Let’s recap: 4 – 5.5 months pretty much sucks… for most of us

I'll start with a confession. When my boys were 4 months, I hit my wall. I was so sleep deprived; I often got 2-4 hours of sleep / night for weeks. On a good night when my husband took several night feedings, I would get 5 hours of sleep (I know, this seems like HEAVEN for some of you right now, but I'm a sleep wuss so I couldn't cope well even with that "much" sleep). I NEEDED my brain back. So the first time we tried sleep training, the boys were 4 months. The short story is that it was a miserable failure… I was a miserable failure. There was no pattern to how often they'd wake up and how long they'd cry.  Although we'd TRY to be consistent and implement a sleep-training plan (not CIO, but still some crying was happening all the time) there always seemed to be some major issue that one or the other of the boys was going through: one started teething as early as 4 months, one would be hungry constantly and needed to  "cluster feed," the swaddle seemed too confining, the swaddle seemed too loose, one had flipped on his stomach, the other didn't burp before being put down, and so on. In sum, it sucked. And there seemed too many variables at work, too many possible and impossible baby reasons for them to legitimately need a better, less wimpy, more kick-ass, responsive, sensitive mom. So, after about a week of banging our heads against the wall with some pretty basic sleep-training methods, I gave up. And then I proceeded to lose my mind for the next 2 months. The only thing that got me through it was knowing that it was TEMPORARY. I knew I had a plan and I would put it in place… at 6 months.

Mine is not a unique or even particularly interesting story. It is SO common. So what's the deal with this age? Four months is the beginning of a major stage transition in cognitive development. Babies at this age are now beginning to coordinate simple actions, like reaching and grasping, into routines that have a deliberate impact on the world. Now your baby can actually reach what he’s aiming for, put it in his mouth, and explore it. That means that objects are accessible, reachable, touchable, and YUM, suckable. But more than that, babies at this age are beginning to develop expectations. They start being able to PREDICT what's going to happen in the world. When they reach, they expect what they reach for to be there. Having this prediction confirmed time after time gives them a sense that their actions are causing a particular effect. Piaget termed this level of cause-effect thinking “magico-phenomenalistic causality” (ah, yes, we psychologist are so hip with our terms…), which just means that the baby has a kind of magical expectation that his actions will produce desirable effects. With respect to people, these growing expectations are the key to gratifying exchanges of smiles and gestures; it's that incredibly social "aha" time when the baby realizes when I coo to mummy, she'll laugh, when I laugh, she'll laugh back! Babies will now make a noise in order to elicit a smile from the parent. A time when attention to other people is not just a static state of awestruck delight (like at 3 months and before), but a state of turn-taking, when every noise, every gesture, is offered in order to get a response from the other person. That response means everything. And so, in the middle of the night, perhaps during dreams, certainly when babies wake up throughout the night or during the "middle" of their nap, this is what they're most concerned with: re-engaging that power to socially connect, experiment with, and play with the most important people in their worlds.

When we try to sleep train at this age, we need, at some point (like, at 4 in the morning!), to cut off this quest for a reaction. And babies are not usually happy about this. If they coo, they want you to goo-goo back. ALL. THE. TIME. If they cry, they want you to run and soothe them. EVERY. TIME. They're playing with these cause and effect relationships and they want to feel like they've mastered this little world that continues to grow for them.

In short, the four month stage transition is as magnificent as it is crazy-making. I think one of the hardest parts of this time is that most parents have reached the end of their sleep-deprivation ropes. It's around this time that many of us lose all that adrenaline we've been running on and the realization of how difficult it all is, and how long it could go on for, hits hard. Maybe for some of us, an equally bad part of this stage is that we've lost much of the social support we had when our babies were newborns and our kind mothers, friends and neighbours brought us freezable dinners and words of sympathy that made us feel a little less alone. Also, many parents have to return to work around this time in their baby's life and oftentimes this seems like an impossible transition to make.

How are you coping with the 4-month stage? What's the hardest part for your family? If you've already been through this period, what do you remember about this time in your family's life and please tell us all how you managed to muddle through it…

8 thoughts on “Let’s recap: 4 – 5.5 months pretty much sucks… for most of us

  1. I started a comment on your previous post but didn’t submit it. I didn’t think the readers going through the newborn stage should hear my tale of horror and woe and breastfeeding errors and overproduction and foremilk/hindmilk imbalance and possible dairy sensitivity and colic and crankiness and lack of sleep and overwhelm and marital strife. And it was coming across as a little overly self-pitying.
    By four months, things were so much better. She slept. Maybe not all night, but over the course of the day we all got enough sleep (and I was back at work!). We knew what we were doing. Breastfeeding was well-established and I was doing it right. My supply had balanced out.
    So, four months is not terrible for everyone. It can be a great relief for some of us who struggled with the earlier stages.
    I don’t know about sleep training then though. My daughter is 27 months and we still haven’t sleep trained her. We’re thinking we should soon… the cosleeping and middle-of-the-night tantrums are starting to get annoying again.

  2. @Dr Confused- I also had trouble with early breastfeeding, particularly with my first child. I remember things getting much, much better at about 3 months. With my second, the mechanics worked better, and that is when I figured out that my fast letdown was part of our sleep problem. Petunia was so gassy because she was literally gulping to keep up. Nursing “uphill” and block nursing helped with that a bit. Looking back, it was probably also part of my problem with Pumpkin… but I was too overwhelmed to notice. Also, Pumpkin definitely had trouble with dairy in my diet. With Petunia, I just cut the dairy out as soon as she was born. I’m just adding it back in (she is almost 6 months old), and it seems fine.
    Petunia’s sleep did go “backwards” in this time period, but she also has been amenable to some very gentle corrections. She started sleeping through the night (on her own! I didn’t do anything to make it happen) a little before 3 months old, but added two night nursings when I went back to work when she was 3 months old. I soldiered through for a couple of months, but then we decided to try to decrease the nightfeedings. We’ve managed to get her to drop her first feeding using the standard “slowly decrease the amount of milk in the bottle” method. And last night, she dropped the other feeding, too. I had sort of suspected this might be the case- it seemed to me that once I fed her in the night, she went onto a schedule where she wanted to eat every 3 hours.
    I was planning to try to do some actual sleep training at 6 months. Now I’ve got my fingers crossed that maybe I won’t need to.

  3. Oh Dr. Confused….I too had nursing issues. I think it was at 3 months when my husband said, “Let’s make this a positive experience for everyone” that I let go and exclusively pumped. DS started sleeping through the night which only lasted until 5 months and then teething and teething and teething and gas and teething and gas and gas. Slept trained (past tense?) at 7 months and lasted until 18 months. then slept trained again at 24 months and ahhhh, he slept 10 hours last night :) Although he usually still gets up once a night, it is very easy to put him down again, lasting only a few seconds or so. We did super nanny method at 24 months in a bed.

  4. @Shelby
    Sleep training worked for us until around that time too (from 6 to 20 months). Is that a trend Isabella? Does sleep training actually wear off? Zoe was in her own bed at 23 months so was not ‘caged in’ physically, which had always helped with reminder sessions in the past.
    At 4 months, both my kids started to get highly distracted when nursing. That wasn’t such an issue with no. 1, who didn’t really need the extra 5/10 minutes as he was growing well, but no. 2 was a wee slip of a lass and could have done with a few mls (litres!) in her. At the same time she started waking up at night to feed ( something she hadn’t done since she was 6 weeks old) and I was convinced it was due to the interruptions at meal times. I went to great lengths to get as much milk into her as humanly possible. But who was I kidding. The kid was most definitely NOT waking becasue she was not getting enough into her during the day.

  5. Well, I don’t have any words of advice for how to get through the 4-5.5 month, because I felt like it was going to kill us (though of course it didn’t). The only advice possible is do whatever you need to do to keep your sanity intact and know that it WILL GET BETTER. My son had a relatively good first three months – he woke up to feed regularly, but generally didn’t cry in the night (he was in a co-sleeper, so I’d get to him before crying). But just before 4 months he had a terrible attack of eczema and this coincided with a complete degeneration of his sleep. No good sleep at night, no naps during the day. It was horrible, until he started being napped in the stroller, and then we got some peace. But at the same time his month from 5-6 months was so wonderful – he was smiling and laughing, learning how to sit up and then learning how to crawl. So it brought great joy as well as great frustration. From 4 months to 5 months was probably the worst. But overall his sleep didn’t truly even out and improve until he was 7 1/2 months and we did some sleep training and he started sleeping through the night – THEN he also started napping regularly and well, and was so much happier!

  6. I don’t have memories of the 4.5/5 month period. Probably because I’ve repressed them. But I was really anal and kept a sleep chart for the baby and I think 4.5 months was when naps deteriorated (as if they weren’t already bad enough). I think I camped out on the futon in the nursery (which used to be the guestroom) during that period at night. I remember Boo started sleeping slightly longer stretches at around 2 months (i.e., 5 hours max at night) but we were still generally hovering at the 3/4 hour mark between night wakings.
    I’ve wondered whether the time of year when the baby is born also makes a difference. Boo was born in late Oct which means at 4 months it was late Feb – really the worst of the winter in terms of it being still dark all the time and we were (and still are) in rainy/sleety England…I’ve wondered whether it might’ve been easier if he was born in say April or something.

  7. I was so happy to come home from work and see this post in my feeds. Yes, I am back at work almost full time with a 5 month old at home (with a loving Daddy). Our babe is also very distractable and so has now shifted his “major” feeds to night time. Interesting that his longest feed is at 11:pm, once he has been asleep for about 4 hours. Then he feeds every 2-3 hours after that until 8:am. The only way I have been able to make it through is to have him co-sleep with me for the second half of his night time sleep, so he usually ends up in bed with me by about 2 or 3am. I know I may pay for this dearly in a few months, but for now it is all I can do. Like Bella, there are too many variables going on for us now – he won’t sleep without the swaddle, needs to be rocked to sleep, wants a pacifer when he wakes – so it’s hard to know where to start.
    Also, he seems to have formed a strong association between being flat on his back (in the crib, on the change table and in his infant “gym”) and playtime. It is literally like flipping a switch – he just wants to kick and smile and yell. So all of the advice about “put your baby down when he is drowsy” has been an epic fail for us. I am also looking forward to 6 months when I hope to start nap and sleep teaching…and I imagine some night weaning!

  8. @tiredmum- I went back to work fulltime when my baby was 5 months old (twice- I have two kids, and I took the same leave each time). It IS really hard but you will get through it.
    And did I have the temerity to post about improved sleep in our house up above? HA HA HA HA HA. Hello, 6 month growth spurt. Good-bye, sleep.

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