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Baby Sleep Regressions: Questions Answered

Surviving the Four-Month Sleep Regression

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I have a wonderful, amazing, so adorable little boy who used to be a champion sleeper. I would listen when people complained about their kids waking up at night and think about how that would never happen to me – congratulating myself on my fantastic parenting skills.

Now… I have a three and a half month old who has suddenly transformed into a nightmare sleeper! We went from 7/8 hours a night to waking up every 2 hours, 3 on a good night.

We have a bedtime routine that involves a bath, a bottle of breast milk, and a song and rock to sleep. He always goes down sleepy but awake and is usually pretty good, sometimes requiring one more quick song and rock before falling asleep next to our bed in his rock and play.

When he wakes up I used to feed him (he was only waking up once, remember!) but now that it’s every 2 hours, I don’t want to encourage that habit! So I have a confusing, inconsistent routine of feeding him once around 2am and just rocking/soothing him the other times he wakes up. Feeding him is the much easier of the two since he is furious when not allowed in my shirt and cries no matter what else I try.

So! My question is, what should I do and will I ever get my champion baby back?? Most things I have read say not to officially “sleep train” until 6 months but what can I do until then? How can I avoid creating a bad habit (needing to eat to go back to sleep) without starving my baby?

Please please tell me you have some advice soon – our house is very tired.

Love,
Sleepless in California (oh… so dumb)

Hello! Welcome to the four-month sleep regression. You’ve just described a picture-perfect textbook case.

The “four month sleep regression” can start as early as three months or as late as five (or even six) months. It happens for a bunch of reasons:

1) A simultaneous growth and developmental spurt — baby’s brain is suddenly becoming much more alert and “on” all the time, he’s probably working on rolling over, gaining more control over his arms and legs, and senses now that you are a separate person who goes away. (And he’s probably not a fan of the going away.)

2) Changes in sleep patterns — around four months a baby’s sleep gets more like ours. He’s now entering REM sleep for the first time. REM sleep is lighter and easier to disturb. Your son sounds like he’s only getting REM sleep and is waking himself up before entering the next deeper sleep phase. Because he doesn’t know how to soothe himself yet, he’s not able to settle back down and start over, and the cycle continues. And thus ensures you’re dealing with an increasingly overtired baby whose sleep seems to get progressively worse as the nights go on.

3) Changes in sleep needs — as if there already wasn’t enough going on, he’s also probably in the middle of a nap transition. This means he’s close to eliminating one (or even two!) of his daytime naps, but the transition isn’t complete or consistent yet. Or you’re continuing to let him nap as much as he used to, without realizing the extra daytime sleep is mucking with nighttime.

Basically, it’s the dirtiest of dirty secrets that no one tells you: Your newborn was a naturally good sleeper because newborns ARE naturally good sleepers in general. Now you have a BABY. And now the sleeping shit just got real.

While I also don’t recommend sleep training at this age, a sleep SCHEDULE (day through night) is pretty much your best defense and hope for righting the sleep ship. Because the regression isn’t always necessarily a short phase that magically goes away on its own — the bad habits we tend to let them get away with to just “survive” the regression tend to stick, and it can sort of go on indefinitely. Boo!

You didn’t include any details about your baby’s nap schedule or what time he goes to bed. That’s likely the key problem here — he’s ready for a more structured nap routine and probably a much earlier bedtime. I’ve written a lot already about the 2-3-4 schedule, but 3.5 months can be a bit early for a two-nap day — even Googling around for sample nap/bedtime routines for a 4 month old brings up a lot of conflicting advice regarding the number of naps. Three or four naps during the day can still be common, with a focus on making sure he doesn’t stay awake too long between each one to avoid the dreaded overtiredness. And then bedtime should come fairly soon after the final nap — couple hours at most.

Not to be a lazy advice columnist, but Imma let you do your own Googling Thang about the four-month regression and sample nap/bedtime schedules. See which one most closely resembles his current number of reliable naps, or which one seems like something you could apply with just a few tweaks. Keep track of his nap starting and end points, and look out for larger chunks of awake time that you can shorten or eliminate.

Consider trying a very early bedtime — like 6:30, and structure naps backwards from there. (Or forwards from his current waking time, if that’s somewhat consistent.) I always made the same mistake at this age of not realizing my baby’s final “nap” of the day was technically when I should have been putting him to bed!  If he’s yawning or rubbing his eyes during your bedtime routine, that’s a BIG sign that his bedtime is too late and he’s going to struggle with getting over the REM sleep hump. Your goal should be to get him ready for a nap or bed about 15 minutes BEFORE the recommended, scheduled time so he 1) isn’t overtired, and 2) continues to find that “sleepy but awake” sweet spot.

As for the to nurse or not to nurse question: Two or three nighttime feedings are to be expected at this point. Some babies drop to one, but many do not. Obviously he doesn’t need to nurse every two hours, but since he’s in the midst of a growth spurt and the sleep regression, you need to recognize that what worked before is simply not what’s going to work going forward. Newborn sleep/eating is not baby sleep/eating, alas.

With that early 6:30 bedtime, I’d say expect him to wake up hungry in the 10-11pm range, then again between 2-3am, and finally a waking/eating at 6-7am. Then it’s playtime followed by Nap #1. Any other additional night wakings should involve minimal involvement from you — do your best to soothe him without picking him up. I was always a big fan of the musical crib aquariums/soothers at this age, since 1) it was an easy thing to turn on without picking them up, when I knew the waking wasn’t food related, and 2) at some point they all figured out how to turn it on THEMSELVES and could get back to sleep without me.

Good luck! The sleep regressions suck, no doubt. You’re going to be fine, though, since you’re aware of the bad habits you need to avoid, AND because he’s proven that he knows how to fall asleep on his own at bedtime. That’s huge! Getting him on more consistent routine during the rest of the day — and knowing what feedings to expect throughout the night vs. regression-based wakings — SHOULD help get you through this one.

(Because…yeah. There are sadly more regressions to come. Nine, 12 and 18 months usually. Sorry. /ducks)

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Surviving the Four-Month Sleep Regression by Alphamom.com

Read more about the 4-Month Sleep Regression here.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Stef

    Oh. OH. THIS!

    I also have a 4.5 month old (almost 5 month old) and we are just now gradually getting back to some resemblance of normal sleeping for both of us. It was only 2 weeks ago I hit up Google with 2AM searches of “why won’t my 4 month old sleep?” The kicker? Our oldest is 3. Obviously the sleep regressions are one of the parts I blocked out about raising a baby.

    It gets better, and Amy is right. Sleep training now is silly, you just have to tough it out and it gets better. Adjusting napping can help a lot, so pay attention to the daytime routine and schedule. It’s counter intuitive, but making babies/toddlers stay up later will only make them sleep less at night and get up earlier in the morning. Our 3 year old has the earliest bedtime of all his peers and the neighbourhood children but he’s also the best behaved and most mellow. Because, oh I don’t know, possibly because he’s the most rested.

    It gets better. For now, coffee, wine, whatever your coping mechanism is. And just know it’s not your “fault”, you didn’t cause this and you’re not failing. It’s just part of the curveballs babies like the throw at us. The minute you think you’ve got the hang of this parenting thing they change the game.

    Best of luck.

  • Rachel

    Right there with you, OP. I have an almost-five-month-old who used to be a great sleeper. Now he’s waking up at midnight and 3 or 4 am, with a bedtime around 8:30-9. He takes several naps during the day, with the last one usually being a catnap in the car on the way home from daycare. I can’t imagine putting him to sleep at 6:30 because that leaves me hardly any time with him in the evenings (I work full time). He goes down drowsy but awake and at times will skip his midnight feeding and sleep until the second one. Babies and their dang unpredictableness… (is that a word? I just made it one).

  • Traci

    The word ‘habit’ stuck out for me. You are not creating a ‘habit’ by nursing your child on demand. Amy is absolutely spot on when she noted that two or three night time feedings are to be expected at this stage. It is 100% normal. Baby is waking out of hunger and/or comfort and do not believe anyone who makes you think you are creating a bad habit by being responsive to his needs.

    I nursed my son on demand through all of these ‘regressions’ and teething and whatever else he was going through and we both got much better sleep through the whole process versus trying to soothe or comfort in other ways. Most of the time he was actually hungry and you can tell by the sound of them drinking while they nurse.

    http://evolutionaryparenting.com/ is a great resource for understanding these little creatures and gives great perspective on all the key topics. Obviously, everyone has different parenting styles, but no matter which you choose, the more you can understand how babies and children are programmed and their behavior patterns as evidenced in history and science, the better you can respond in a way that works best for your family.

    Sending good sleep vibes your way, and as with all things…this too shall pass. Everyone will tell you how they grow up so fast and they are all right! In the meantime, just go with the flow and do what you feel is best for your situation and remember they will constantly keep throwing you curve balls, so always be flexible!

    • Anna

      Thank you so much for linking that site! I studied attachment parenting in school and have been raising my four month old attachment style, but when I search for answers to my parenting questions, the answers often don’t fit with how I’m parenting. evolutionaryparenting.com is exactly what I needed!

  • Julie

    I am so happy Amy answered my question! It seems like everywhere I turn someone has a different opinion on baby sleep! I guess I will just do what I have to do and hope this passes. An earlier bedtime and nap schedule are definitely on my to do list 🙂

    Thank you again!

    • Karen

      Love this.

      Ask Moxie used to say, roughly paraphrased, that a “bad habit” is something that used to work but now no longer does. I LOVE that, it’s so nice to have permission to live in the moment as a parent, and then move on to something new as you and your kids change. 

      Also, babies who sleep well are not champions while those that don’t are losers. Amy wrote a fabulous entry on her personal blog (last year maybe?) on earning the Parent Sleep Badge. Amy, I wish you’d link to that one, it’s my most favorite blog entry of all time!

      • Karen

        Rats that was supposed to go to Traci’s comment too! 

  • Lindsay

    Oh, if only I could figure out the “sleepy but awake” thing. My 4.5 month old will not, for the life of her, fall asleep by herself. No amount of soothing (while she’s lying in the crib) works. But pick her up and walk around for a bit? Out like a light. Fostering bad sleep habits? Yeah, that would be me….

    • Sarah

      I had to chime in and say Two Thumbs Up to this.  Being responsive does not equal bad habits.  I would not have survived sleep regressions and teething and some illnesses, etc etc without just going with the flow (so to speak) and continuing night nursing on demand……you can find the balance between making sure Baby isn’t hungry and every-20-minutes-tear-your-hair out, I promise.

      • Sarah

        Sorry, I meant to be replying to Traci’s comment!

      • Priscilla

         I can totally relate, Lindsay! We are not trying to foster bad habits, but what is one to do?  My boy did the same for a while.  Again, he would pass out on my arms, but once on his crib, back to crying. Or he would stay asleep in his crib, but would wake up soon after trying to get his arms out of the swaddle, lol! Anyway, that got solved real quick when my friend told me to get a Zipadee-Zip and I tried it. But it did take me a little while to be ok with letting him cry a bit. It’s hard when you’re a first time Mom…
        I think it will be easier the next time around.  Fingers crossed!;)

  • Caroline

    Is this sudden? I ask because he may well have hit a growth spurt and may not be getting quite enough to eat during the 24 hour day. This is actually quite a common thing and of course, they make up for a shortfall by waking up in the night! So, say he’s having 150 mls at bed time and around that sort of amount at each day feed, you might want to look at upping each feed by 20mls or even 40, one by one, to see where that gets you. Honestly, to me it sounds like a hunger thing. He clearly likes to sleep, is in a routine, and this is a fairly sudden departure. Best of luck!

  • Karen

    I know this might not be a popular opinion, but I had this with my girl and was at my wits end with her waking every 1-2 hours. My husband took over one night and took her down to the lounge and let her cry. It took her 20 minutes to fall asleep. It wasn’t full on screaming crying either. Then she slept for 3 hours, had a feed, I put her back down and she cried for 5 minutes. Since then we’ve been putting her down awake – and now she falls asleep totally by herself with no grizzles, and sleeps 7pm – 7am with one feed during the night.. We did this from 4.5 months. I know all the places I read said, “don’t do sleep training until they are 6 months old”, but I have never been able to find a scientific reason why you should wait till then. I am so much of a better Mum now that I am getting a reasonable amount of sleep, and my wee girl is so much happier too, she had been miserable with the crappy sleeping as well. I admit it is horrible to listen to your baby cry, but I figure it’s much less crying in the long run to do it this way.

  • Karen

    Can I also clarify that I only let her cry when I knew that there was nothing else wrong and that the only problem was that she was tired. I also always go and check on her whenever she cries in the night.

  • traci

    Karen,
    The scientific reason has to do with attachment and baby’s cognitive development. Basically, if you do it too early your baby can’t tell the difference between you’re ignoring my needs and you’re ignoring my fake-o but I don’t wanna sleep cries. This confuses the young mind which is preoccupied with feeling secure that his/her needs are met. When the crying stops at this age it’s really just them giving up bc they’re needs aren’t consistently met. It seems to parents to work but it often backfires making fussier kids long-term. I don’t think you personally should feel bad cause it sounds like your kiddo adjusted so quickly that I don’t think any damage was done, but at this age your experience isn’t typical and I would not advise others to pursue it.

    • Karen

      And also because it’s really by six months that people who come up with these things feel comfortable giving people the green light to effectively restrict their babies’ calories at night. By six months, babies are mature enough to shift their caloric intake to waking hours if it’s restricted at night. Before then, some, but not all, babies will see decreased weight gain and mom’s supply will drop if baby is sleep trained at night but doesn’t make up for it in the day. But like Traci said, some babies adjust just fine earlier. It’s just a general time marker.

  • Susan:)

    We discovered the whole put the baby to bed earlier thing with my oldest niece. She went to bed at 6:30 pm, and slept till about 6 am at that age, sometimes waking around 10-11pm. But if we put her to bed later, she’d wake up more often. She also had three naps during the day, later going down to two. She was a pretty good sleeper, and she was always so happy and well behaved when she was up. We didn’t get the parents bringing their babies out places late in the evening, weren’t they tired?  But then we discovered with baby number two, that every kid is different. She was not a long or consistent napper, and hated going to bed at night, although she slept fine once she finally fell asleep. But she was always up early. They are four and six now. The oldest still sleeps a lot and the youngest still likes to stay up and wake up early. 

  • maree

    I have 4 kids and the youngest is around this age so I hear you on the tiredness thing but the sleep you are describing is normal. I have found that the more you fight it the worse you will feel and have a theory that people who try lots of different ‘solutions’ are generally trying something at around the time baby would have slept anyway and then credit that as a miracle cure. Babies are designed to be comforted and fed around sleep times this is why it works so easily! My suggestion is to just go with it and make the rest of your life as easy as possible (crock pot dinners, paper plates, early nights, whatever you need) cause it won’t last long.

  • S

    I found that both my kids, the regression was accompanied by super distracted nursing during the day.  So I think they just didn’t get as much as they were before.  Plus, of course, a growth spurts falls somewhere around this time, as well as developmental milestones.  So it’s hard to pinpoint one culprit, but I did find that starting to nurse in a quiet room during the day helped a lot.  No more watching TV while I nursed.  I’d close the blinds, etc.  And if your baby seems interested, I’d even suggest nursing more during the daytime to try to load them up.  My first seemed to like this plan, and sort of naturally fell into a cluster feeding cycle in the evenings, and it really helped the 4-month regression go by a little faster.  

  • Karen

    Just responding to karen above, I do feed my girl when she wakes in the night, last night was unusual and she woke 3 times so she got 3 feeds (I think we might be going through a growth spurt). So i guess that’s night weaning as opposed to sleep training? And traci – I’ve read that kind of thing too, but have not been able to find any scientific studies to back it up. Im not saying it’s for everyone but it works and I’m convinced is less crying in the long run. Plus if it’s not working for you and your baby you can always stop.

  • groovymumma

    I got a lot of help from the book Good Night, Sleep Tight by Kim West. Every other sleep book that people lent me just stressed me out – this one had a good middle of the road approach and worked wonders when our nine month old suddenly started waking all night. I didn’t have this book at four months, but I seem to remember that she covers all ages from birth to 5 years old.
    Just a side note, my second child stopped napping at four months, she would basically fuss all day and sleep all night, I couldn’t work out what was going on until the midwife realised that she had reflux. Treated that and the napping improved heaps. I am only mentioning it as a just in case – probably doesn’t apply to OP’s baby, but it can be good to rule other stuff out.

  • Joy

    S- how long did your regression last?

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  • mary

    Hiya my son is 5 and a half months old. He has slept through the night since he was 8 weeks old. No longer waking for feeds. I started weening at 4 months due to him waking up in the night hungry. This solved that issue. He then went back to sleeping 6.30 till 5 am. Heaven! The past week he has been very unsettled. He wakes every 2 hours. Minimum. He’s not hungry. He’s not wet or dirty nappied. He’s not too warm or cold and isn’t unwell. Once he wakes he cries and putting his dummy in and holding him for a while he falls back asleep. But this is all night long. Because I’m already weening his milk intake is now 3 bottles a day 7ozs each bottle. I also use his milk to make his porridge up in the morning which is another 4ozs. He has a small dinner and pudding at lunch and at around 4.30pm. His evening bottle is at 6pm. He’s usually asleep by half past and down for the night. I’m going out of my mind. I know he’s teething. Rosey cheeks can see top 1 cutting through ect. I’ve given Ashton teething powders and dentaox teething gel even calpol. I’m finding that his only comfort is in my arms and I don’t want to get him into a routine of sleeping with me. Any suggestions would be great. Thanks

  • Lindsey

    I love reading these stories! I have a 4.5 month old that sleeps really well once she goes to sleep, usually 6-8 hours, wakes once and then back to sleep for a few hours. It used to be 8-8 that she would sleep with one feeding in the middle. I could put her down shortly before 8 and she would stay asleep, even put down while sleepy would work. I thought I had a genius baby that sleep trained herself woohoo! But sadly, for the past month or so, this has all changed!

    She wakes up frequently in the first few hours of her used to be sleeptime. I tried moving her bedtime up, so we now start bedtime routine around 6:30 (book, PJs, massage, breastfeed, lullabies and rocking). She’ll go down around 7:15-7:30 but will only fall asleep if I’m rocking her or dad is bouncing her. Often times, she wakes as soon as we put her down. Or she will sleep for an hour and wake, and then we will struggle getting her back to sleep for another hour or two. By the time she is finally out by 10, she stays asleep until 4 or so, but the past couple of nights she’s been waking at 1, 5, 6. I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong! She is also teething … but this seems to be more than just about her teeth because it started mid Feb. 

    Also, she’s napping pretty well during the day but won’t let me put her down sleepy then either. She just pops back up wide-eyed. But she gets 3 1-hr naps during the day, waking from the last one usually around 5 p.m.

    Thanks in advance for your advice!!!

  • Amanda

    What are you supposed to do if you have no control over their naps? My 16 week old is in daycare and he has no schedule for napping and feeding at all and it drives me crazy. He typically takes two very short naps during the day when at daycare and is now waking up 3-4 times a night and very close together so I never know if I should feed him or just soothe him. I am terrified his night sleeping will never improve because of his lack of naps. What do I do?!

    • Claee

      When this happened to us we put her to bed as soon as we got her home from nursery, at 5pm. It sucked not spending time with her, but the result was that she rested properly and we had a much happier baby. It won’t last forever. 

  • Ashlee

    I feel like my 15 week old just won’t nap for me anymore and her nights have completely changed in the past week. She was sleeping great at night – going down around 8 and waking up once around 3 a.m. then up at 8 – and now she’s up every 2 or 3 hours again. I returned to work three weeks ago and I’m wondering if it’s just all of the changes going on. She barely takes a nap for me on the weekends but it seems that she’ll sleep the day away at daycare. It’s awful and I can’t stop the feelings of guilt from leaving her there – add that to the sleep deprivation and I’m barely holding it together. Glad I’m not the only one with these issues. Thankfully she’s such a happy baby even when she’s not sleeping well! 

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  • Chelsey S.

    My son just turned 4 months a few days ago. He has been a wide awake alert baby since he was born and ever since he turned 4 months a tiny bit into the last stage of 3 months he’s finally sleeping more. Ha my son is the complete opposite than the regression.

  • Siân kennett

    Baby not sleeping , cold hands waking him up ?
Hi there my LO one is 15 weeks , he hasn’t slept a full night for quite some time now , it’s very frustrating as I don’t know why !
    * I cannot seem to find the reason . He does however have some issues , such as reflux , on Gaviscon for this , which works sometimes . He isn’t sick in the night though , ever !
    * He also sleeps with a clevamumma pillow as he was having respiratory problems which this has aided , also , this must be helping his reflux , to be raised a little . He is in a sleep bag , with vest and Sleepsuit . Nice and warm , not too warm .
    * But , his hands are freezing of a night time !!
    * Could this be waking him up and disturbing him ?
    * Tried putting scratch mittens on , but doesn’t make a difference . Maybe they are not thick enough ?
    * Tried laying rolled up blankets next to him to make him feel more snug .
    * The only place he sleeps for a long time is in his car seat ! But I know full well he cannot sleep in this over night !
    * Am desperate for any suggestions anyone may have .
    * We have tried , window shut , window closed , door open , door closed , have tried noise from a mobile which plays white noise .
    * Have yet to try the radio on all night ….
    * Even tried co sleeping , this worked for half a night !
    * Tried putting the cot nearer to me as thought it may be a separation thing ???
    * he isn’t crying out , like he is in pain or hungry !
    * He whinges , then If I leave him for s while then starts crying …..
    * Can anyone shed any light ?
    * Sleep deprived mum ?






  • Brooke

    We are currently enduring this. While this is all good and makes sense. I have my son 4 out of the 7 days a week. He’s with grandma the three days when I work. When I get home I’m exhausted after a 12 hour work day. He isn’t sleeping long during the day. Today I’m having my grandma write out times when he sleeps. He takes a cat nap between 9 and 10 but wakes up again and goes to bed late which doesn’t work for me because I have to be up early on my work days but in general should be sleeping earlier to make it easier on everyone. Even if I try to put him to bed earlier he always wants to wake up and go to bed late. I need to break this habit. Please help. He’s extremely cranky throughout the day and most of his life thus far. He had mild colic and reflux which has gotten better but overall a cranky baby in general who gets bored easily and always wants us to walk him due to reflux. He’s gotten better but sleep is our issue now.

    • I am sorry to hear about your struggles. For a variety of reasons, our advice columnist does not respond to new questions asked in the comments section. If you would like to submit a specific question to our advice columnist for consideration, please email her directly at amyadvice[at]gmail[dot]com

      Thank you and best of luck.

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