The 3 or 4 Month Sleep Regression as many call it – isn’t a sleep regression at all, it is a maturation (as crazy as that may seem, stay with me!). Babies aren’t reverting back to a “bad” sleep pattern. That newborn stage was full of sleep!
This 3-4 month period of time actually refers to a baby coming out of the “4th Trimester,” or sleepy womb-like time and becoming a person of the world with a maturing brain stem. New parents who felt lucky that they had been gifted a good newborn sleeper will sometimes at 3 or 4 months tell me they feel like they had been tricked! Why isn’t their good sleeper sleeping now? What to do?
What happens in month 3-4 with sleep and why:
- Sleep has become slightly more mature and baby has settled into having normal human stages of sleep, but the sleep cycles are still shorter- 20-30min can be typical for naps and up to an hour for night sleep. Wakes are to check in with the caregiver with the safety of the environment – am I safe? Is my parent near? Waking is normal. (Even adults wake frequently during sleep but we go back down so fast we don’t realize it.)
- Sleep associations have settled in – oral sleep associations (nipple or pacifier to sleep) or motion sleep associations (rocking/bouncing/patting) which have been used by caregivers have become the only way baby knows how to fall asleep. Baby may only know how to fall asleep with these methods and has not had the opportunity to practice others. After a short sleep cycle, baby wakes up to ask you to recreate the way they fell asleep last time. By 3 or 4 months, babies may have now developed one strong sleep association or 5 things they are hoping you’ll do to get them back to sleep! For some it is bouncing, swaddling, nursing, pacifier etc.
- Learning so much, more alert. Upon waking, they may be harder to settle back down due to more curiosity about the environment and more excitement to be near you.
- Baby is adjusting to finally developing their own melatonin, it takes a while to regulate when they reliably organize this hormone.
- Baby is adjusting to learning use of their body if they are newly rolling or newly out of a swaddle.
- You may notice that baby used to fall asleep anywhere, anytime and now baby must be nursed or bounced to sleep. It used to be so easy, but now it takes that comfort and closeness as well as the sleepy hormones in milk or else repetitive movement to get a learning, babbling, smiling, curious baby to finally sleep.
- Sleep changes and maturations do not happen at the same time for all families. Some babies will have challenging sleep from the very start but some babies will sleep well in the newborn period and have a sleep change/maturation a bit later: around the onset of crawling (6-9 months) This is also a maturation, and not a regression.
It is a misguided parent coach or sleep guru these days who would recommend baby-crying-while-alone sleep training methods before 6 months. (The AAP recommends common sleep training methods at 6 months if you are still not sleeping.) But what can you do to feel like you are going to survive this current period with your sanity intact? These are my tips:
– See if you can focus on a long-term sleep goal during this period of “sleep regression” for your child rather than focus each crappy night or nap. Make sleep a happy, positive place and don’t stress that this is forever. Keep breathing.
–Sleep whenever you can as the baby sleeps. No, really. I feel the resistance. I’ve been there. Stuff to do. No, really. Beg someone to do your chores. Resist the urge to write your mommy memoir (I’m talking to my former self here!). Leave the caffeine alone, it will make it hard to sleep when baby does. Stop obsessively tracking sleep on the apps!
–Don’t stop breastfeeding thinking that you are going to suddenly sleep. Unfortunately, too many parenting coaches say that a sleep regression means we should stop feeding baby at night – and this can jeopardize the entire body feeding relationship. Stopping lactation suddenly puts the lactating parent at risk for mental health challenges as hormones don’t have time to adjust, as well as risk for plugged ducts and mastitis.
– Avoid unattended crying if you can and just create a clear and short bedtime ritual early on for good sleep cues into the future. Though crying methods do work for many families, others report that failed attempts at sleep training make baby clingier, wake more frequently and more easily startled while sleeping.
–Focus on bedtime routine. One of the oldest and most reputable studies on “sleep training” shows that predictable clear concise bedtime routines are more powerful at producing great sleep than any sleep training method. And this 2009 study concluded “These results suggest that instituting a consistent nightly bedtime routine, in and of itself, is beneficial in improving multiple aspects of infant and toddler sleep, especially wakefulness after sleep onset and sleep continuity, as well as maternal mood.”
–Take baby out at dusk so their brain can sense the change of day into night turning toward sleep and spend time with baby outdoors when she is awake in the day. This is the beginning of your baby feeling circadian rhythms. If your baby is maturing sleep-wise, why not share what it’s like to live in our culture and on our time frame this way? Help set your baby’s hormones to help her continue to mature forward out of this so-called “sleep regression.”
-If you are really having a hard time, you’re struggling with sleep, worried about your sanity or work, but don’t want to leave your child alone to cry, find a gentle, lactation-educated sleep coach- there are just a few of us who don’t practice unattended crying methods. My Sleep Savvy online course gives lots of helpful hints and helps parents feel supported in the sleep crazies while working toward good sleep hygiene skills for the future including changing the sleep onset associations slowly and gently. When I work with younger babies and parents are desperate for baby to learn to sleep well, we are working on very gradually moving away from the sleep onset associations that were already created and begin giving baby more attended opportunities to figure out the illusive “self-soothing” with human comfort and without a lot of crying. When worked on at this stage, a baby learning to sleep on the mattress and feel secure in bed, finding and sucking her hands, is a beautiful thing to witness!
–Find a postpartum psychotherapist to talk to with PMH-C after their name. This sleep regression can make you feel CRAY! It’s real, it’s common and it’s nothing to feel shame about. This is the time Postpartum Mood disorders can hit and they are made worse by sleep deprivation. They don’t always look like depression. It can be anxiety, intense irrational fears or obsessions or even mania with no depression or hyperactivity. Or it can simply feel like “I want to run away / divorce my partner.” I’ve been there and it feels good to talk to a therapist who has been through motherhood and knows how common these feelings are.
Most parents looking back will say that sleep was constantly evolving and changing for the first 3 years. Just about all of my friends and clients say, “I wish I had just rolled with it and stopped obsessing when my baby was tiny. I would have gotten a lot more sleep instead of spending time reading all of those books and posting in all of those forums.”.