The top 5 reasons why your baby wakes up at night

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

It’s 2 am and your baby is up for the third time, needing your help to get back to sleep. You are exhausted and wonder when your baby will start sleeping through the night. While there is no one size fits all approach to your little one’s sleep, most babies are able to sleep through the night from 9 months of age and some babies (if you’re lucky) sleep through the night much earlier than that.

While I will never advise ignoring your baby’s hunger cues during the night, there are common reasons why your baby wakes during the night and some simple solutions to help you get more sleep.

They are hungry

Of course, younger babies still need to wake up at night for a feed but it is not necessary to rush to your baby's side and offer a feed at every little stir. It is important to ensure that your little one gets most of their calorie needs met during the day to reduce night wakings because of hunger. The simplest way to achieve this is by following a good feeding routine during the day to ensure your baby has full feeds and does not get into a snacking habit. Also bear in mind that from 3 months of age, excessive nighttime feeding will cause excessive nighttime wakings, as your little one gets into the habit of waking up for a feed even if they don’t need the calories anymore.

The following is a good guide as to how many night feeds your baby needs, provided your baby is healthy and weight gain is on track:

  • 0-3 months: Feed on demand

  • 3 months: 2 feeds

  • 4 months - 6 months: 1 feed

  • 7 months - 8 months: No feeds if baby is well established on solids (2 meals, protein at lunch), can still offer 1 feed overnight

  • 9 months: Can sleep through without a feed, provided solids are well established and protein is offered at lunch

Please note the above is a guide only and you should always talk to your baby’s doctor before attempting to drop any feeds during the night.

They are overtired

When babies get overtired, they produce stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline) which keeps them from moving into a deep sleep. This means that your baby will wake up quite easily and more often as they are in a light sleep. To avoid your baby becoming overtired, aim for an earlier bedtime. Putting your baby to sleep later at night, hoping that they will ‘sleep in’ the next day, is unfortunately not a strategy that will work.

When your baby is overtired at bedtime, they are more likely to wake up frequently overnight and wake up even earlier in the morning. And don’t worry, putting your baby to sleep earlier will not result in an earlier morning wake up, quite the opposite your baby will have a better night's sleep with an early bedtime. Best to aim for a bedtime between 6.30 pm - 7 pm. Not only will this avoid overtiredness it will also give you some well-deserved downtime in the evening.

Good quality naps during the day have a positive effect on nighttime sleep. Number and length of naps depend on your baby’s age and keeping age-appropriate awake times in mind is also very important. From about 3 months of age, your baby will most likely be having 3 naps a day (mid-morning, early afternoon, late afternoon).

It is recommended to drop the third late afternoon nap by about 7-8 months of age and transition your little one to one early afternoon nap between 15-18 months of age. When your little one is ready to drop that last nap, can vary greatly but most children will move to no naps at around 3 years of age.

To ensure good naps, watch out for tired signs, keep age-appropriate awake times in mind and start a good wind-down process before your little one is due for a nap.

They’re developing

Babies might wake up at night to practice the new skill they’ve learned during the day. Typically this is around 4 months for rolling, 6 months for sitting up, 7-9 months for crawling, 9-15 months for walking.

Wake ups because of development shouldn’t occur for more than a few nights so if your baby is not upset at these night wakings the best strategy is to just ignore it. Should your little one get upset, consider teaching your baby to self-settle so they can put themselves back to sleep at these wakings.

They’re conditioned to

Excessive nighttime feedings can lead to babies becoming conditioned to waking up overnight. The best strategy is to establish a good feeding routine during the day, to ensure most of your little one’s calorie needs are met in the day and wakings because of hunger at night reduce. As previously mentioned if your baby is over 9 months old, they are not waking up because of hunger.

A good strategy is to avoid feeding your baby every 2 hours during the night from 3 months of age and apply other sleep settling strategies at some of these night wakings and your little one will start to sleep longer stretches at night.

It is also very helpful to put your little one in their cot drowsy but awake to ensure that they fall asleep where they will wake up. Rocking and feeding your baby to sleep means that your baby will look for you at every night waking and won’t be able to just roll over and go back to sleep.

Their sleep environment is keeping them awake

Light, noisy, too hot, too cold, too stimulating

Your little one’s sleep environment plays a big part in them sleeping through the night. Too much light shining into the room can inhibit their melatonin (sleep hormone) production and will thus make it difficult for them to enter deep sleep. Using blackout curtains or blinds in their room is a good strategy to resolve this issue.

Noise can also lead to night wakings so using white noise during the entire sleep duration is great to cover up any household sounds. Finally making sure that your little one is snug and warm all night is important.

Wake ups in the middle of the night are often caused by your baby being cold as their body temperature is at their lowest around 3 am. Using a swaddle or sleep sack is a good idea to keep your little one warm. Aim for 18-20 degrees to ensure your child does not wake up from being hot or cold.

Need help in teaching your little one to self-settle? Get in touch today.

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