Like most parents, you’ve probably asked questions about your baby’s night waking, but waking overnight is normal for babies and can go on for many years. Still, the waking isn’t really the issue, it’s what bub needs to help him get back to sleep that usually causes the problems.
How often a little one wakes overnight can vary from every hour to once a night. It usually depends on how old he is as well as the emotional environment of your family unit, parenting style, a baby’s health, type of settling technique, and temperament. With all these factors, infant sleep can be quite complex – it’s really the ‘goodness of fit’ between these factors that determines how well your little one sleeps. Sadly, some common sleep issues could have been prevented, but thankfully most can be improved or resolved regardless of a baby’s age.
Why does bub wake?
The two main reasons for your baby waking at night usually relate to hunger or brain development, but how these are managed can lead to other learned behaviours of waking during the night.
As a basic guide, a newborn requires around 16 hours sleep in a 24 hour period, which needs to be broken up with milk feeds. As bub gets older, the amount of sleep he needs for good health and development will slowly decrease and the spacing of feeds increases. However, medical conditions and metabolic disorders may require a baby to have more frequent milk feeds that continue overnight.
A baby’s natural day and night sleeping pattern takes a couple of months to develop. You can help this process develop by making sure your newborn has feeds at least every three to four hours during the day and demand-feed him at night. Feed and sleep your baby in the daylight for the first six weeks but after this he will appreciate dim lighting to settle to sleep. Pull the blinds or curtains while sleeping but make sure you raise them again when he is ready to get up. White noise is useful to muffle any sharp noises. At night, try to keep both of you semi-asleep by using soft lighting, minimal stimulation, and put him back to bed if he starts drifting off to sleep. Swaddling helps your baby feel secure and comfortable and prevents his arms from flailing about. This ‘startle reflex’ disappears at around three months, making it a good time to transition him out of a wrap and into a baby sleeping bag. Reflux pain is rarely a cause of night waking unless he is also unsettled during the day – best to have this professionally diagnosed.
By eight to 10 weeks of age, your little one is able to sleep longer stretches at night time (four to six hours) and have shorter naps of one to two hours during the day. Night sleep between 6:30pm and 6:30am is still broken up with milk feeds two or three times up until around six to seven months. After this age, bub may sleep 10-12 hours straight with two-day sleeps.
As your baby matures and starts eating solids, hunger is less of a cause of night waking, but sleep problems aren’t necessarily resolved by starting solids. The way bub has learned to fall asleep, whether that is by sucking on a dummy, having a feed, or being rocked, could be a cause. In other words, he can’t get back to sleep easily because he doesn’t know how to do it any other way.
Teething might be a factor of night waking after the age of four months, but it’s usually just when the teeth are cutting through the gum, so a teething remedy can help here. An increase in alertness due to your little one’s ongoing brain development can also hinder sleep, especially if the cot has moving mobiles and activity toys to look at.
Winding bub down
Too much stimulation and busyness during the day can reduce bub’s daytime sleeps, making him overtired and unable to settle to sleep at night. Overstimulation from screen viewing before bed can also disrupt sleep. From around nine months aim to introduce a pre-bedtime routine in the evening that includes dinner, bath, healthy snack, some quiet play, teeth cleaning, and stories.
Poor sleeping patterns can become worse if a bub relies heavily on feeding during the night, which reduces his need to eat well during the day. Poor sleep affects energy levels, which affects his physical output and reduces the need for eating. This lack of activity then makes him less physically tired, in turn reducing his need for sleep, and the lack of ‘fuel’ can make him drowsy and in need of quicker naps.
Life is busy and your baby develops at a rapid pace in his first year. For this reason, think about your bub’s daytime routine, as this will help you decide what he needs to have the best chance of sleeping well at night. If things aren’t improving or you’re having trouble working out what to do, consider seeking support from a professional.