If you’re wondering why your baby still wakes up at night, there are the 7 biggest reasons and what you can do to help baby sleep through.
If you’re waking up multiple times per night, you know the feeling. That panicky, shocked, wired, fight or flight feeling that comes with being woken up to your baby crying in the night. It’s enough to make even the most calm nurturing mama anxious.
One of the biggest questions of your baby’s first year will likely be, “When will he start sleeping through the night?”
This question might not have meant much to you before you experienced the insane sleep deprivation that comes with having a newborn. But by the time your infant is a few months old, you’re likely to start wondering about, if not obsessing over, this very question.
What you’ll find in this post…
There are all sorts of different opinions about what age a baby is physically capable of sleeping through the night. There are even a myriad of definitions of what “sleeping through the night” even means.
I’ll save answers to these questions for another post, but I want to focus this time on answering the question that countless parents have lost sleep over, or have wondered about in the wee hours of the night while their baby was losing their sleep for them.
While there are countless potential reasons why your baby is waking up (maybe you live right by a fire station – true story for a colleague’s sleep client) my list will cover the most likely culprits.
Key reasons your baby or toddler still wakes up at night
1. Your baby is overtired
You can’t take two steps into the world of sleep training without tripping over the term “overtired”. It gets thrown around so much, it’s almost like a catch-all phrase for any sleep disturbance. From short naps, to crying at bedtime, to early morning wake-ups, etc.
The truth is, there’s a good reason for this. Over-tiredness can cause or contribute to an almost limitless amount of sleep disturbances in babies and young children. Miss their nap window or overshoot their wake-time by 15 minutes, and any mom of a sensitive baby will tell you. There will be lots of tears.
Some of the most common times for these wake-ups are 40 minutes after falling asleep for a nap, 1-2 hours after bedtime, and between 4-5 am.
The fix: Getting on the right schedule is of utmost importance for fixing this dreaded problem. And often, an early bedtime can go a long way.
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2. Your baby is under-tired
On the flip side of overtiredness, under-tiredness, can be as much of a problem as over-tiredness. It can also be a little bit harder to spot mostly because we are always assuming the child needs more sleep.
The symptoms of under-tiredness can look similar to over-tiredness. It might be a case where a toddler is napping too long during the day which is causing delayed sleep onset at bedtime.
Or maybe the baby is taking a slightly too long cat nap in the evening. Which causes them to pop awake just an hour after falling asleep at bedtime.
Balancing sleep pressure can be tricky. We want baby just tired enough, but not too tired.
The fix: Make sure your baby’s naps are age-appropriate. If they are sleeping a lot during the day, but night sleep is disturbed, you may need to cap some naps or get them up earlier in the morning.
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3. Your baby is eating too much overnight
This is a problem I most often see in very young babies, but it can happen throughout the first year, as well. New moms are told to feed their babies on demand. Which is fine, except when it turns into an all-night open bar for a baby who loves to suck. Who will never turn down milk.
What ends up happening is a cycle. Digestion never gets a break, their metabolism never slows down, and anything from excess gas, bloating, and full diapers continue to wake them up throughout the night.
Parents then mistakenly assume they are still hungry if they wake up crying. Then, of course, they feed them back to sleep again, perpetuating the problem.
The fix: Encourage full feeds on a more set routine, and reduce night feeds to an age-appropriate number.
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4. Your baby is hungry
Of course, the most common assumption parents make about nighttime wake-ups is that their baby is hungry, and that’s totally possible.
If your baby is under 1 year old (older in some cases where nutrition is an issue), they still may be genuinely hungry at night. Yet, just because your baby is waking out of true hunger during the night doesn’t mean that she actually needs to be taking in all of those calories during the night.
The fix: There are gentle and effective ways to get those calories shifted to the daytime, depending on her age/weight, so that you can all get more shut eye. Not sure how to drop/shift night feeds? Take my free email series below.
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5. Your baby is cold
Once my son was waking up a few times a night and I got curious. It wasn’t for the pacifier, no teething, and no ear aches. I tried another layer of clothing and – voila – no more wakings.
This one isn’t as common. That said, when I see a persistent 3am wake-up that doesn’t have another obvious reason, I ask about temperature. Even if your kid was hot and sweaty at bedtime, our body temperature, because of hormones and our biological rhythms, naturally drops to its lowest point between 3-4am.
Room temp between 66-68 degrees is ideal for sleep. If it drops further overnight, your baby might simply be cold.
6. Your baby doesn’t know how to connect sleep cycles
This is usually the culprit when I work with parents who describe their baby as “the worst sleeper ever”. This baby not only takes hours to rock or nurse to sleep, but then wakes up every 45 minutes, or every 1-2 hours, throughout the rest of the night.
These poor parents are either in tears by the end of the day, or practically catatonic after many months of living off 40-minute chunks of sleep. Their baby is completely dependent on them to connect all of their sleep cycles. And since a baby’s naturally sleep cycles change every 2-4 hours, throw in some over-tiredness, and you have a babe that’s up 8-10 times per night!
The fix: Work yourself out of a job- teach the child to connect their own dang sleep cycles.
7. Your baby has an unhelpful habit
When you’ve covered all your other bases (your baby has the sleep skills, is on the right schedule, is appropriately fed and napped throughout the day), but is still waking up at ungodly hours of the night or early morning, it is likely a habit that just needs to be changed.
Some habits are nursing, even when they aren’t hungry and only feed for a minute or two. Other habits are waking up to find the pacifier that fell out of their mouth. Or looking for their mother. Or trying to recreate the same circumstances that existed right before they went to sleep in the first place.
The fix: Figure out what is reinforcing the habit, then stop doing it.
What to do next?
If you’ve identified some problems and are ready to get to work on those solutions, take my free series below.