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Facing the Four-Month Sleep Regression Phase

02/13/2015 05:40 EST | Updated 04/15/2015 05:59 EDT

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As a mother of three, I know this scenario well: you're finally out the newborn stage, adjusting to your new normal (and maybe even fitting into your pre-pregnancy jeans). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, your sleepy, somewhat predictable little one turns into a fussy, four-month-old all-night party animal.

Welcome to the infamous four month sleep regression.

This sleep regression, which typically happens around four months of age, sounds dark and ominous -- and it certainly feels that way when you're an exhausted new parent! But in reality, the root of the problem is actually something positive. It means that your baby's brain is growing; this particular sleep regression (unlike others that come later in infancy) mean that his sleep cycles are changing, which is a good sign that his brain is doing what it should be. There's also a four month wakeful period due to the fact that babies are literally "waking up" to the world. Along with those first smiles and laughs comes the new challenge of a baby who wants to join the party -- even if she mistakenly believes that party is happening at 3 a.m.

Before you go banging your head against a wall wondering what to do about your baby's sleeping issues, take a deep breath. Every baby is an individual, but there is a certain sameness to these sleep regressions, and hopefully the following tips will help get your baby -- and you -- sleeping more soundly.

1. Understand what's happening. You know that saying, "when you know better, you do better"? When it comes to babies, it's more like "when you know better, you feel better." Knowing what's causing your child's behaviour can at least put your mind at ease, so you don't spend hours torturing yourself with Google. Parents often worry that their four-month-olds are sick, teething, or having some sort of tummy distress. Why else would they suddenly turn from sound sleeper to night (and day) owl? But the four month sleep regression is almost always caused by a baby's normal developmental milestones -- physical and mental growth spurts, increasing awareness of the world around them, and a change in their sleep needs. Normal doesn't mean easy, of course, and it sadly means there's no foolproof sleep regression solution. But at least you don't have to worry something more serious is going on.

2. Stick to a (sort-of) schedule. Helping your baby get on a loose "sleep schedule" is a great way to encourage healthy sleep habits. This doesn't mean you need to start nursing on a strict schedule or adhering to a rigid, hourly plan. What it does mean is establishing a basic outline for the day, and figuring out the best times to try and set her down for a nap. Around four months, babies drop the newborn behaviour of sleeping wherever, whenever, and start to need more formal nap times.

3. Establish a bedtime ritual which helps calm your baby down and help him understand that it's time to sleep. This can be as simple as bath, bottle/nursing, and a bedtime story in the evening.

4. Set the tone for sleep. Help your baby sleep by eliminating distractions. Try a sound machine or black-out shades (especially in the summer months when the longer days can make early bedtimes challenging); keep activities calm for a half-hour before you put her down.

5. Feed them, but don't engage them. Four-month-olds are doing a lot of growing, and it's normal (and healthy) for babies this age to need to eat during the night. The best case scenario is to get your baby used to eating and going right back to bed, or even feeding them while they are still sleeping -- what's known as a "dream feed." To do this, pick up your baby gently, and offer her the breast or bottle without waking her up, so that she begins to eat in a dream-like state. If she wakes up hungry before you can do this, try feeding her without offering much stimulation -- keep the lights off, don't talk (or if you do, talk or sing quietly), and try to keep movement to a minimum.

6. Be gentle on yourself. The four-month sleep regression is especially hard, as you've only just come out of the postpartum stage. Your body is probably still recovering, and your life has been turned upside down. It's okay to feel frustrated and sleep-deprived. If possible, prioritize self-care during this time: ask a friend to watch the baby for an hour so you can take a much-needed nap, or see if your partner can take a shift on a weekend night to be up with the baby, and give you a break. And remember, this too shall pass.

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