have a new baby, becomes so precious and new parents tend to cling to every minute of it for dear life. So, when your little nugget is finally letting you sleep longer than two hours at a time, the last thing you want to hear is that something called the 4 month sleep regression is coming for you. We spoke to pediatric sleep experts to get the real lowdown on the 4 month sleep regression. We asked them to explain:
- What exactly the 4 month sleep regression is caused by
- If all babies have a 4 month sleep regression
- How long it lasts
- How parents can survive and manage the 4 month sleep regression
For most families, the 4 month sleep regression should be a blip, not a derailment. With a few key baby sleep management tools in your pocket, it’s nothing most parents can’t handle.
What is the 4 month sleep regression?
Just as it sounds, the 4 month sleep regression refers to a change in your baby’s sleep that happens around 16 weeks of age, give or take. However, the idea that sleep regressions happen at predictable ages is one that all the pediatric sleep experts that Romper spoke to say is not scientifically proven. “The concept of sleep regression hasn’t been established within the scientific pediatric sleep community,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Super, an associate professor of pediatrics and clinical pediatric sleep physician at Oregon Health Sciences University.
However, there will certainly be, for a variety of reasons, “some weeks where they’re difficult to soothe, they’re crying a lot, and maybe naps are shorter,” says Alexis Dubief, baby sleep expert and author of Precious Little Sleep. “Sleep is not linear. It does not just go from harder to better. It’s a trend that, hopefully, is trending positive over time.” Bumps are expected and, for many reasons, there is at least anecdotal evidence that many families struggle with sleep somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5 months. Among other things, “in my own experience, 3 to 5 months of age is a tough time because it’s the peak of colic,” Super explains.
Signs that you’re experiencing a sleep regression can include:
- Increased night wakings
- Shorter naps, or resisting naps
- Later bedtime
- Early waking in the morning
What causes the 4 month sleep regression?
If you suspect your baby is in the midst of the 4 month regression, there are a number of things that could be causing it. One of the most classic culprits is a nap drop. “Especially in the first 6 months, but really in the first year, your child is constantly needing less sleep. The schedule’s constantly changing, the amount of time they need to be awake so they can sleep successfully is constantly expanding,” says Dubief. “We know that most kids at 4 months are dropping a nap. We go from four to three naps fairly reliably, right around 4 months.”
However, there are developmental and familial changes at play at 4 months of age, too, says Super, and those could impact sleep. “Developmentally, there’s a lot going on. Also, most mothers are going back to work, between 12 and 16 weeks [postpartum]. So, depending on what’s going on with parental leave, it may be a hard transition time.” Even if your baby’s sleep doesn’t change that much, the end of maternity leave may mean that “parental anxiety goes up quite a bit right around 3 or 4 months of age,” agrees Dr. Craig Canapari, pediatrician and director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center. “People may be more likely to want to cuddle their child to sleep because you don’t have that closeness all day. Don’t even get me started on the fact that people have to go back to work when their baby’s only 2 or 3 months of age.”
Some of the most common causes of sleep regression between 3 to 5 months of age, according to Super and Dubief, are:
- Your baby has started to roll and needs to adjust to sleeping without a swaddle
- Your baby is ready to drop a nap. Usually, at 4 months old, this means going from four naps a day down to three
- Your family’s schedule is changing because of the return to work and the end of parental leave
- Problematic sleep associations, like rocking or nursing to sleep. 4 months “is often the first time where really lack of independent sleep becomes apparent,” Dubief adds. “Waking every hour and a half, all night long, is a classic sign.”
How long does the 4 month sleep regression last?
Now, the good news: Sleep regressions should only last a few days. Sleep regressions should resolve on their own in “a couple days, less than a week,” Canapari says. “If it’s pushing into 5, 6, 7 days, it’s probably worth looking at your sleep practices, and I don’t think it’s a terrible idea to have your pediatrician check out your kid.” It’s a good idea to see your child’s health care provider to rule out illness as the cause of the sleep disruptions, too. They can also help you get to the bottom of what has caused your baby’s sleep to seem to regress, and offer suggestions to help you all get a better night’s sleep.
Does every baby go through the 4 month sleep regression?
In short, no. Many modern parents who are worried about the concept of sleep regressions that occur for every baby at set times “have been heavily influenced by the book and the app, the Wonder Weeks,” suggests Dubief. “I think that’s really where the primary concept, definition, terminology around ‘sleep regressions’ comes from.” The findings that the Wonder Weeks book and app share with parents via their platforms are “making gross extrapolations very small, very messy sample sizes,” she explains, saying that, in her experience, babies are simply “chaotic” sometimes. There is nothing magical about 4 months of age, and both Canapari and Dubief urge parents to try not to worry about a regression that may never materialize for your baby.
Can I prepare for the 4 month sleep regression?
Parents who are anxious about the 4 month sleep regression can do things to make life a little easier if and when your baby does experience a sleep transition around 3 to 5 months of age. Ensuring that you have consistent, safe sleep practices will carry you through any regressions that come your way, says Canapari. Every family should try to “focus on the basics,” Super says, and these healthy sleep habits can be implemented basically as soon as you get home from the hospital with your newborn:
- Have a consistent bedtime routine. This can be as simple as “a short bath, a little massage, sing a song, and then put them in the crib,” Super explains.
- Consistent bedtime. Whatever Baby’s bedtime is, try to keep it the same every night.
- Have a “healthy baby bedtime,” by which Super means that they’re going to bed on the early side. She suggests 6 or 7 p.m. is the sweet spot for most babies.
- After they’re about 12 weeks old, try to put your baby to bed in the crib while they’re still awake. “This leads to them trying to develop those self-soothing skills,” Super explains.
How to survive the 4 month sleep regression
When regression hits, it can be very very stressful. Every parent as been there. “We’re not really prepared, as parents, for how sleep deprived we are going to be,” Super says. “So we’re always searching for some kind of answers or roadmaps.” Trust that it will pass, and try to just get through as safely as possible. If you suspect that it is time to drop a nap, it may be time to experiment with your baby’s nap schedule. Our experts shared these three tips for surviving the 4 month regression and, just maybe, coming out the other side of it with an even better sleeper than you had before:
- Check your baby’s nap schedule. Around 4 months, many babies have “declining sleep needs,” reminds Dubief. If your baby’s sleep schedule is still assuming you have a newborn, but you have a four month old, it may be time to drop a nap. “A kid dropping a nap can wreak havoc with things,” Canapari agrees.
- Begin to “encourage self-soothing,” says Super. If you haven’t already, try putting Baby to bed awake rather than slipping them into bed drowsy or fully asleep.
- Don’t jump out of bed at the first fuss. “You don’t have to rush in the first second they cry out,” Canapari suggests. If you can, try to wait a few minutes before going to your baby, particularly if they’re fussy in the night at a time when you wouldn’t typically feed them.
“Have compassion for yourself as a parent,” says Canapari. Tap in your partner, if you have one, or call on friends and family for support if you can, Super suggests. “Make sure you’re safe driving to work the next day. Try not to be too angry with yourself or your spouse or your child,” Canapari reminds. “It just should pass pretty quickly.”
Hang in there, and if the sleep regression lasts more than a few days, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s health care provider for support and advice, as well as to rule out any other complications that may be at play.
Dr. Elizabeth Super, an associate professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health Sciences University.
Dr. Craig Canapari, pediatrician and director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center
Alexis Dubief, baby sleep expert and author of Precious Little Sleep