Two words: Acceptance and Adaptation.
This post is not prescriptive. I can’t tell you what will work for any other baby than my own, and even with my own, I’m still learning as we go. Also, the solutions we found to survive the 4 month sleep regression aren’t permanent sleep solutions – eventually we will have new sleep challenges. But right now I’m just celebrating having made it through this one.
Some of the best advice I read in my scouring of the internet on sleep resources was that you should either read all of the books on sleep, or none of the books. This advice is pertinent because with the wrong sampling of books you could end up with a view on sleep that completely clashes with your experience or your intuition (or both), and that is not a place you want to be when you are sleep deprived, desperate, and vulnerable to feeling like you are doing everything wrong.
I read a few of the books, and until I landed on my last read, I was in that bad place of believing that I was doing everything wrong and that my baby was suffering because I hadn’t figured out how to get her to sleep. And then I read The Gentle Sleep Book by Sarah Okwell-Smith. This had been recommended to me by a fellow blogger and I wish I’d read it sooner. This book is what helped me to accept that my baby can be a terrible sleeper sometimes, and that is natural and OK. My baby is going through a lot developmentally, and that is fucking with her sleep. If any adult developed cognitively as fast as babies do at this stage, they’d have pretty terrible sleep too I think. Also, babies instinctively know they are safest when their caregiver is close by, so they crave comfort and nurturance and closeness, especially in the vulnerable state of sleep.
In accepting this idea, I also had to adapt to this new perspective. No more sleep training and trying to “fix” her sleep “problems”. Once I saw our experience as natural, I changed my goals from having her adapt to our sleep expectations to having us adapt to her needs by providing her with that comfort and nurturance. Adapting meant changing my perspective on going into her room many times a night and letting her bed share as needed – I’m not doing those things because I’m a failure as a parent, but because I’m doing a good job as a parent. This realization itself didn’t solve the regression for my baby, but it solved my anxiety about the regression and has therefore made waking up for her into a more natural, doable experience.
Now, I’m making this sound like I’m all zen about the lack of sleep. I’m certainly not always. I still have tears and I still have moments of being so tired that I can’t even pick her up to rock her if she’s too worked up to nurse. I just lay with her and cry with her – mommy feels your pain, little one. We’re feeling this together. But I became a lot more at peace with this whole sleep regression thing since reading The Gentle Sleep Book.
Now I’ll share some of the things that seemed to helped Avery move less painfully through the 4 month sleep regression. And again, nothing here can be prescriptive. This list is tailored to my baby, based on my instincts.
Bed share whenever possible.
It’s usually just too uncomfortable for me to bed share all night because I end up crammed between a wife, a baby, and two cats and my arm goes numb, my hips are screaming, and I’m shivering above the blankets for the baby’s safety. But she falls asleep a million times better in our bed. Maybe not a million, but I’d guess it’s actually about a 95% improvement of success rate compared to nursing her to sleep in a chair and transferring her to the crib. Since we started bed sharing the bedtime routine went from 3 hours of fighting (every time we put her down in the crib she wakes up crying) to 10 – 20 minutes of cozy, happy cuddles and no wake-ups. Sleeping through the night also became a reality – we went from waking every hour in the crib (with me having to get up and resettle her and battle with getting her to stay back down in the crib) to SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT. Even when she wakes up once or twice to nurse, I don’t have to get up. It’s an amazing feeling.
The downside is that my wife isn’t on board with this as more than a temporary solution for very desperate nights. But it worked to get us through the actual regression and now we can start working on getting her into her own room again, slowly, as she’s comfortable with it.
Avoid the trap of being overtired:
Get that baby to sleep one way or another!
I think the biggest reason why things were going so rough for us at first was because I was trying to abide by all those rules in the other sleep books I had read. Don’t let her nurse to sleep. Put her to bed drowsy but awake. She should be able to sleep through the night, so don’t feed her when she wakes in the night. In striving for some long-term sleep goal using these varied (and often contradictory) rules, I not only worked myself into a worry, guilt-ridden, tizzy, but I was keeping my baby from getting the sleep she needed. And being overtired is a vicious cycle, especially during a sleep regression. All I had to do to get her to sleep was to give her comfort – and she felt comfortable while nursing. When I tried withholding that, it got so difficult to get her to sleep that she got overtired. Her tiredness made it even harder for her to get to sleep, and she got to the point of rejecting the boob and just crying inconsolably. I also was lax on daytime naps because she was fighting them so hard. I thought, ‘fine, you must not be tired enough. Let’s wait until you’re tired enough to crash’. Through trial and error, I found that the more rested she was, the easier it was for her to fall asleep. It took a lot of work to correct for the overtired state I had inadvertently gotten her in. I had to give her all the “sleep crutches” I had to offer and sometimes spend over an hour trying to get her to go down for each nap of the day, and another 3 hours to go to sleep at night. For several days, weeks maybe, we spent as much time trying to get her to sleep as she actually spent sleeping. It felt like there was barely any time left for play or just being awake and happy. But finally, when I prioritized getting her the sleep she needed over worrying about long term sleep goals or bad habits I was instilling, it became drastically easier to get her to sleep with only one “sleep crutch”. For MY baby, I’ve found that an hour and a half of awake time between naps is about all she can take. This results in at least 3 naps in a day.
Use bedtime/naptime routines and sleep associations.
This is one of the things I found very helpful in The No-Cry Sleep Solution. Some babies are able to sleep anywhere anytime they need it. My baby (and perhaps my lifestyle) didn’t allow for that luxury. We tried going from watching TV and playing in the evening right up to bed where we turned out the light and expected her to be ready to nurse to sleep. In hindsight, of course she didn’t understand that it was a good or safe time to sleep. When I started introducing really clear and consistent routines, she caught on pretty quickly and the time it took her to settle drastically reduced.
Be consistent… but flexible.
One thing that really seemed to help Avery get the sleep she needed while she was going through the sleep regression was to be consistent. Now, we also had to be flexible with different tactics at first to figure out what worked for her, and with each sleep book I read I found some new contradictory advice to try out – like napping in the dark versus light (light works just fine for us, by the way). When we found something that worked, we were consistent. Our nap and bedtime routines are consistent. Our nap and bed TIMES are less consistent because that’s damn hard when she wakes at a different time every day, it takes a different length of time to get her down for naps every day, and we end up at a different natural bedtime for her at the end of the day. Consistent but flexible.
Sleep when the baby sleeps.
This old adage makes a reappearance from the newborn days. I’m lucky enough to be able to work part time and from home, so I can allow myself to fall asleep with the baby once or twice a day (although naps are when I get most of my work done also). I’ve also stopped feeling obligated to be awake with my wife in the evening. I do feel sad for our relationship still – it is getting no attention right now. But I let myself drift off at 8 o’clock even if the baby is asleep in the crib and we have some rare time to spend together just the two of us. When you’re dealing with this level of sleep deprivation, we’re talking in terms of survival, not about pushing ourselves to reclaim some of the niceties of life before baby. When you know that you could either get an hour or two of sleep before the baby wakes again, or and hour or two of watching TV / having sex / talking, I put sleep first.
Try to appreciate the experience / time with your baby.
I took the advice from this article and remained mindful during these late-night nursing sessions. Mindful of how she felt in my arms, mindful of how quiet it was, just her and I, and appreciated that I won’t always have this special one-on-one time with my little baby.
That’s the extent to what I’ve learned so far. We seem to have come out the other side of the 4 month sleep regression after 4 weeks. We’ve now had a few nights in a row of sleeping through the night (in bed with me). However, we have more sleep challenges coming up right around the corner that will surely require more learning, new solutions, and more tears. Hopefully, though, I’ll be able to apply some of what I’ve learned about acceptance and adaptation to survive much more of parenthood than sleep…