Baby waking at night?

Why is my baby waking at night?

Exhausted mum sits next to a crib of a baby that is waking at night.

I’ve been where you are! The sleep exhaustion is unreal when you have a baby. You’ve just settled into bed, drifted off into a blissful sleep when…

WHHHAAAA!!!

They’re awake again. 

That bone crushing fatigue is all too common in parents.

I bet you’re currently awake at 3 am, on Google, asking “WHY is my baby waking so much at night?” Am I right?  

I’m going to tell you why it’s happening and give you 5 tips to improve sleep for everyone, without sleep training. 

Newborns

Black man holding a newborn baby on his shoulder. They are in a nursery and there are decorative clouds on the wall behind them.

No circadian rhythm

Newborn babies will sleep as much during the day as during the night. They don’t have an established circadian rhythm (body clock) for the first few weeks. Babies start to make melatonin somewhere between 8 and 12 weeks, and so some babies will start to sleep longer stretches at night after a few weeks. 

Short sleep cycles and light sleep

They have short sleep cycles (perhaps only 40-50 minutes) and spend a lot of time in light sleep. It’s common for newborn babies to wake at the end of most sleep cycles and need to be fed/cuddled back to sleep. The fact that your newborn baby is waking at night is protective against SIDS. 

Tiny tummies

Newborns also have tiny tummies. They are designed to feed frequently! If you are breastfeeding, it is normal for them to feed as often at 10-12 times around the clock. 

Potential feeding issues

Feeding issues can also affect sleep. Babies that are slow to gain weight, are being overfed, have a tongue tie, or have reflux or allergies can be unsettled and need a lot more support. My sleep consultations for newborns focus significantly on what’s happening with feeding, whether that’s breast or bottle. As an IBCLC, this is an area of expertise that I can help with. 

Fourth trimester

If you haven’t heard of the fourth trimester, then it might be worth reading up on it. Essentially, the fourth trimester describes the first three months of life. Your tiny baby is transitioning to a new environment. It can take them a while to adjust! (I have a great course on my website that covers the fourth trimester.)

Sleep chart with averages from newborn to 18 months

Three-six months

Smiling black baby doing tummy time

A lot of parents find that their baby sleeps pretty well at around 3 months. Then… sleep goes a bit haywire at around 4 months! Some people will call this the four month sleep regression. Others will call it the four month sleep PROgression. I like to call it “What the hell??”

So what happens at four months?

At this age your baby starts waking frequently because of three things (essentially):

They just need less sleep! 

There is a big reduction in the total amount of sleep that they need. If you have a look at my sleep chart above, you can see what I mean. Your baby will need 2-3 hours LESS sleep than they did as newborns. 

Their sleep cycles change

As newborns, their sleep cycle is relatively simple – REM sleep – deep sleep – REM sleep. Around three to four months, they start to develop a more adult sleep cycle. They start falling asleep via light NREM sleep, and develop the different stages of NREM sleep, which gets progressively deeper throughout the sleep cycle, before finishing up their sleep cycle with a little period of REM sleep. This development (or progression of sleep) can mean that they are waking more at night, as the change in sleep cycles disrupts their sleep.

FOMO

Yep! Your baby has discovered the world is interesting and exciting and they are worried that if they fall asleep they’re going to miss something. Or more precisely, they notice so much around them, that they find it hard to tune it out enough so they can sleep. 

Six-twelve months

Baby standing in crib awake

Most people assume that by six months, their baby will be sleeping through the night.

NEWSFLASH: This is probably when sleep is at its worst.

There is so much that happens developmentally around this age! 

Learning new skills

They start to get really mobile, crawling, pulling themselves up, on furniture, perhaps even taking their first few steps. This new learning gets consolidated at nighttime – that little brain is working extra hard! 

Learning to digest solid foods

When you start solid food with your little one, it can take a while for their digestion to adjust. Crampy pains, gas, constipation is fairly common. Plus, some babies will develop food allergies or intolerances, resulting in discomfort, or rashes and eczema. 

Teething

That first tooth usually appears somewhere around six months, and then several more appear over the next few months. We often think that teething is a long, drawn out process, but the actual pain of a tooth erupting usually lasts only a few days. If your baby is unsettled and crying for long periods of time, over several days/weeks, it’s unlikely to be teething. This is one of the best explanations of teething that I’ve found. 

Getting sick

Around this age, many babies are in daycare, or coming in contact with other small children at classes or playdates. With this contact comes exposure to viruses, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for babies to have as many as 10-15 colds in their first year of life. Congestion, sore or dry throats, earache, fever… all of these will disrupt sleep. Occasionally, repeated infections can lead to enlarged tonsils and adenoids which can affect breathing at nighttime, long term. If your baby is mouthbreathing or snoring even when they don’t have a cold, this needs to be investigated. 

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety often kicks in around the time babies get quite mobile. You may find that your baby struggles to sleep alone. This, coupled with the fact that a lot of parents start to move their baby into their own room around this age, can make night waking even more likely! 

Change in carers

At least in the UK, many parents go back to work full time at some point between six and 12 months after their baby is born. With this comes having to adjust to new daycare settings, new carers, new routines. (Plus, separation anxiety and frequent colds!!)

Dropping a nap

Dropping a nap can also affect sleep. Most babies will drop from 3 to 2 naps somewhere around 8-9 months, and it can take a few weeks for them to adjust. 

So really, when you think about it, it’s really no surprise that your baby is waking so much at night around this age! 

Five tips that will help when your baby is waking at nighttime

Brass number five on a teal background

1. Acceptance. Well, if not acceptance, then at least understanding that night waking is normal and developmental in that first year of life. You’re not doing anything wrong if your baby is waking frequently. 

2. Rule out any issues that might be affecting sleep – weight gain issues, feeding issues, allergies, sleep disordered breathing… all of these can affect sleep. Frankly, there is not a sleep training package out there that could “fix” your child’s sleep if there is something physical disrupting it. I do screen for these issues as part of a sleep consultation and often defer a sleep consultation until these are fixed. I offer my clients guidance as to how to go about doing this. Sometimes, it’s something I can help with, such as a feeding issue or allergies. Other times, I suggest referral to an ENT specialist, paediatrician, or dietician. 

3. Sleep hygiene. This just means carrying out the measures necessary to improve sleep as much as possible by strengthening your baby’s body clock (and yours!). Waking at the same time every morning, getting lots of exposure to natural light during the day, and a bedroom environment that promotes sleep are essential. 

4. Tighten up nighttime. Take a look at my sleep chart above – is your baby in bed at nighttime for 11 hours or more? If so, it usually helps to work with a shorter night in bed! There is a maximum amount of sleep you can achieve in 24 hours and if your baby is just in bed for too long (or getting too much sleep during the day), they will wake up more at night time. 

5. Measures to help your own sleep. Make sure that you’re not going on your phone every time your baby wakes at night – this will keep you alert and make it harder to go back to sleep. If you feel frustrated, try some mindfulness exercises or repeat simple affirmations like “My baby needs me right now. I can respond with patience and kindness”, “I can go back to sleep quickly once my baby is settled”, “I can lie here and rest”. I’m also a huge fan of co-sleeping. Most parents find that their sleep is less disturbed and that their babies sleep better. It is important that you do it safely, if you do decide to co-sleep. 

Are you ready to reduce the number of times your baby is waking at night?

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I have some great courses on my website! They look at these five things I’ve already mentioned and take you step by step down the path to improving sleep. If you follow the steps in my courses you will see a reduction in your child’s waking at night: Sleep courses : Rebecca Scott-pillai (rebeccascottpillai.co.uk)

If you prefer a personal approach, I also offer one to one consultations. During our consultation we’ll come up with a personalized plan to help reduce the night waking: Book a sleep consultation : Rebecca Scott-pillai (rebeccascottpillai.co.uk)

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