While we all dream of a whole night’s sleep for our babies (and ourselves), that’s just not always the reality.
Apart from the occasional 10-12 hours of sleep, you might be lucky to get from around 3-4 months of age, and most babies tend to wake up during the night. Online baby product directory at My Baby Nursery.
But exactly why do babies wake up at night? These are some of the most common reasons why your little one may not be sleeping through the night quite yet.
Babies wake up during the night primarily because their brain waves shift and change cycles as they move from REM (rapid eye movement) sleep to other stages of non-REM sleep.
The different wave patterns our brains make during specific periods define these sleep cycles or “stages” of sleep. As babies move from one stage of sleep to another during the night, they transition.
In that transition, many babies will awaken. Sometimes they call out or cry. Sometimes they wake hungry.
It’s normal for babies (and adults) to wake 4-5 times a night during these times of transition.
However, most adults wake up and then fall back to sleep so rapidly that we rarely remember the awakening.
At four months of age, many parents notice awakenings after the first chunk of deeper sleep. This is normal and often due to the development of delta wave sleep (deep sleep).
The trick for parents is to do less and less as each month of infancy unfolds during these awakenings; we want to help our babies self-soothe more and more independently (without our help) during these awakenings so that sleeping through the night becomes a reality.
We all go through natural sleep cycle patterns. Adults will wake 4-5 times a night, but we usually fall back asleep quickly.
Babies, however, go through a “transition” as they move from one sleep cycle stage to another.
This often includes waking, and they may cry out for soothing or eat. The first instinct is to go to them right away, but this should be less and less as they get older as night feedings become less and they learn to self-soothe.
The majority of babies can sleep for a prolonged 6+ hour period of time 1/2 way through infancy, around six months.
When doing sleep studies, we follow brain wave activity. After six months of age, we see brain waves at six months of age and up similar in pattern to that of adults.
Now that doesn’t mean that babies that wake throughout the night have abnormal brain waves, but it does mean that as they progress through infancy, they get more mature when it comes to sleep.
If you look at sleep studies on newborns and infants, they will look very different from older children.
But by six months of age, the baby’s brain wave patterns will look much like an 18 year-olds.” That being said, once some babies are awakened during transitions, they may call out for your help, unlike an 18-year-old!
Good Sleepers Vs. Bad Sleepers
Some babies are just better sleepers right out of the gate. There are sound sleepers, and there are rotten sleepers. Part of that is organically hard-wired. But there are also good sleepers with bad habits.
Our job as parents is to do the best we can in creating good sleep habits. Most of that has to do with consistency from one night to the next.
Some babies make habitual associations like constantly nursing to sleep, always being rocked to sleep, or always being held to fall asleep.
Then, when they have awakenings at night, they may cry out to have those associations (bottle, nursing, or rocking to sleep) to get back to sleep.
These associations can cause an excellent sleeper to have inadequate sleep because of the habit.
Crying Is Part of Being a Baby
There is a pretty fierce ongoing debate and national dialogue between parents, psychologists, pediatricians, lactation consultants, and scientists about letting babies cry-it-out versus not cry-it-out.
We’ll not delve into much of the debate here, but if you’re worried that letting your baby cry it out will damage them, try to relax.
We don’t think that crying is bad for a baby. The evidence to support long-term damage from crying at night is nil.
Many pediatricians recommend letting your baby gradually learn to self-soothe or cry it out once they have self-soothing skills (turning over, sucking on fingers or hand, and more mobility) starting somewhere around 4-6 months of age.
Mom or Dad’s Role at Night
Studies have evaluated how parents can change an infant’s sleep. Studies have found that infant sleep disorders are affected by how many times a parent comforts them at night.
The more parents camp out (remain in the room until the baby is asleep), the more parents transfer the baby into the crib after asleep, and the more they pick the baby up at night, the more likely the baby has sleep challenges.
And although most studies have evaluated a mother’s role in overnight awakenings, a 2010 study found that when fathers were more involved in infant care (day and night), in addition to mothers, their babies had fewer overnight awakenings. Take turns!
Developmental milestones shift and change sleep.
After four months of age, most babies have a prolonged sleep period and then wake up every couple of hours because of sleep cycle changes.
Sometimes they will wake up and roll over and then freak out and cry when they get stuck or move into a new position.
The rolling milestone may translate into awakenings. At six months of age, babies explore the world, but all sorts of objects and germs in their mouths and are subject to more infection.
They’re also learning to sit at six months of age, and these milestones often trigger awakenings.
At nine months of age, babies learn how to pull themselves up in the crib and stand up– don’t be surprised if they are awake more.
Most parents are unpleasantly surprised to find their nine months old up and awake in the middle of the night, standing up ready to rock and roll.
There’s no question that teething wakes children at night and disrupts sleep.
Teething typically commences around six months of age, but we hear about teething waking babies through their toddlerhood. Acetaminophen is the only medication we recommend for teething.
Teething is another common reason why babies wake up, especially around six months. Unfortunately, while those new teeth start coming through, it is unavoidable, but it can be helped with some Acetaminophen or another alternative as recommended by your paediatrician.
Many babies will have more frequent awakenings around 6 or 9 months of age due to an advancing sense of independence and self-awareness.
At six months of age, we often hear from parents that their babies will wake up in the middle of the night and start talking, just go through their different sounds.
No need to go to them if they are not fussing! When babies develop separation anxiety around nine months of age, they will often change their sleep patterns.
Often during those times of behaviour change, they will wake and scream out when they realise you’re not at their side.
Infants and children typically have an upswing in infections after six months of age.
This occurs primarily because once a baby reaches six months, they can put lots of new objects (including their hands) in their mouths, so their exposure to germs increases dramatically.
Many babies who have colds or upper respiratory infections will wake due to congestion or coughing.
Fever, vomiting, and diarrhea will awaken babies at night, too. Hang on and support your baby with a bit of TLC.
Sleep schedules typically go back to normal within a few weeks after the illness began especially if you can keep up good sleep routines.
Many babies are conditioned to fall asleep (or fall back to sleep) while sucking on something.
This starts just after birth when newborns instantly fall asleep with breastfeeding or a bottle in their mouth.
Many infants who use a pacifier will wake up between 6-12 months of age when the pacifier falls out.
The easiest solution is to get rid of it all together! But remember, big habits die hard. If a baby learns to fall asleep sucking and does so for 6+ months, it can take a while to unlearn the habit.
Newborns tend to fall asleep whilst feeding, and it’s a habit that can follow them as they grow.
The sucking action is soothing and pacifying, allowing them to relax and drift to sleep. If using a soother, infants may fall asleep with it but then wake up again when it falls out.
As easy as it seems to just give it to them again, this is a difficult habit for babies to kick and something they may be depending on for a while – something that can become a nuisance for parents!
Natural Changes in Behaviour
Many times, waking up in the night is just a natural progression through baby development.
This happens because babies are gaining more self-awareness from around 6-9 months of age.
They don’t necessarily need anything and will often entertain themselves by looking at toys and making noises.
There’s no need to disturb them in these instances as they will often fall back asleep without issue.
This may change from about nine months of age when separation anxiety kicks in. It’s this time when they may scream for you when they wake up when they realise you are not around.
Some babies just are not great sleepers. This could be down to inconsistent bedtime routines or habits created to help our little ones get to sleep, including previously mentioned soothers.
They may also associate going to sleep with being held or rocked, so when they wake up at night, they will cry out for this attention again. Even those babies who usually sleep wonderfully can turn into bad sleepers if they start to develop these habits.
Like most other people, babies struggle to sleep if they are hungry.
Trying to fall asleep whilst experiencing hunger pains is extremely difficult, so it is no surprise that babies wake up throughout the night if they are hungry.
The younger your baby is, the more often they require feeding; therefore, it is not unusual for them to wake in the night hungry.
This problem should improve as they get older and move onto solid foods to have more balanced meals throughout the day.
Struggling to sleep due to being overtired is a common problem among adults too. It is not uncommon to find yourself struggling to get through the day but then feeling energised at bedtime.
The same goes for babies; if they’re overtired, it is difficult for them to settle and fall asleep.
Pain or Discomfort
This is a common problem, especially when babies are teething or experiencing growth spurts. Being in pain would prevent anyone from dropping off at night, and it is no different for babies.
This includes things like earaches or infections, an upset stomach, or just being uncomfortable.
Ensuring that they are appropriately dressed, have a clean nappy, and good quality mattress are all steps you can take to minimise any discomfort they may be experiencing.
Schedule Changes or Lack of Consistent Sleep Schedule or Bedtime Routine.
While you don’t have to have every minute accounted for, babies do best with a consistent schedule.
Having a routine and sleeping enough overnight and for naps can help your baby stay alert for the things that require attention, such as a visit from Grandma and Grandpa, and be ready to fall and stay asleep at night.
Significant changes to the regular schedule make the baby overtired and lead to night waking or trouble falling asleep.
Practising a New Skill or Approaching a Big Milestone
Being a baby is all about learning new tricks. During the first year, she’ll learn to roll over, sit up, clap, wave, kick, cruise around like a bit of turtle and eventually, pull up to a standing position and toddle across the room. What do these milestones have to do with sleep?
Everything. Your baby isn’t just learning new skills; she’s also eager to practice them, even during the middle of the night.
She’s also being stimulated and storing loads of new information. All that brain overload is good, but it makes it hard to settle down and may cause night wakings.
Somewhere around eight months, you may notice your little one seems extra clingy.
She may not want to go to the sitter or might howl when you leave the room, even for a minute.
This baby separation anxiety stage can also cause sleep disruptions when she wakes up overnight and notices you’re not there.
While there’s not much, you can do to keep your baby from waking up in the middle of the night, and you might try a version of sleep training to calm her down and help her self-soothe so that she can get back to sleep on her own, unassisted by you.
Many babies go through a sleep regression when they’re four months old, but there can also be a 6-month sleep regression, an 8-month sleep regression and even a 12-month sleep regression.
If your older baby is waking up overnight again all of a sudden and it turns out to be asleep regression, you may need to try sleep training (or try it again) to get her back on track.
Craving a Nighttime Feed
Be selective about when and how often you feed your cranky little one back to sleep.
If she’s still younger and at the stage where she needs nighttime feedings, then an overnight snack may be just the thing to settle her down.
But for many older babies who no longer need nighttime feedings, it’s a reward you don’t want to get into the habit of offering because it can lead to more frequent night wakings. The exception maybe if your baby is going through a growth spurt.
Ask your pediatrician how to handle those so that she’s getting enough to eat during the day.
If your baby is just gurgling and cooing at night, don’t rush in. She doesn’t necessarily need a snack, and if you leave her alone for a bit, she’ll probably fall back asleep on her own.
Note: This watch-and-wait approach doesn’t apply to newborns who need to eat more frequently.
Breastfed babies should nurse every two to three hours, and bottle-fed babies every three to four hours, so don’t expect them to sleep for long no matter what time it is.
The pain of ear infections or earaches (caused by wax or other factors) can wake the baby in the night.
The reason: Lying down changes pressure in the ear, causing pain to become worse at night or during naps.
While you’re managing the infection or ear pain with medication prescribed by the doctor, ask your pediatrician whether there’s a safe way to elevate your baby’s head while she’s sleeping and for other forms of pain relief.
Create a Relaxing Sleep Sanctuary
Babies waking up in the middle of the night is inevitable, but you can make the most of it by creating a fun yet relaxing nursery.
Find a comfortable, stylish and safe cot for your little one that’s also easy for you to reach them when they do wake up.
Let baby nursery blankets help make your baby’s room a relaxing space for a good night’s sleep.