February 1, 2021

Common Reasons Babies and Children Wake Up at Night

Babies, Newborns, Older Children, Toddlers

“Is your child sleeping through the night yet?” Some of you may cringe when someone asks you that question, because the answer is a big old, “Nope,” and you’re just longing for the day you can say, “YES!”

It’s truly an exciting milestone when a little one sleeps through the night for the first time, and it leaves every parent wondering how they can make sure it happens again.

Sometimes you hit a “lucky” night where they sleep through, but then you’re right back to a few wakings the next night even though nothing actually changed. So frustrating!

Other times your child all of a sudden starts sleeping through the night, but as soon as he drops a nap, or you travel, you’re back to square one with night wakings. What is going on??

There are several reasons your baby or older child might be waking up at night, so I’ve broken the most common ones down for you:

Hunger

Newborns’ stomachs are still very small and they need to eat frequently in order to continue gaining weight and growing healthy. Not to mention frequent nursing is helpful for breastfeeding moms to establish and boost their milk supply!

So no, sleep consultants don’t just assume every baby can sleep through the night, regardless of age and weight. Hunger is absolutely a cause for night wakings, with our newborns and young babies, especially!

[p.s. This is NOT me recommending dream feeds…read this post to see why!]

Around 4-5 months old, many babies still need a night feeding, however they usually only need one. But did you know you can still teach your baby independent sleep skills AND still provide night feedings?!

If your child is healthy and gaining weight well, is around six months or older, and your pediatrician has said she is physically ready to drop night feedings, hunger likely isn’t what’s happening. (Read the rest of this post to see what else might be going on!)

I have also found that some babies who are starting to explore solids (around 6-7 months) start consuming solids too quickly which decreases the amount of breastmilk or formula they’re consuming in a day.

If you see that happening, I suggest you try to change your feeding schedule a bit so your babe is still getting their main source of nutrients from milk! You can do this by providing a bottle or breastfeed after your baby wakes up, and then 45-60 minutes later offer solids.

Your child may even need an extra top-off feed during the day (usually before the second nap) as they’re growing quite a bit and hungry, but aren’t yet getting full from solids.

All of this will help ensure that your baby both has a chance to get nice and full on milk, yet also has time to explore and start getting full with solids.

While hunger can absolutely be a factor involved with night wakings, it’s certainly not the only one.

A Child Does Not Yet Have Independent Sleep Skills

Young infants aside, the number one reason babies, toddlers, and older children wake in the night is because they do not yet have independent sleep skills. When I say “independent sleep skills” I mean the ability to be laid in their crib or tucked into bed and fall asleep – no rocking, no pacifier, no bottle, etc.

Adults and kids alike (past the four month mark) experience natural wakings throughout the night as we slip in and out of sleep cycles. For those of us who are independent sleepers, however, we generally don’t even remember we stirred because we fall right back to sleep!

Oppositely, for babies and children who still rely on someone or something to get them to sleep, they wake up all the more looking for that same thing to help get them back to sleep.

While a four month old may still need 1-2 feeds in the night, he may wake up five times because he can’t get back to sleep without being fed or rocked. Or while a 15 month old doesn’t need night feedings anymore, she might wake up three times because the pacifier fell out or she’s no longer in mom’s bed.

Learning to fall asleep independently on the onset of bedtime helps babies make the connection in the middle of the night, as well! “Oh yeah, I did this at bedtime, I can do this again.”

And boom, before you know it, they’re sleeping through the night! Or only waking for those necessary feeds.

The Schedule is Off

Overtiredness

If your little one wakes up within about 45 minutes of bedtime and/or stirs often in those first few hours of sleep, overtiredness is likely the culprit!

So you might need to adjust awake windows during the day and/or before bedtime, you might need an earlier bedtime, you may need to get an extra nap in there, and/or work on lengthening some short naps.

Undertiredness

If your little one seems to be getting stuck with a midnight or 4 or 5 am wake-ups, there’s a chance she could be undertired!

She doesn’t have quite enough sleep pressure built up to fully make it through the night. If your child falls asleep easily for naps during the day but is taking a bit longer to fall asleep at night, consider simply stretching that last awake window before bedtime a bit more to help.

You may also need to start capping your child’s overall daytime sleep to make sure she can still get 11-12 hours at night! For example, 6-12 month olds should not be getting more than 3 hours of daytime sleep.

Time for a Nap Transition

Similar to undertiredness, your child might be approaching a nap transition! Making that schedule tweak (again, likely with the awake windows and bedtime) will likely help!

To help find the right awake windows and schedules for your little one, go snag my FREE Ultimate Guide to Sleep Schedules!

There’s Something Off About the Sleep Environment

Change in Environment

If your child’s sleep environment is different at 2 am than it was at bedtime, this could be enough reason to more fully wake in the night! For that reason, I suggest parents keep the sound machine on all night long, and if you’re using a night light at bedtime, keep that on all night, too (remember orange and red are the best colors for night lights!).

Noise

I always recommend families of newborns and babies use sound machines, and I highly recommend them for toddlers and older kids, as well. It is so helpful to have that white noise (not music!) in the background so you don’t have to tip-toe around your house once your child is asleep.

This also helps make sure that the AC kicking on, or an ambulance driving by, or another sibling calling out won’t suddenly wake your little one.

Brightness

Not only is white noise super helpful, but so is total darkness! If a street lamp streams through your child’s window in the night, or the sun starts peaking through when it’s rising, that extra light could cause your child to stir or wake unnecessarily.

Too cold

If your child seems to be stuck in a pattern of regularly waking up around 4 am, check to make sure he’s not too cold! Our body temperatures naturally drop around this time each night, so some kids will wake due to being cold.

Check out my favorite sleep sacks to help make sure your little one stays warm!

Crib to Bed Transition

I often see a spike in night wakings when children transition from the crib to the bed, especially if they are below the age of three.

As being in an open bed gives your child new freedoms that the crib did not allow, make sure you establish some bedtime and overnight expectations to teach your child to stay in bed all night!

Did you know I have a FREE Guide to Bedtime Boundaries that can help with this??

Routines are Inconsistent

Bedtime Routine

Your child’s bedtime routine is one of the most important times of the day! Not only does it alert her mind that it’s time for sleep but it alerts her body, as well. We want that wonderful melatonin (our natural sleepy hormone) to start releasing and aid in falling asleep.

If your child’s bedtime routine isn’t consistent, she may not recognize it’s actually time for bed and could treat it like a nap.

Read this post to learn how to establish a solid bedtime routine!

Time Outdoors/Physical Activity

Engaging in physical play throughout the day and getting outside regularly is also super important. Our circadian rhythms (body clocks!) tend to set around the rising and setting of the sun. So regularly getting that natural sunlight keeps our body clocks in check!

With toddlers and older kids, especially, we also want to make sure we’re getting all of their energy out so they’re ready to sleep well.

Response to Night Wakings

When your child wakes in the night, how do you respond? Do you go in right away and always feed back to sleep? Do you jump in and rock back to sleep? Do you sometimes wait 20 minutes, sometimes feed right away, sometimes lay in bed with him, sometimes pull him into bed with you?

If your response to night wakings is inconsistent, it could be confusing to your child and cause those wakings to persist.

Similarly, if you feed your child each time they wake in the night, even though you know they shouldn’t be hungry, they will learn to need that feed to get back to sleep!

There’s Something Physical Happening

Sickness

Unfortunately, getting sick and teething are just part of childhood. It’s going to happen!

When your child is sick, you may notice more night wakings occurring. This could be due to a fever, a poor appetite during the day, congestion, etc. If this is the case, you’ll want to read this post about how to approach sleep when your little one is sick!

Ear infections are also classic sleep disrupters, so if your child is fighting sleep, maybe even diaper changes, and is showing general discomfort when lying flat, make sure those ears are clear!

Teething

Teething seems to be the ultimate scapegoat when it comes to sleep, so here’s the scoop. Yes, teething is uncomfortable. And yes, it could cause your little one to wake in the night. However, I have found that when babies are independent little sleepers, if teething is going to disrupt sleep, it will only be the night or two the tooth is actually physically cutting through the gums.

You may also find that teething doesn’t cause your little one to stir at all! In our experience, some teeth seemed to cause our girls to briefly wake in the night, while others seemed to pop up out of nowhere. And molars seemed to be the toughest, as they’re just so darn big!

So if you suspect teething to be the culprit but those night wakings have been going on for more than a few days, it’s likely something else!

Regressions/Developmental Milestones

If your child has recently hit a new developmental milestone, including rolling, crawling, pulling to stand, walking, talking, etc, they may experience a brief sleep regression. You may notice your child using bedtime or night wakings as a space to practice, and that’s normal!

If this happens, try to remain consistent with your schedule, routines, and response to night wakings, and within 1-2 weeks your child’s sleep should be back to normal!

If it’s not, it’s time to keep digging.

Nightmares/Night Terrors

Both nightmares and night terrors certainly disrupt your child’s (and yours!) sleep! While we can’t always control if/when our child experiences one, there are some measures we can take to try to avoid them:

  • Watch for overtiredness, as discussed above! Overtiredness and nightmares and night terrors are often connected.
  • Turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Try to avoid scary videos, books, and games!

Low Iron or Magnesium

While I don’t see this super often, if I’ve been working with a family for a few weeks and something just really isn’t clicking and we’ve ticked all of the boxes, I often ask parents to make an appointment with their pediatrician and check their child for low iron and/or low magnesium; those can both cause poor sleep!

Some kids benefit from going on supplements, while others are able to boost their iron or magnesium from a diet change.

Conclusion

When someone asks me how to get rid of those pesky night wakings, it’s not always a straightforward answer. See why??

While night wakings are super common in babies and children, they don’t have to be the norm!

If you have found yourself in survival mode and doing whatever you can to just get your child to fall asleep and hopefully stay asleep through the night, I’VE BEEN THERE! It can be so frustrating, it’s exhausting, and you just want what’s best for your little one.

It can also feel isolating, because you just don’t know what to do yet you know something needs to happen, and that’s where I come in. You don’t have to read all of the books and piece together something that will maybe hopefully stick. We can work together to personalize a sleep plan for you family that has worked for many families like yours before, and together we will make sure you reach your sleep goals.

Book a FREE discovery call with me to learn more!

 

night wakings