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The four month sleep regression and how to survive it

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If your little one is approaching four months, you may be nervously awaiting the dreaded ‘Four Month Sleep Regression’. Perhaps it’s already kicked in and you’re desperate to know why and what you can do about it.

The four stages of sleep
To help you understand a little more about what is happening to your baby during this time, it helps to have a little background knowledge about sleep in general.

Many of us think of sleep as a simple on-or-off situation. You’re either asleep or you’re not. But the ‘sleep cycle’ we go through several times a night is actually comprised of four different stages.

Stage 1 is that familiar sensation where you can just feel yourself drifting off but don’t feel as if you’ve fallen asleep properly. During this initial stage, many people, when asked, will deny they were sleeping at all.
Stage 2 is considered the first ‘true sleep’ stage and is where people tend to realise, once woken up, that they were actually sleeping.
Stage 3 is deep and regenerative. Also known as ‘slow wave’ sleep, this is where the body starts repairing and rejuvenating the immune system, muscle tissue and energy stores – and sparking growth and development.
Stage 4 is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is where the brain starts to kick in, consolidating information and memories from the past day. This is also the stage where most of our dreaming occurs.

Once we’ve gone through these four stages, we either wake up or come close to waking up – and then the cycle starts over again until morning. These are the four stages of sleep for children and adults, but for newborns it’s a very different story.

The stages of sleep for newborns
With only 2 stages of sleep, newborns spend around half their sleeping hours in Stage 3 and half in Stage 4 (REM). At some point, they need to transition to the 4-Stage cycle that they’ll follow for the rest of their lives – and it’s at around the third or fourth month that this reorganisation of sleep takes place (generally between 12-16 weeks of age).

This is when your baby’s REM sleep drops from 50% to 25% to make room for the first two stages. Your little one is now having similar sleep cycles to those described above, the difference being that children’s sleep cycles last around 30-60 minutes, whereas adults’ sleep cycles are around 1.5 hours. With the introduction of Stages 1 and 2, your baby is suddenly spending much more time in lighter sleep and is more likely to wake up. This waking up is absolutely natural so nobody ever truly ‘sleeps through the night’. We all come to the edge of sleep a number of times during the night but, if we have good sleep skills, we will roll over and go back to sleep, without remembering we have done it in the morning.

The shock of waking up
We all have something we rely upon to fall asleep, perhaps our duvet or favourite pillow. When we come to the edge of sleep we are in our familiar environment, roll over and go back to sleep so quickly that we don’t even remember waking. If, however, we woke on the kitchen floor, we would not be able to go back to sleep as easily but would be confused and concerned. The same is true of a little one, who is yet to develop these sleep skills, as waking in the middle of the night, in different circumstances to those they fell asleep in, can be a confusing and alarming experience.

If your little one has been assisted to sleep in some way (being fed, rocked or with a dummy, for example), when they come to the edge of sleep, the circumstances in which they fell asleep are not replicated so your little one will enter a state of fight-or-flight. To make matters worse, they are now unlikely to get back to sleep without outside help.

When this starts happening every half an hour (which may be all your little one’s sleep cycle lasts for), parents can find themselves in a nightmarish situation. But the good news for anyone experiencing the “four month sleep regression” is that it’s not, in fact, a regression at all. A regression is defined as “reversion to an earlier mental or behavioral level,” and that’s actually the opposite of what your baby is experiencing. This would be much more aptly titled the ‘four month sleep progression’ and there are things you can do to help your little one adjust.

Four tips to help you and your baby cope
1. Make your baby’s room as dark as possible. You might think it’s comforting to have a little light coming through the windows or from the hallway. But unlike many of us, newborns and young babies are not afraid of the dark. They are, however, very responsive to light. Light tells their brains it’s time for activity and alertness, and the brain secretes hormones accordingly, so try to keep the nursery as dark as possible during naps and bedtime.

2. Mask unwanted sounds. With your baby spending more time in lighter sleep, noises will startle and wake them easily. Instead of trying to maintain an unrealistic silence in your home, try blocking unavoidable sounds with a white noise machine.

3. Try a simple bedtime routine and don’t finish with a feed. Stick to around 4 or 5 steps, and keep the feed near the beginning, otherwise you risk baby nodding off at the breast or the bottle, creating the problematic ‘sleep association’ mentioned above. Plan the songs, stories towards the end. The routine should take no more than 20 – 30 minutes, and baby should be awake when you put them down in their cot.

4. Get your timing right. If your baby is getting fussy before bedtime, you’ve probably waited too long. Four month old babies should really only be awake for around two hours between naps, and bedtime should be between 7 and 8 at night.

Remember, once you’re through this difficult stage, your baby will have officially moved into the sleep cycle they’ll be following for the rest of their life. They’ll certainly experience regressions later on in childhood (traveling, illness and teething can all cause a few bad nights in a row – the good news is, there are blogs on all of these points on my website), but when it comes to the infamous four month ‘progression’, it is only a one-time occurrence.

By taking this opportunity to teach your baby the skills they need to put those four stages of sleep together, independently, prop-free, without any need for breast feeding, rocking, or dummies, you’re setting them up for great sleep habits in the future.

As always, if you’re experiencing any problems with your little ones sleep, please do get in touch for a free 15 minute chat – We would love to help!

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