Around four months most infants have settled into a sleep rhythm, but then some big developmental changes might make sleep more difficult than it was a few months earlier. Sometimes in the early months a pacifier or swaddle was what helped your baby to calm but now she may be able to keep herself awake.
This can be so frustrating for families if you know your child is tired and yet right as she is falling asleep she cries, wiggles, or even pokes herself in the face to stay awake. When she is fighting to stay awake she's telling you she is afraid. Consider how we call it falling asleep, that's because it takes letting go. Falling, letting go, and drifting into another state takes a lot of trust that you are safe and that you will wake back up. So hold on to that as you're with her. Sometimes saying aloud, "It's hard to let go and sleep, you're safe." helps you stay calm and empathetic while reassuring her. You could even say, "You wanted to play and play. You have so many things to work on. Rest will help you have more energy for play when you wake up."
This is time to set a clear and positive sleep routine, read more here. Establish a simple and clear routine that's moving you closer to calm and restfulness. Watch closely for signals your child might be getting tired. You want to mindfully avoid letting your child get overtired and slow down stimulation as nap or night time approaches. Your child will probably be awake 60-120 minutes between naps from 4-8 months. Around 8 months you will notice your child napping about 3 times a day. As you are finding this pattern and introducing more regular meals you can use a set time for naps instead of basing the timing off the child's last waking. Most mobile infants nap 2-3 times a day and sleep 10-12 hours at night. A common schedule at this age would be 9 am nap, 1 pm nap, 3:30 nap, and 7 pm bed but you want to choose a routine that works for your child and your family. Observe your child for a few days and give it a try. Routines and rhythm help young children to feel safe and begin to understand their world. Between 12 and 18 months infants drop to one nap. Read more about that process here.
During the course of these months you will likely move from holding your child to fall asleep toward her falling asleep more independently. Sometimes a blanket or a lovey will help in this process. You're going to offer your child the least possible help she needs to fall asleep. If she is calm and you think she might fall asleep in the crib after your routine simply say goodnight and let her fall asleep independently. We recommend making that transition by holding her, calm and still, until she is just drowsy, then letting her fall asleep in her crib. If your child cries when she is falling sleep either in the crib or your arms pause and notice your anxiety. You're biologically designed to respond to your child's cry. Look at that cry as communication. Try not to 'fix' her cry by swinging or shushing but rather just listen and acknowledge. You might say lovingly, "You're having a hard time finding your sleep. I'm here with you, you can do it." Offer the least help, the reassuring words or a hand on her chest might be all she needs. If she is in your arms, hold your child, calm and still, and remember your child is crying to let out frustration and energy. Cries communicate and your job is not to fix, but to listen and try to understand. For some families the process of moving toward more independent sleep is a priority and for others, they don't mind the cuddly drowsy time. When you're ready you can back off the help more and more so your child is going to sleep independently.
Example: As the routine finishes dad lays his daughter in the crib. She begins to cry. The first least possible intervention, dad returns to the side of her crib. Maybe she stops crying looking up to him. She is reassured and snuggles down into her bed and he can walk away or stay a minute then walk away. If she continues to cry, dad is still trying to intrude as little as possible. Dad looks at her and starts singing their goodnight song very softly. If she continues to cry in distress or escalates, a third small step of additional help is offered. Dad leans down rubbing her back as he says, “You’re safe. You’re really sleepy.” As he rubs her back, he sings. Once she is calm he slowly helps less and less. If she continues to escalate, dad may offer a fourth minimal intervention. Dad picks her up, holding her until she calms, two minutes pass, or she pushes him away. Then he lays her back in her crib, “You’re safe. It’s time to sleep.” he whispers. If she continues to cry, he will continue this fourth step until she falls asleep in her crib. This is a time intensive process but it includes a relatively low amount of crying.
We like this least possible help method because the expectations are clear and respectful. Parents are responsive but the expectations don’t change. Many parents like this way to help their child learn to sleep because they feel like they are doing more than just letting the child cry and the parent is seeing progress towards more independence. Other parents find it exhausting and frustrating and it may not be the best plan for their family. Different children react differently, but in our experience the process of offering the least possible help, while sometimes exhausting in the moment, helps children learn to sleep completely independently within a week or so.
The short of version:
- Expect it will take time and tears to learn to sleep.
- Be present with your child and offer a little help through calm words and loving touch.
- Be consistent and follow your child's natural rhythm.
- It won't be like this forever.