The 4-month sleep regression
If your baby is like most, they sleep almost constantly during the newborn stage. In fact, you have to wake them to feed! Of course, there can be those witching hours of long crying if baby is gassy and overstimulated, but really, they sleep amazingly well from 0-3 months of age! They’ll sleep in a wrap or carrier, in a baby chair or swing, in the car, at home or on the go. If they wake in the night, they often easily go back to sleep after a feed. Then all hell breaks loose at 4-5 months!
What is happening?! Your child may begin to REALLY fight sleep! [Insert extreme fussiness] He doesn’t want anything to do with the usual sleep routine. He doesn’t want to wear a sleep sac, go near his room, be rocked, be put down. Heck, he even cries in your arms. He’s cluster feeding all through the night and nobody is getting much sleep. Well, what is a parent to do?!
Personally, this is when I was seduced by the false promises of sleep training. I figured that my child was crying anyways, and I couldn’t stop the crying, so I might as well lay her down in the crib while she cried. I might as well try to train her to go longer and longer intervals without me. [Insert all the sleep training methods I tried: pick-up/put-down, E.A.S.Y, ssshhh/pat, cry-it-out, Ferberizing…] Little did I know that you can’t train someone to sleep! Sleep comes when there is enough sleep pressure (the person is tired enough) and is regulated by their circadian rhythm (exposure to light and darkness). Since sleep training may cause your child to associate sleep with being separated from their caregiver, they are sure to be fussy about going to sleep! Not to mention that sleep training has to be redone at every regression, illness or teething episode. Nobody told me that this regression phase would pass without me doing anything other than supporting my child. She didn't need to be "trained" for us to make it through unscathed.
So, I highly suggest that you learn from my experience... and instead give the developmental approach a try! This approach recognizes that at 4 months, your child’s brain is going through a significant restructuring. They don’t need training, they need SUPPORT. Their stimulus barrier thins and suddenly they may not be able to sleep in a noisy or bright room, like before. They are perhaps overstimulated by the end of the day and have trouble settling for sleep. Their body and brain are preparing to link sleep cycles together (which you will appreciate in the long run)! They might be working on rolling. They are also becoming more aware that they are a separate entity from their caregivers and may resist separation. If you’re nursing, your previously hormonally-driven milk supply becomes based on supply/demand. Your child may be cluster feeding to help your milk supply. All of this can make for disrupted sleep and fussiness.
The developmental approach is contrary to what we often hear: “put the baby down drowsy, but awake”, “ don’t rock your baby to sleep”, “don’t feed to sleep”, “ don’t make eye contact”, and so on. How are these working out for you? Not very well, right?! Firstly, if your baby LETS you put them down drowsy but awake, go for it! But you are definitely within the norm if your baby will have nothing to do with it! They are not capable of self-soothing or self-regulating yet and it is very normal for them to need your help to fall asleep. So use whatever settling method works for your baby! Rocking simulates the womb environment and can help foster brain development. Napping in a carrier is soothing for baby and encourages attachment. Feeding your child, particularly the sucking action, helps calm their nervous system and relax them for sleep. Your eye contact lets them know that you’re there to support them and reassures them that sleep is a safe place to go. Your child will learn to sleep independently, but only when they are ready, and that is NOT at 4 months of age!
If your baby, like mine, is crying all the time, is it OK to support them while they cry in your arms.¹ Crying in the arms of a loving caregiver sends a different message to your child than being separated from a caregiver and left to cry alone (or at timed intervals). Stress hormones are actually released from the body through tears, so don’t be afraid of your child’s tears. Let them cry in your arms (as long as you’ve met all their physical needs: changing, feeding, warmth etc.), look into their eyes, comfort and console them. The oxytocin released from the cuddle will add to the feeling of comfort and reassurance. Like any of us; they will feel much better after a good cry. Most importantly, they will have learned that you will support them when they struggle to sleep.
The best thing about being “In Touch” with your child’s developmental stages is that you can look forward to the “Sweet Spots”. Although at 4 months, your child will need more support from you, know that it will pass without you going to any extreme measures. Following the 4-month sleep regression is a beautiful 6-month “sweet spot” when babies are typically more easygoing. Separation anxiety is lower and what is out of sight is out of mind. This is an excellent time to make changes to your sleep routine or environment, should you be looking for a good opportunity to get your baby into their crib, in their own room, going down to sleep more independently etc.
SO... you don’t have to wait forever, but it IS worth your while to practice patience during sleep regressions and wait for a “Sweet Spot” before attempting to make changes to your child’s sleep. Even for families who choose to sleep train, don’t be tempted to do it during a regression or the experience will be much more difficult for everyone!
And if YOU need support to get through the regression, remember to call upon your “village”!
¹Hockwell-Smith, Sarah. Why it’s OK to let your baby or child cry (sometimes). https://sarahockwell-smith.com/2015/01/13/why-its-ok-to-let-your-baby-or-child-cry-sometimes/. January 15, 2015.