It is around 3 to 4 months that many people start to experience sleeping problems with their baby. It’s actually quite common that, even if your baby was sleeping well overnight (maybe waking only a couple of times to feed), for things to then go pear shaped. You can then find yourself in the soul-destroying position of feeding even more frequently that when they were a newborn!
So What Changed?
At this point your baby’s brain starts to mature and it begins to organize sleep differently. During this transition your baby will start sleeping in cycles that consist of 5 different types of sleep – we begin with light sleep and then progress into deep sleep and then into Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep which is when we dream. At the end of each sleep cycle we have a natural awakening where we just check in and make sure everything is still ok.
This is normal and we usually aren’t even aware that we are doing it. Most often you will just slightly change position or roll over and then seamlessly go into the next sleep cycle. What can happen with your baby is that as they are transitioning into the next sleep cycle, they are can wake themselves up fully and then call out for help to put them back to sleep.
Why Sleep Associations Are So Important
This is where sleep associations come in. The way that your baby falls asleep can impact on how long they then sleep. Think of it this way – if the last thing your baby remembers doing before falling asleep, was being held in your arms and suckling on the breast, when she comes into this light, almost waking, stage of sleep and now finds herself alone in her cot instead, it is likely that baby is going to let you know about it!
Sleep associations are a habitual part of falling asleep. Even as adults we have things that we associate with the activity of going to sleep. For you it might be a reading in bed, or a favourite pillow, or even your partner’s gentle (?!) snore.
The problem with your baby’s associations can arise from their need for you to help them go to sleep (feeding, rocking, cooing, suckling or driving etc.) and them then requiring the same conditions replicated when they wake between sleep cycles, both during the day and, at worse, throughout the night.
Learning Different Ways to Go To Sleep
If your baby does need your help to go to sleep, you might be worried now reading this that you will have to keep doing it this way as it’s the only way your baby gets any decent sleep. This is definitely not the case! When these things stop working, you just need to explore alternative ways to get your baby the sleep they need.
This is a good time to start practicing putting her to bed when she is drowsy but still awake to give her the chance to learn how to settle herself. Despite what you may have heard there are in fact many different strategies for helping babies learn the skills to sleep independently. Some are more gradual and you are in the room with your baby the entire time and if your baby’s temperament needs a bit more space there are other strategies where you are still supporting them while they learn but you are letting her do a bit more of the work herself.
Here are my top tips to help with sleep at this age:
• If your baby has started waking more frequently overnight, try and determine whether they are really hungry or just needing your help to go back to sleep
• Start practicing putting your baby down in their cot drowsy but awake to give her a chance to practice settling herself
• Have a consistent bedtime routine to cue your baby that they will soon be going to sleep
Many thanks to Dr. Kate Johnson for this sleep advice. Kate has a Ph.D. in Sleep Psychophysiology from the University of Melbourne and has worked in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and their 4 small children and now runs Babysomnia where she takes a mother- and family -centric approach to getting better sleep.