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 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, a full cycle of sleep-savvy-logostages lasting 60-90 minutes with a wake to check in with mom and with the safety of the environment – am I safe? Is my mom near? Waking is normal. (Even adults wake frequently during sleep but we go back down so fast we don’t realize it.)
  • Waking becomes more frequent – both due to natural sleep cycles and due to (also rather natural) oral sleep associations needed to get back to sleep. They become more sensitive to noise, light, touch and physical proximity or lack thereof to mother.
  • Learning so much. Upon waking, they may be harder to settle back down due to more curiosity about the environment and more excitement to be near you.
  • They no longer wake or cry just to eat or be changed. They cry or wake because: they have stayed awake too long beforehand and become overtired, or weren’t tired enough when they went down. Or they wake and cry because we have fed them back to bed each time – so when they woke and cried before it was communicated to them that this is the best way to get off to dreamland. Now if they wake up and aren’t in arms or on a nipple, they must cry to ask you to recreate that preferred state again. Babies don’t have words yet, crying is communication and back and forth communication like this is learned and can be solidified by 3 months.
  • 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 having 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. By 3 or 4 months, babies may have now developed a strong sleep association or 5! For some it is bouncing, swaddling, nursing, pacifier etc.  Because this sleep association is now habit for you and baby, the brain believes one of these things are needed in order to fall asleep or fall back to sleep after waking.
  • 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). Most families do see a change in sleep of some sort between 3-4 months.

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 each crappy night. 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.

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 breastfeeding relationship. More and more studies are coming out showing that formula fed babies don’t sleep as well as we thought and more studies are coming out showing that though baby woke more, co-sleeping breastfeeding moms reported being more rested. (Maybe they worried less since baby was not in the other room, they don’t have to get up frequently.) The AAP recommends rooming-in with baby on their own mattress in your room. This includes side-cots.

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 her 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 feeling disheartened by a sudden turn toward sleeplessness in your household, know that things do change over time for most families. My observation is that everybody “gets theirs” at some point! Your friend’s baby who slept through the night may wind up with major challenges suddenly at 9 months when he begins walking or they may have a 2 year old who insists on staying up until 11pm until she passes out on the living room floor. Most of us will have some form of sleep challenge at some point. Your family and baby are unique.

-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 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. 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.”.


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