One of the most aggravating situations I see parents running into when they’re sleep training is the sudden onset of a minor illness when they’re finally seeing some progress.
After months of sleep issues, they finally decide to take the initiative and get serious about getting their baby onto a schedule and sleeping well through the night. Baby starts getting the hang of it, and the whole family is sleeping better and everyone’s getting ready to break out the champagne...
And then BAM! Baby gets a cold, or an ear infection, or a bout of diarrhoea.
And given how often babies get sick, it’s hardly a surprise. I’m always telling my clients to plan on starting the program when they have a couple of weeks that they can really devote to the training, but you can’t schedule around an illness. So when it happens, it can really take the wind out of everyone’s sails.
So today, I have a few suggestions for you in case this happens. Hopefully they can help you push through this trying situation and get you motivated to get back on track.
First off, resist the temptation to bring baby into your bed. If you’re really concerned and want to be in the same room as them through the night, I suggest you bring a mattress or camping pad and sleep on the floor. Keeping them in their own room with familiar sleeping conditions will be much less disruptive than moving them into your room, and you don’t run the risk of them getting used to sleeping in your bed.
Second, do NOT give in to the temptation to start offering any sleep props that you might have recently taken away. I know it’s tough, because obviously you want to offer them any kind of comfort you can while they’re feeling miserable, but you really don’t want to reintroduce those things they were dependant on prior to starting sleep training. It can be really confusing and is often even more difficult to break the association the second time around.
Now, let me just point out that I’m not saying that you can’t offer more night time comfort to your baby while they’re sick. On the contrary, I completely recommend it. You should absolutely feel free to go in and check on them more often, take care of any needs they might have, and even give them a little cuddle or a rocking session in order to comfort them.
Just be vigilant and be sure to put them back into bed before they fall back to sleep. Otherwise you run the risk of them developing those associations where falling asleep requires a rocking session or a cuddle, and then you’re back to square one.
You may notice a slight regression when the illness has passed, but not to worry. Your baby has learned some great sleep skills at this point and will probably only need a slight reminder of how things go before they’ll be back into their routine and sleeping soundly through the night again. Just get back to the program, reintroduce the old bedtime routine, and you’ll be seeing those same wonderful results in no time.
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.
But the four-month regression, everybody agrees on, and for good reason. It’s the real deal, and it’s permanent.
So in order to understand what’s happening to your baby during this stage, first you need to know a few things about sleep in general. So here’s the science-y part, told in plain English.
Many of us just think of sleep as an on-or-off situation. You’re either asleep or you’re not. But sleep actually has a number of different stages, and they make up the “sleep cycle,” which we go through several times a night.
Stage 1 is that initial stage we’re all familiar with where you can just feel yourself drifting off, but don’t really feel like you’ve fallen asleep. Anyone who has ever seen their partner nodding off in front of the TV, told them to go to bed, and gotten the canned response of, “I wasn’t sleeping!” knows exactly what this looks like.
Stage 2, which is considered the first “true sleep” stage. This is where people tend to realize, once woken up, that they actually were sleeping. For anyone taking a “power nap,” this is as deep as you want to go, or else you’re going to wake up groggy.
Stage 3 is deep and regenerative. Also known as “slow wave” sleep, this is where the body starts repairing and rejuvenating the immune system, muscles tissue, energy stores, and sparks growth and development.
Stage 4 is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is where the brain starts to kick in and consolidates information and memories from the day before. It’s also the stage where we do most of our dreaming.
Once we’ve gone through all of the stages, we either wake up or come close to waking up, and then start over again until the alarm goes off.
So what does this have to do with the dreaded regression we were talking about originally?
Well, newborn babies only have 2 stages of sleep; stage 3 and REM, 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.
When this change takes place, baby moves from 50% REM sleep to 25% in order to make room for those first two stages. So although REM sleep is light, it’s not as light as these 2 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. 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.
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, or being rocked in Mum or Dad’s arms, when he wakes, he would suddenly realize 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. Cue the fight-or-flight, the crying, and the adrenaline. When this starts happening every half an hour, parents can find themselves in a nightmarish situation.
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”.
Now, there are going to be regressions, actual regressions, later on in your little one’s youth. Traveling, illness, cutting teeth, all of these things can cause your little one to have a few bad nights in a row. But when it comes to the four month “progression,” I’m happy to report that this is a one-time thing. Once you’re through this, your baby will have officially moved into the sleep cycle that they’ll essentially be following for the rest of their life. Four glorious stages repeated multiple times a night.
Taking this opportunity to teach them the skills they need to string those sleep cycles together, independently, prop-free, without any need for nursing, rocking, or pacifiers, you’ll have given them a gift that they’ll enjoy for the rest of their young lives. Of course, some kids are going to take to this process like a fish to water, and some are going to be a little more resistant. If yours falls into the former category, count yourself as lucky, take delight in your success!
For those of you in the latter camp, I’m happy to help in any way I can. Just visit my website or give me a call and we can work on a more personalized program for your little one. The most common thing I hear after working with clients is, “I can’t believe I waited so long to get some help!” So if you’re considering hiring a consultant, now is absolutely the time. I offer a free 15 minute evaluation so I can get to know the specifics about your little one’s situation, so book a call now and we can move forward as soon as you’re ready to get your little one sleeping through the night!
One of the biggest obstacles my clients face is what to do when they send their little ones to daycare.
Whether they’ve already gotten their baby on a carefully planned nap schedule or they’re planning on starting one, a problem obviously arises if their daycare provider doesn’t follow that same schedule.
In the latter scenario, parents have a little bit more leeway, and I always suggest that they look around and try their best to find a daycare that follows at least a similar schedule as the one the parents are comfortable with.
After all, sleep is such a crucial element of your little one’s development, and their day to day life, that it should be a primary concern when you’re choosing where they’ll be spending their day, so I’m a huge advocate of shopping around until you find one that’s on the same page as you, nap-wise.
Unfortunately, there are a finite number of daycare providers in any given area, so that might not be an option. Or maybe your little one has already started going to daycare and they only put the kids down for one nap a day.
In this instance, the most important thing to do is communicate what you’re okay with. Let them know that you’ve been working on a naptime schedule and ask if they can accommodate the times you’ve been working with. If they agree, great! Many daycares are happy to have a baby that sleeps a lot, and are always happy to have one that goes to sleep easily. Champion sleepers are welcome everywhere they go!
It’s also important that you let them know if you’re alright with a little bit of crying while baby falls asleep, because if you don’t tell them otherwise, they’ll almost always soothe baby to sleep in one way or another as soon as they start to make some noise.
Some daycares, however, have a policy regarding crying, and will pick baby up and soothe them as soon as they start crying regardless of your instructions. This can be frustrating if you know your little one will fall asleep after 45 seconds of fussing, but if it’s the policy of the daycare, there’s not much you or the staff can do about it, so it’s best to just focus on how to minimize the effect they have on the program.
So let the daycare providers know what you would prefer as far as “sleep props” go, and what you would prefer they avoid. If you’ve just broken a serious soother habit, tell them about it and ask that they avoid offering pacifiers. If baby’s got a strong association between rocking and falling asleep, ask that they soothe baby without picking her up. Again, most daycare providers are happy to make some arrangements with parents if it means a happy, sleeping baby and a happy, satisfied parent.
The good news is that babies are quite often able to distinguish, somewhat, between what happens at daycare and what happens at home, as far as sleep routines are concerned. They have an easier time realizing that, even though they might have gotten rocked to sleep in the one environment, it doesn't necessarily mean they’ll be getting the same treatment at home, so bear that in mind when you’re deciding how much diversion from the plan you’re willing to accept.
The other silver lining is that nap time sleep isn’t quite as deep and “high-quality” as nighttime sleep. The night is when baby really gets the good hours of rejuvenation and restorative effects of a solid snooze, so even though they might be missing out on some nap time, it’s not as bad as if they weren’t getting those hours at night.
I’m not usually big on making exceptions to the rules, as routine is such an important part of a baby’s sleep, but sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and accept the reality of the situation. Work with your daycare, communicate your wishes and explain why it’s important, and whatever they can’t accommodate, well... you might as well accept it and move on.