Does the Four Month Sleep Regression Really Exist?
Updated: Jun 25
But the four-month regression, everybody agrees on. and for good reason, is the real deal, and it’s permanent.
Myth or Fact?
As a professional sleep consultant, I hear the term “regression” used in regards to just about every imaginable circumstance. Essentially, if baby doesn’t sleep well for a couple of nights, parents start dropping the ‘R’ word. Some people subscribe to the idea that there’s an eight month regression, a 9 month regression, a 1 year regression, as well as teething regressions, growth spurt regressions, and so on. Others see these as simple hiccups caused by extenuating circumstances.
Want to save yourself from hitting reoccurring sleep regression roadblocks every few months? There's a big misconception to wait till you've hit rock bottom to hire a sleep consultant. When you wait till desperation to seek guidance you are selling yourself short from the preventative resources that could improve sleep so you can avoid massive amounts of sleep debt.
The Science Behind 4-Month Sleep
Newborn babies only have two stages of sleep; quiet and active sleep REM (rapid eye movement), and they spend about half their sleep in each stage. But at around the third or fourth month, there is a reorganization of sleep, as they embrace the 4-stage method of sleep that they’ll continue to follow for the rest of their lives. Read this to learn about each of the stages of sleep.
When this change takes place, baby moves from 50% REM sleep to 25% in order to make room for light stage 1 & 2 sleep. So although REM sleep is light, it’s not as light as these two new stages that they’re getting used to, and with more time spent in lighter sleep, there’s more of a chance that baby’s going to wake up.
That’s not to say that we want to prevent or avoid baby waking up. Waking up is absolutely natural, and we continue to wake up three, four, five times a night into adulthood and even more in old age.
As adults, however, we’re able to identify certain comforting truths that baby might not be privy to. When we wake in the night, we’re able to recognize that, “Hey, I’m here in my bed, it’s still nighttime, my alarm isn’t going to go off for another three hours, and I’m reasonably certain that there are no monsters lurking under my bed. I can go back to sleep”
And we do. Usually so quickly that, the next morning, we don’t even remember the brief encounter with consciousness.
Nightwakings During 4 Month Regression
A four month old baby, of course, lacks these critical thinking skills. To a four month old baby who fell asleep at her mother’s breast, the reasoning could go much more to the tune of, “OK, last thing I remember, there was a familiar, beloved face, I was having dinner, and someone was singing me a soothing song about the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Now I’m alone in this dark room, there’s no food, and there’s probably at least three, possibly four, scary monsters in the immediate vicinity.”
That’s probably an exaggeration, but who knows what goes on in the mind of a four month-old baby?
Anyways, now that baby’s suddenly realized that Mama's not around, and they’re not entirely sure where they’ve gone, the natural response is to do a little freaking out. That stimulates the fight-or-flight response and, next thing you know, baby’s not going back to sleep without a significant amount of reassurance that everything is OK.
The other major contributor to this 4 month fiasco, I find, is that up until this point, parents have either been putting their baby to sleep with a pacifier, or by rocking them, or by breastfeeding them, or some similar technique where baby is helped along on the road to falling asleep.
Now that baby’s spending more time in light sleep, and therefore has a higher probability of waking up, this suddenly becomes a much bigger issue. These sleep props or sleep associations can be very sneaky indeed, because although they may be helpful in getting your little one to that initial nodding off stage, the lack of them when they wake up means that baby’s not able to get back to sleep again without some outside help. When this starts happening every half an hour, parents can find themselves in a nightmarish situation. Read this article for more on sleep props.
So, the good news for anyone experiencing the dreaded 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." Learn how to Troubleshoot the 4 Month Regression.
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