One of the most common questions that I get asked is, “why is my baby waking at night?”
We all know babies wake at night, but it is not without reason. I have put together a list of the top ten reasons your baby is waking at night to help you better understand what is developmentally healthy and NORMAL when it comes to infant sleep, and when something else might be going on.
Your baby might be waking at night because:
- They are supposed to wake at night.
Babies are meant to wake and call for us. If babies were not supposed to wake at night, then they wouldn’t.
A study done by Sadler, S. in Prof Care Mother Child 1994 Aug-Sep;4(6):166-7 which was a part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood (ALSPAC), surveyed the parents of 640 babies and found that:
Only 16% slept through the night at six months old — 84% were not sleeping through the night at 6 months
17% woke more than once per night, ranging from twice to eight times
5% woke once every night
9% woke most nights
50% woke occasionally
16% of six-month-olds had no regular sleeping pattern
None of us, not even adults, actually sleep through the night. As we switch from one phase of sleep to the next we rouse slightly and as long as we are not hungry, cold or have to go to the bathroom then we are able to go right back to sleep, likely without even noticing. If babies wake and have a need to be met, then their partial arousal may turn into a full arousal.
The fact that our babies wake through the night and call for us is not only biologically normal, but it is also a highly important protective mechanism. We want our infants to wake and call for us to meet their needs. These needs may include hunger, thirst, being too hot or too cold, discomfort or pain, dealing with gas, illness, a need for connection or searching for proximity. We want babies to call for us to be sure they are not only comfortable, but also safe, while they sleep.
I do want to take a quick moment to let you know that if you are comparing your baby to a sleep trained baby, or wondering why they ‘sleep through the night’, know that they are not sleeping through the night. They wake just as often as your baby but they are just not waking and signaling for their parents. For more information on sleep training, read here.
2. They are hungry.
Even past the age of one, babies may still wake to eat one or twice and this is completely normal. Every mother-baby dyad is so unique and so different and some babies really do need night feeds at 6, 8, even 12 months and beyond.
As babies learn and grow, it is possible that they may require more feeds through the night as a result of not getting enough milk through the day. If your child is distracted throughout the day and taking in less milk because of this, then it is fair to expect they may want to make up for this through the night. You may need to try nursing in a dark, calm, quiet room throughout the day if this is something you are struggling with.
Now, if your baby is wanting to eat every 1-2 hours, all night long, and are getting the 8 breastfeeds that they need during the day, then this can be a red flag for some issues surrounding breastfeeding (if you are breastfeeding). If you are concerned about the amount your baby seems to be waking to eat overnight it is important that you look for the support of an IBCLC to rule out any issues with tongue function.
Also causing wakes related to hunger is the milestone of your baby eating solid foods. If your baby is taking in too much solids during the day, therefore not getting enough milk, this can result in increased wakes overnight. Breastmilk or formula should always be your baby’s primary source of nutrition until at least age 1.
Prolactin, which is involved in the production of breastmilk, drops in the early evening and comes back up overnight. Being that prolactin levels are the highest overnight, this is also when there is the most milk. We can understand that it makes sense our baby would naturally want to eat more at this time, especially if they have been distracted during the day. This can also often explain fussiness in the evening as this is when your supply is lowest, before prolactin peaks again.
3. They miss you and are looking for you.
I know that our society has become obsessed with independence, particularly when it comes to sleep, but our babies are designed to be near us. The scientific definition of attachment is the drive or relationship characterized by the pursuit and preservation of proximity. Our babies are meant to search for us, they are designed to search out connections with those who care for them.
To be independent our children first need to be dependent upon us. Children will become independent when all of their attachment needs have been met and they feel securely attached at the deepest levels. What is important to understand is that attachment happens over time and that all stages of attachment being met, therefore preparing for more separation and independence, will not happen until the age of 6, and only if they have spent a lot of time with us, being able to depend and connect.
While I could talk about attachment forever, I think something very important to note is that babies attach through the senses. They need to be able to see, touch, smell, hear or feel a parent. For the first year of life these senses are the ONLY way our children can attach. When we understand this, it is easy to see that at nighttime, if they are not with us, they will search for proximity and connection with us.
Nighttime, for our babies, represents 12 hours of separation from us. is the biggest separation that our children often face. If you are looking for more information on how to bridge this separation, on how to reduce this separation, then you will want to think of ways that your child can be with you, and smell you, even if you are not there. Remember that it is recommended to be co-sleeping (room sharing), for at least the first 6 months (personally I am an advocate for room-sharing for at least the first year).
I also tend to see an increase in night wakes when Mom, or the primary caregiver has just returned to work. If your baby is used to being with you almost all day everyday, this can be a huge change for them. It is only natural to expect that they may try to make up for this through the night by searching for additional proximity and connection. Intentional connection before bed is essential during transitions such as these.
Personally, I think this quote in an article by James McKenna beautifully illustrates a baby’s desire to be close to their parents, “Given the human infant’s evolutionary past, where even brief separations from the parent could mean certain death, we might want to question why infants protest sleep isolation. They may be acting adaptively, rather than pathologically. Perhaps these infant “signalers,” as Tom Anders calls them, have unique needs and require parental contact more than do some other infants, who fail to protest. It’s worth considering.” If bed-sharing is something you family want to do to increase proximity, please be sure to research the Safe Sleep 7 to be sure you are bedsharing safely.
For more information on attachment and the return to work, my Parenting Beyond Sleep course covers everything that you need to know.
4. They are uncomfortable.
Have you noticed your little one squirming around looking uncomfortable, maybe arching their back, grunting and grimacing, especially in the early morning hours? This can be a strong indicator of discomfort caused by digestion or gassiness. If you have noticed this, something to look into for your little one may be food sensitivities. Often wakes will increase at 6 months of age as this is when parents typically begin to introduce solids. Keeping a food diary to recognize any correlations between increased wakes and foods eaten can be very helpful.
Teething can also be a really big cause of discomfort. Check your little one’s mouth and see if you can see any new teeth and remember to be empathetic, it hurts!
When babies are sick you may feel like everything related to sleep is regressing completely. Comfort your baby when they need it and rest assured once they are feeling better, sleep will go back to what it was before the illness.
Illness is something that should never be taken lightly with babies. Even though it may cause some sleep challenges, you need to accept this and be sure you are tuning into your baby and meeting all of their needs.
6. Undiagnosed tongue ties and breathing issues.
If your baby is waking hourly, this can be a red flag for medical concerns that may be interrupting sleep.
If your child has an undiagnosed tongue tie, you may notice clicking sounds while breastfeeding, you may have had pain in the beginning, you may see milk spilling out of the sides of their mouth when feeding (breast or bottle). Another strong indicator is a baby whose growth may be on track, but who is also eating 12+ times in a 24 hour period. Taking really short and frequent feeds is your baby’s way of getting what they would need because eating is so tiring when the tongue is not functioning properly. If this is happening, reach out to an IBCLC for more support.
If you have noticed that your baby is snoring or sleeping with their mouth open and their tongue down, it is very important that you investigate further as this can be an important indicator of a breathing issue impacting sleep. Your baby should never sleep with their mouth open unless they are sick. It is important to consult with your pediatric medical professional to adequately address any sleep or breathing disorders including sleep apnea.
When a baby is not getting enough sleep, this not only can be the cause of frequent night wakes, but also can lead to false starts shortly after bedtime as well as early rises. This can become a bit of a vicious cycle and have parents exhausted.
If you are trying to break the cycle of overtired, you may need to provide the opportunity to repay some sleep debt by making time for supported or contact naps as well as using motion and feeding to get them back to sleep faster.
If you are wondering if your little one may be overtired, have a read of my blog post on sleep cycles and wake windows and consider making some adjustments to their daytime schedule.
8. They may be feeling the same stress as you around big changes in your family.
Anytime there are big changes or highly emotional experiences within your family, your baby will likely pick up these. Anything that happens during the day, will show up in sleep.
These changes may include moving to a new home, increased job stress for a parent or some sort of emotional loss amongst many other things. Babies cannot self-regulate and this means that they rely on us to co-regulate. If you notice that you are feeling more stressed, your baby seems stressed. When you are anxious, your baby may seem anxious.
We know that sleep is a vulnerable state so we need to understand that if we are not feeling good at bedtime, your baby will not be feeling good either. If they notice that their primary caregiver, the person they rely on fully to survive, is not okay. If you are not okay, they are not okay and who wants to sleep when the people that we love the most in the World are not okay?
Sometimes this means that we need to take some time to take care of ourselves as parents. We need to be able to be a calm presence for babies. Self-care is essential. Remember, taking care of yourself is a part of taking care of your baby.
9. They may be going through a developmental milestone.
Mastering new skills is a very common reason babies wake through the night. Learning to crawl, walk, talk or any other new milestone can be very exciting but also overwhelming for your child. While this sleep interruptor typically resolves itself within two weeks time, ensuring your child has lots of time to practice their new skills during the day can be very helpful in making sure they do not want to practice when you desperately want to be sleeping.
10. Your baby is sleeping like a baby.
Truthfully, we need a perspective change. I am not exactly sure where the idea originated that sleeping like a baby should be equated to sleeping long stretches without any parental support, but it isn’t accurate. Parents are under so much societal pressure when it comes to infant sleep and we desperately need to normalize infant sleep.
Remember mama, babies are meant to wake, you are doing an amazing job, and your baby is likely doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing.
McKenna, J. J. (n.d.). Re-Thinking “Healthy” Infant Sleep. The Natural Child Project. Retrieved from https://www.naturalchild.org/articles/james_mckenna/rethinking.html
Nancy Mohrbacher. (2012, November 1). Do Older Babies Need Night Feedings? Retrieved from http://www.nancymohrbacher.com/articles/2012/10/31/do-older-babies-need-night-feedings.html
Sadler , S. (1994). Sleep: what is normal at 6 months? . Prof Care Mother Child, 4(6). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8680184?dopt=Abstract