You probably find yourself in one of two camps right now, and neither is right nor wrong:
Camp A - You’ve been working hard to establish sleep foundations with your little one and suddenly, all your hard work seems to have vanished overnight. Your baby is between 3.5-5 months old, they’ve started rolling, you’ve removed the swaddle, and they’re continuing to wake up every few hours at night even though they used to get some longer stretches in. Heck, they’ve maybe even slept through the night before! Why can’t we go back to that?!
Camp B - Following your baby’s lead, you’ve been going with the flow these first few months. Your baby wakes pretty frequently at night. You feed them. Snuggle them back to sleep. Only for them to wake up another 45 minutes later. It’s exhausting. They’ve been around about 4 months now…shouldn’t they be getting the hang of this sleep thing by now?? You’re exhausted.
So, which one is it??
I’m here to normalize both of these experiences around this time.
There is A LOT going on around 4 months old that will cause a major sleep regression, including the only true physiological development with your child’s sleep - the reorganization of their sleep cycles. That, coupled with rolling and the 4-3 nap transition, make this a rocky time when it comes to sleep.
Sleep Development - The Reorganization of Sleep Around 4 Months Old; aka The 4-Month Sleep Regression
When your baby was born, they only had two stages of sleep that they cycled through - active sleep (REM) and quiet sleep (Non-REM, or NREM). As adults, we actually have four stages of sleep per cycle - REM, NREM Stage 1, Stage 2, and Stage 3).
Around 4 months, usually between 3.5-5 months, your baby will go through a physiological shift from two to four sleep stages. After this cognitive development, your baby now has the exact same organization to their sleep that you do! Unfortunately, this also means that there are more opportunities for wakings as your baby rises and falls between sleep cycles.
If your baby doesn’t yet have the skills to fall asleep (or fall back to sleep) on their own between these sleep cycles, guess what is likely going to happen?? They’re going to signal for you to help them! Whatever was happening as they were initially falling asleep is what they’re looking for now, since they don’t yet know how to do it on their own.
Rolling and Removing the Swaddle
If you haven’t yet, it’s now also time to remove the swaddle, because if your baby hasn’t started rolling yet, it’s coming! And we want to keep them safe.
A rolling baby and a swaddle is not a safe combination.
If your baby is not yet rolling, you can do a slower transition. If they are rolling or showing signs that it could happen, you’ll want to remove the swaddle cold turkey. Read more about removing the swaddle here.
Your child’s pediatrician and these sleep consultants have probably drilled into you that you should always lay your baby down on their back for sleep. Inevitably, your baby is going to roll onto their belly in their crib. And they might be mad about it.
Like, they might be pissed.
What should you do? Should you go back in and turn them? Do you need to start all over?
Here’s my advice: From a developmental perspective, your baby is strong enough to roll onto their stomach all on their own. They’re probably strong enough to roll from belly to back too. Give them lots of practice rolling both ways during the day so they don’t feel the need to do it at night. Once you’re confident they can roll both ways, there is no need to go in and “help” them. They’ll figure it out, and in the process, they may even find they prefer to sleep on their belly! And how wonderful that would be for both of you! If your baby assumes this position all on their own and you’re confident they can get out of it if they want to, it’s perfectly fine to leave them.
The 4-3 Nap Transition
If they haven’t already, now is a really common time to drop from 4 to 3 naps. Trying to squeeze that fourth nap in is just awkward. Bedtime gets late, and let’s be honest…you just want to go to sleep at night!
If you haven’t yet, you can stretch your baby’s wake windows. Start with 2/2.25/2.25/2.5 and see if that makes a difference for your baby. This is just a starting point. You may find that your baby needs 2/2.25/2.5/2.5 or something similar. Try one for 3-4 days and really give it time to solidify before deciding it doesn’t work. Then, tweak one window at a time and give it 3-4 more days.
And, just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it’ll probably change again. Welcome to motherhood! ;)
Okay, so now that we know everything that can wreak havoc on your little one’s sleep around this time, what can you do to get through it?
Tips for Getting Through the 4-Month Sleep Regression
Identify how your baby is falling asleep at night. This is their main sleep association or sleep prop. If it’s not sustainable for you, it’s time to introduce other sleep associations that are sustainable or consider responding with a sleep training method so your child can come up with their own sleep association.
Use a sleep sack as a cueing system that it’s now time to sleep.
Make sure it’s boring and dark. Limit distractions in their sleep space, make sure it’s blackout dark, and use white noise.
If you’re not already, make sure you’re using bedtime and nap time routines as a transition from playtime into sleep.
If your baby has a poor nap day, consider bringing bedtime a bit earlier to make up some of that sleep!
Prioritize the Eat-Play-Sleep routine and make sure your baby is getting enough calories in during the day.
Practice rolling during the day to help your baby master this new skill. Also, try to comfort them when they get into this position. They won’t learn to get out of it on their own if you’re always there doing it for them.
Reach out for support if you need it.
You’ve got this, mama!