My daughter was a good sleeper from the start—she would sleep a 7-8 hour stretch, and then I only would be up with her 2 times a night for a five-ten minute feeding, and then back to sleep for both of us. Suddenly, at 4 months old, she was awake every 2 hours or less. No long stretch. Lots of required rocking.
Confounded and very tired after a few days of this, I headed to the internet for an explanation. I found out about the “Four Month Sleep Regression” and felt comforted that I wasn’t alone, based on the many forums where parents have this exact issue. But that comfort only got me through another day or two. I was looking for solutions. Real, actual things I could try to get over this strange form of torture.
As long as I had a plan—a new thing to try for a few days—I felt like I could survive it. And I do mean survive. Sleep is essential to functioning during the day, and you never realize that more than when you have suffered 21 nights of being woken up just as you fall into a deep sleep, over and over again. My thoughts felt like they were floating just above my brain, where they couldn’t be grasped and processed. I looked and sounded like an idiot. I wasn’t motivated to do anything except figure out how to fix this. I needed sleep.
So I made plans, I made changes, and here I am, a month later. I survived. I am not ready to declare victory yet. Every mom knows when you say your child has overcome something or gotten better at something, they immediately stop being able to do that very thing. But I have had seven nights of 6-8 hour stretches of sleep for myself.
So I wanted to share the things I tried that worked and didn’t work, in the hopes of helping other desperate parents who are currently searching the Internet for a solution to this awful problem. And it is awful, and you will make it through, and sleep is in your future. I know it. Try some of these things, if you need a plan to survive until then.
I decided to make changes every few days to give my baby a chance to adjust and to see if my solutions made any big difference. Some of the changes made all the difference, I believe, and some were worth trying if only to break some bad habits or to have a plan to keep me sane.
Here are the top four things that I believe made the difference:
Have your baby learn to self soothe. Prior to the regression, I was rocking my daughter to sleep, setting her down, and if she woke up and cried, I’d lather, rinse, and repeat. Once she approached four months old, this led to hours of rocking her in the evening to even get to the first stretch of sleep. I believe if your baby is fed, old enough (for me 3 months was too young and 4 was just right, especially after hours of rocking) and in a safe crib or space, the baby can cry him or herself to sleep. She cried in the car all the time, so I was used to hearing it. I did what I believe is called the Ferber method, going in to rock after 5, then 10, then 15 minutes, etc. to calm her down a little and then set her back down awake. This took 15 minutes total of crying the first time, and it saved me hours of rocking in the evening. Since then, we’ve had a few bad nights where the crying lasted a half hour or so, but for the most part if she cries it is only for 5 minutes. This step is essential, since your baby is starting to sleep cycle like an adult at four months old. So she is waking up in her lighter sleep phases and requesting you at night because she doesn’t know how to fall asleep without you. At the beginning of the night, when you know she is fed and safe, crying to sleep is okay.
Set up a good nap environment. By this age, your baby isn’t as capable of sleeping just anywhere—she needs an environment set up for uninterrupted sleep. No more stroller walks, no more car rides to run errands, and no more bassinets or rock and plays in the middle of the living room with your older kids running around. Put that baby down in the same place she sleeps at night, if possible. Have her fall asleep on her own after doing a nap time routine (mine is just putting her in a sleep sack, turning on a fan, and rocking her for a minute to indicate to her that it’s nap time). If she wakes up after 30-40 minutes, go see if you can rock her to sleep and set her back down. This is counter to my self-soothe plan for the first sleep, but at this point, since she’s had some sleep, it’s harder to go back to sleep. After a month of self-soothing at the beginning of naps and at night, I stopped going up to do this at the 40 minute mark—now, if she wakes up after such a short sleep, I let her cry for 10 minutes and she usually goes back to sleep.
Get your baby on a nap schedule. At four months old, your baby will be ready for a nap at 9 or 10 in the morning (or within 2 hours of waking up in the morning). Then, the baby will be ready for another nap in the afternoon (or within 2 hours of waking up from the first nap). Depending on how long your baby’s morning and early afternoon nap are, you may need to squeeze in a third nap in order to make it to bedtime. Contrary to logic, sleep begets sleep. So the more your baby sleeps during the day, the better she will sleep at night. My favorite quote from Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child is “It’s not logical—it’s biological.” So work on daytime sleep, and night sleep will improve. Your goal could be a morning nap and afternoon nap of 1-2 hours by 5 months old. (That was my goal.) Then put your baby to bed earlier—we moved my daughter’s bedtime from 8 to 7 pm, which helped us eliminate the third nap.
Switch to a bottle at night or send Daddy in. This was the single most effective move I made. After implementing the above three changes, I was getting a few 3 hour stretches out of my daughter, but this wasn’t good enough, considering she had been doing 8 hours prior to the regression. I was waking up when she cried, feeding her for 5-10 minutes (a half feeding for us), and setting her back down. I decided that maybe a bottle wouldn’t be as comforting for her, and so it would be less worth the trouble of waking up. The first few nights of the bottle, she woke up twice at 1 and 5, eating a full bottle at 1 and a half of a bottle at 5. (Then I pumped to keep up the supply.) The next few nights she started waking up at 5 or 6 only—so sleeping a 10 or 11 hour stretch. (Some nights, she does occasionally wake up and cry, but after only 5 minutes she usually puts herself back to sleep.) If you are doing formula, so you are doing bottles anyway, try sending dad in rather than mom. He might not be worth waking up to either! (I have read that this can solve the problem—I am not dad-bashing!)
Here are some other things that you might as well try:
Wait 5-10 minutes before going to your baby during the night. I decided to give my baby some time to see if she really needed me or was just crying because she was tired. Once she had cried it out to fall asleep at night, occasionally she would fall back asleep after only 5 minutes of crying in the middle of the night also. If I had immediately gone to her, I would have stolen her practice at falling asleep on her own. So in the middle of the night, look at the clock, mark the 10 minute point when you will go to her, and wait. Sometimes, you will both be able to drift back off to sleep without getting up.
Unswaddle. Ahhhh, the swaddle. Your baby liked it at first (and maybe still likes it), because it reminded her of being all wrapped and smooshed in your belly. Even if your baby may still enjoy it, it isn’t helping her sleep longer, so you may as well wean her from it now to prevent sleep problems once you get this regression worked out. Try wrapping her with one arm out for a few days, then wrapping with both arms out, and then getting rid of it all together.
Move your baby further away. If you can, move her to her own room. She may smell you, or be disturbed by your movement and noise. If a room isn’t available, move her to a hallway, the office, the closet—I don’t care if you move her to the bathroom! Or just move her as far across the room as you can.
Give your baby more space. If your baby is still in a bassinet, move her into the crib. This will give her room to stretch out, and it follows the same theory as the swaddle reasoning—it isn’t helping, so you may as well make the transition now. We are unfortunate to live in a house with only 2 bedrooms, and with an older son, our baby is staying in our room as long as she isn’t sleeping. So we moved her from a bassinet near the bed to a pack and play on the other side of the room to get her further away from us and to give her space to stretch.
Get rid of the pacifier. Your baby may be waking up looking for this comfort item. So while it may be a great way to get her to sleep, it is interrupting her sleep once she gets there. Plus, I have heard nightmare stories of mothers who have to wake up 5 times a night and flail in the dark in the crib searching for the lost pacifiers to pop one in the baby’s mouth. If your baby learns to self-soothe without this crutch, you will be better off in a few weeks.
Give your baby a Fisher Price Seahorse. This little guy is cute, lights up like a nightlight when it’s on, and plays soothing white noise like music for around 10 minutes before fading off. I recommend you turn this on when giving your baby the last feeding of the night and during night time bottles so your baby associates it with comfort. Then, turn it on one time only as you set your baby in the crib. Your baby may cry through the song, or it may be just distracting enough that she drifts quietly off to sleep. (I wouldn’t go press it again for her, because you don’t want it to be too much of a crutch or another reason for you to get out of bed at night.)
Move the baby’s bedtime earlier. I mentioned this already, but it is worth its own point. You might be keeping your baby up late to see if she gets tired and sleeps longer. This is probably a bad idea—the more tired she is, the harder it is for her to fall asleep. (You probably have noticed this phenomenon in yourself lately. You are so tired, but when you get the chance to lay down you are wired.) Remember, sleep begets sleep. I’ve heard that falling asleep is like surfing. Catch the wave at the right moment, and you slide right in. Catch it too late, and the wave comes crashing down on you. An earlier bedtime might help your baby ride the sleep wave into a sea of overnight sleep.
Try baby cereal. Just in case it makes you feel better about your baby’s potential hunger, tank her up before bed with some baby cereal mixed with breast milk. Only feed your baby as much as they seem interested in—if she wants more, give more. If she doesn’t want a bite, don’t force it.
Give a bottle of water or diluted milk rather than milk. This is how I weaned my now-two-year-old son from night feedings when he was waking up a few times still at 6 months old. The first night, provide a bottle of diluted milk. Each night dilute it more until you are just giving water. [Check with a pediatrician on whether you can offer water only to your baby. See comments below for an explanation.] Water isn’t worth waking up for, so the baby may just decide to sleep instead.
If nothing works, have hope. Most people say the four month sleep regression lasts 2-4 weeks. Perhaps your baby just needs time. My baby’s problems may have worked themselves on their own, regardless of me trying the above. But for my own sanity, having a plan gave me hope that the problem could be solved. I hope some of these ideas give you a plan or an idea that works for your own survival! If you have any ideas to add below that worked for you, feel free to leave a comment.
Good luck! And remember, you are not alone. In a few years, if we should meet, we may not exchange old war stories (as it will be too painful to scrape at these old wounds), but we will acknowledge that we both survived the four month sleep regression, and we will smile at each other, and we will know in our hearts that we are connected because of this sleepless bond.
May the sleep be with you.