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April 24, 2017

If you find your once great sleeper is all of a sudden resisting sleep, they may be going through the four-month sleep regression. Baby sleep consultant Emma Purdue explains why this happens, and how to work through it 

Just when you think you have your baby’s sleep patterns all figured out, suddenly you hit four months and everything changes again. Your baby starts cutting his naps short, wakes every 45 minutes throughout the day, becomes more and more difficult to get to sleep in the first place and often wakes more frequently overnight, sometimes as frequently as every two hours. What’s going on?

This is what sleep consultants refer to as the four-month sleep regression. It is actually more a progression in terms of your baby’s sleep maturity, but it is a regression in terms of how well they are sleeping.

What do you need to know?

It’s perfectly normal for your baby to start waking after 45 minutes. This is a full sleep cycle for a baby; they take 15-20 minutes to drift from a light sleep to a deeper sleep, and this deep sleep lasts about 25 minutes. If your baby is napping for more than 45 minutes, they are completing more than one of these sleep cycles.

During the first three months your baby may sleep for four to six hours at a time overnight, but once the four-month sleep regression hits your baby may begin waking every two to four hours. This is due to the change in length of their sleep cycle, as well as overtiredness from shorter daytime naps. We only expect a partial wake-up every two hours, so a well-rested baby will stir and drift into a light sleep phase, then into a deeper sleep for a further two hours before fully waking up. But an overtired baby will wake fully when they reach that light sleep phase, and often cry out for comfort, settling or a feed.


Baby's sleep cycle


What can you do to help your Baby?

As the four-month sleep regression is not really a regression but a progression in your baby’s sleep maturity, it’s not something your baby will “come through”, as such. Their sleep will improve with time and a little help from you! Your baby needs to adjust to the changes he or she is experiencing, and you can help by tweaking bedtime routines and encouraging self-settling skills. 

  1. Ensure their sleep environment is conducive to good sleep – a dark sleeping space will promote melatonin production and be less distracting when your baby wakes after 45 minutes. 
  2. Keep an eye on how long your baby is awake between sleeps. We generally aim for around two hours’ awake time by four months old. 
  3. Some positive sleep associations, such as white noise, swaddles and sleeping bags, will also be useful. 

Once your basics are in place, you can look at whether your baby is able to self-settle. If your baby relies on you to be rocked or held to sleep, you’ll need to help your baby learn to fall asleep without you doing these things, and this can take time. 

Sometimes, when your baby is taking short naps and waking frequently overnight, the sleep debt can accumulate and this build up of sleep debt can result in even shorter naps, often 30 minutes long, and more and more crying from your baby throughout the day. They are miserable. This is often when we receive a desperate phone call from parents. 

At this stage I would recommend you try assisted naps for a few days to get on top of that sleep debt. This means going for a walk for your baby’s naps, or baby wearing, anything that will help your baby to nod off and ensure your baby gets some longer, more restorative naps. You might also want to peg back those awake windows for a few days to help reduce those stress hormones associated with this kind of sleep debt. 

The second action point is to move to a much earlier bedtime, often as early as 6pm, to allow your baby to catch up on some much-needed sleep – this can prevent the night from completely falling apart. 

Finally, we recommend working on gently teaching those self-settling strategies, once the day naps start going better. This is key to getting those longer stretches of sleep at night.

Hang in there and remember, you are not alone! This is one of the most common issues we deal with at Baby Sleep Consultant. Concentrating on improving your baby’s night sleep will help both of you to feel less overtired, and as a result you’ll both have more patience to deal with the short naps once you are ready.

What did these mums do? 

Chloe Peters “My daughter went through it between three-and-a-half and four-and-a-half months and it was a month of hell. She went from sleeping through the night with a dream feed to waking multiple times and crying, and she was just unable to be settled. Her 45-minute naps dropped to just 20 minutes! It was worse than when she was a newborn. I ended up contacting Baby Sleep Consultant as I was exhausted physically and emotionally. Emma sorted her day sleeps and her night sleeps.”

Sarah Bloomfield “The one big thing that helped me was research, so by the time I had my fourth child I learnt about wonder weeks and how babies have a big leap at four months. I was prepared; I had a baby carrier so my son could be carried at all times, and I made sure I was eating properly as I was breastfeeding, and this seemed to help.”

Colette Allison Kroukamp “I have four kids and can honestly say if the four-month sleep regression hit, I didn’t notice it! Luckily for me.”

Sharai de Klerk “My little one seems to have started regressing at 13 weeks. We went from great day sleeps and sleeping all night, to waking every one- and-a-half to three hours, worse than a newborn! I had some advice from a Baby Sleep Consultant to ensure good day naps. I baby wore for the first few days, and it really helped. We are back to one to two feeds max a night.” 

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