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...