Mother and Baby

What is the fresh hell that is four-month sleep regression?

The first few months of a baby’s life takes so much adjusting to, and just when you think you’re finally nailing the arduous daily schedule of having a new baby, you’re hit by the curveball that is four-month sleep regression.

Suddenly, you’re thinking: What is happening? Why is my baby — who used to sleep all the time — waking up constantly and refusing to go back to sleep? Why are we moving backwards? Where did I go wrong?

First, let’s clarify that you did absolutely nothing wrong here, and that this four-month blip in a baby’s sleep schedule is absolutely normal, and actually a really good thing (although the bags under your eyes might feel differently).

So then, what is this all about, what causes it, how long will it last, and what can we do about it?

Get your mug of (strong) coffee ready, because we’ve got all the answers for you below.

The myths of 4-month sleep regression:

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1) Every baby goes through four-month sleep regression

Untrue. You and your baby might go through this major development unscathed.

If you’ve managed to sleep train your baby at such an early age, chances are, they’ll be able to sleep again without any issues.
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2) That your child only has sleep regression at four months

Hate to break it to you, but it could happen anytime from 2-6 weeks, 4 months, 8-9 months, and even 18 months.

The same rules apply to all sleep-regressions, and consistency is key.
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3) Ignore it and it’ll pass

Well, not exactly.

You do have to be careful not to take the wrong route here and make things worse for all of you, i.e. if the baby usually sleeps in a cot but you decide to bring them to bed with you “just until this stage passes,” that could be a bad move.

If the baby gets used to it (highly likely), and if that’s not something you want, you’ll be stuck with it and have to cot-train them all over again.
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4) That there’s nothing you can do

Wrong again; thankfully, this is very false. There are some good tips and tricks to follow for when this thing hits.

What is a four-month sleep regression?

Sleep regression (SR) is when your usually easy, sleeping-all-the-time baby suddenly refuses to sleep, seems wide awake when they would typically be catching those Z’s, and whatever you thought you knew about your baby’s sleep schedule, goes flying smoothly out the window.

SR usually starts around the four-month mark (hence the name), but it could start a month or so earlier or later either side (i.e. at three or even six months).

This time in a baby’s life marks a big sleep development which indicates that their sleep is maturing (but we totally understand that it’s hard to feel happy about it when they’re refusing to shut their little eyelids for hours on end).

Why do babies have sleep regression?

Babies change every single day. You just have to look at pictures from two weeks ago to realise that they’re actually even changing by the minute.

Around four months, they hit some major milestones in their development — they can see better, they can hear more, they are starting to understand and comprehend, and life is getting more interesting.

Babies don’t want to be asleep as much as they used to, and they don’t actually need to be, either.

Newborns sleep up to 18 hours a day, but at four months old, 14-16 hours of sleep per day can be expected, and even only 12 hours of shuteye can be considered normal.

To get a bit technical with it, a sleeping four-month-old tends to spend less time in deep sleep (stage 5 — REM sleep) than they did from 0-4 months, and more time in the lighter sleep stages.

This means that their sleep is starting to mature (clap, clap, well done, baby!).

However, these pre-REM stages of sleep (stages 1-4) are easy to wake up from; we do it all the time as adults, but have got so good at putting ourselves back to sleep again, that most of the time we don’t even realise we’re waking up in the middle of the night.

Babies, though, once they’re jolted awake, will stay awake — as you’ve probably noticed — until they have a reason to fall asleep again, i.e. how have they, till now, been sleeping?

What do they associate with sleep? If the baby falls asleep in your arms, then when they wake up, they’ll want to be in your arms again in order to sleep.

If they’re used to being fed, then again, that’s what they’ll be needing.

Humans are creatures of habit, so what you do during the four-month sleep regression is extremely important, because this is what the baby will become accustomed to and expect.

Just like adults, babies need to learn to be able to put themselves to sleep again if they wake up — and the younger they learn, the better.

Of course, this is a difficult period for the baby too, so you have to give the little one some time to adjust to this major advancement, but with persistence and guidance, you can get through this uphill battle, and finally get the baby on a proper workable sleep schedule.

4-month sleep regression signs

If you can’t tell whether your child is having sleep regression or not, then they’re probably not; if they’re going through it, so are you.

Four-month sleep regression symptoms include waking up in the middle of the night and not wanting to go back to sleep again, their once two-hour afternoon naps becoming 20-minute power naps, general restlessness, and being wide awake when they would otherwise be snoring their little heads off.

Apart from that, the regression has a few other signs to watch out for so that you know it’s most likely on its way, for instance, a change in appetite, fussiness, and out-of-character whinging.

When does it end? 

All this info is all well and good but there’s one thing parents want to know about 4-month sleep regression; how long is this going to last?

We don’t want to scare you, but four-month sleep regression is a popular time for babies to pick up some hard-to-break habits, meaning that this could last a long time — but, if you take the right steps, your child could be sleeping again without any problems within just a few weeks.

Solutions and tips for sleep regression:

We’ve learned that babies start to become aware of when they wake up in the middle of the night, but just don’t know how to get back to sleep again.

Here are the main points to keep in mind for dealing with sleep-regression.

1) Check that everything is actually OK 

Sleep regression could turn everything on its head and in all the disruption, it could be easy to miss that the baby is actually hungry, or has a soiled nappy.

Once you check that everything else is in order, and that they are fully fed (none of this eating-for-two-minutes business and then dozing off — make sure they get a full feed), then you can move on to the next tips.

2) Accept that they don’t sleep as much anymore

You might have loved your little 2-hour nap with the baby during the day, or maybe you’d take that opportunity to curl up with a cuppa and a book — or even get some housework in.

Once those naps are gone, it hurts and could take some getting used to (for you, that is), but it would have happened sooner or later.

If those two hours with your book were your favourite time of the day and the only thing keeping you sane, perhaps someone else can look after the baby just for two hours so you can clear your head and see to some much-needed self-care.

3) Have the same bedtime routine every night

Let’s say your chosen sleep routine for your baby is putting them down in their cot, playing soft lullaby music, closing the lights, and perhaps putting on a little projector, then this is what the baby associates with sleep.

So, when they wake up in the middle of the night in the pitch blackness, we want to get to the point when getting them back to sleep again is just a matter of putting on the projector and soothing music — their cues for sleep — and leaving them to it.

If, however, the baby is used to being held, rocked, or fed to sleep, then it’s logical that when they wake up, that’s what they’ll want in order to go to sleep again.

4) Make it clear that night-time is sleep-time

In any case, what we don’t want to do is give the impression that it’s okay to be awake at night.

We need to make it abundantly clear that at night time, lights are off, talking is reduced to a whisper (if anything at all), and it’s time for sleep.

Making noise, turning the lights on, talking loudly, or making sudden movements are all things that the baby will associate with daytime, and with being awake, so it’ll be futile to expect them to get to sleep anytime soon when they think that there is possible fun to be had.

5) It might be time for sleep training

Sticking to a bedtime routine is imperative.

If, however, till now you’ve never managed to get the baby down without rocking them or sleeping in your arms, it might be time to look at sleep training methods.

Don’t worry, this is not as scary as it sounds, and there are five different methods for you to choose from according to your style.

6) Put the baby down in the cot while they're still awake 

All sleep training methods share a common tip; trying to put the baby down in their bed while they’re still slightly awake, in order for them to get used to falling asleep on their own.

If it’s not happening, don’t get disheartened; sleep training takes time.

Have a look at our sleep training article for tips on getting your baby to sleep through the night on their own.

Sleep regression doesn’t last forever, and with some time and patience (and did we mention coffee?), you can get through this; it’ll be nothing but a memory in no time.

What experiences do you remember with your little one having sleep regression? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!

Now read:

5 baby sleep mistakes new parents make (and how to fix them)

Baby sleep: What is normal?

  • Author: Kat de Naoum Kat de Naoum
  • Job Title: Freelance Writer

Kat is a freelance writer based in the UK and Greece. She has written for many publications, and, as an advocate for female empowerment, loves to write about women’s issues, and helping fellow mothers feel supported and less alone.

She has birthed one child and written two books. She can read and write and tends to spend most of her (non-parenting) time doing that, as well as taking care of her several pets.

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