Why won't my baby sleep through the night?

Sleepless nights go hand in hand with parenthood, but what exactly is causing your baby to wake?

Child-health consultant / November 25 2018

Is your baby sleeping through the night?

Arrrgh. Mums will often ask each other this question and the answer is very rarely yes!

This is not only because everyone seems to have their own definition of ‘sleeping through’, but because it’s perfectly normal for babies to wake in the night-time hours. It's very natural and normal.

But if it's starting to cause problems for you, there are simple ways you can look at what's going on with your little one. 

Babies wake at night for lots of different reasons, when they're very young it's a necessity to wake for food. But as they get older they shouldn't need to be fed regularly through the night.

 There are two distinguishing age ranges in your child’s development: that from birth to four months and from four months to 12 months. Each period brings with it its own adjustments and challenges when it comes to night-time snoozing…


In the early days

1. Hunger calls. 

Newborns have tiny tummies that need filling at regular intervals, so your baby will wake during the night early on primarily for a feed. While some bubs may sleep for four to six hour stretches at night from the age of six weeks, most will not do this until closer to six months.


2. Confusing night and day. 

Bub has no night and day rhythms until he’s eight to 10 weeks old, which means he may end up sleeping long stretches during the day and then want to catch up on feeds overnight. You can encourage the development of his inner circadian rhythms by waking your baby for feeds every three to four hours during the day and leaving him to wake himself overnight. Allow bub to sleep in the daylight during the early weeks.


3. Running hot and cold. 

Newborns are unable to regulate their own body temperature, making it important to not overdress bub or overheat his room. If you can, avoid using sleepwear and bed linen made from synthetic fibres, as these tend to trap heat. When the weather suits, keep the window very slightly open to allow fresh air to circulate. If you find your baby waking during the early morning in winter when temperatures drop, you can use a thermostatically controlled oil-heater set to come on at 3am, but never leave a heater on all night.


4. Suddenly alert. 

Involving the jerky motion of limbs, the ‘startle reflex’ exists for a few months and can cause bub to wake. Swaddling your littlie will prevent his arms from flapping and so can encourage longer sleep.


Feeling uncomfy. 

Babies who suffer from digestive discomforts find it difficult to settle and sleep. Discomforts such as oesophageal pain, abdominal bloating or wind trapped in the lower bowel require professional assessment and possible treatment before bub can relax and sleep. See your doctor for help. 


Birth pains. 

Sometimes being brought into the world can result in small injuries or problems for bub, and associated pain can hinder sleep until it’s resolved. Seek professional help if you feel your littlie is in pain.




Getting older

1. Too much excitement. 

When bub reaches four months of age, he experiences a developmental leap that enables him to see things in a different way. He is more stimulated by situations and may find it difficult to shut off and sleep. Establishing a pre-sleep routine where your child can wind down will help, so put away loud, busy toys and focus on calmer, quieter play. Dark induces calm sleep, so avoid light in the bedroom once bub is four months old.


2. Craving cues. 

As your littlie develops and begins to put his world in sequences, routines can become an important way of helping him feel secure. Your bub can benefit from cues that indicate sleep time, such as those offered in a routine that may include a feed, a soothing bath, getting dressed in pyjamas and then storytime. Set routines can also prevent your child from being hungry and tired at the same time.


3. Old props, new problems. 

Props to help bub settle to sleep such as dummies and rocking may now hinder settling and disrupt sleep, so it may be time to change things up. When it comes to dummies, if your child isn’t ready to let go of these, consider placing several in his cot to find – older bubs will be able to pop these in their mouths themselves.


4. New abilities. 

Leaps of development can trigger periods of disrupted sleep and you may find your bub up at all hours practising his newfound ability to crawl, cruise or stand. Give bub plenty of opportunities to practise these during the day, but during the night it can be best to let him be and settle in the way he always has (these are times when knowing how to self-settle is so handy!).


5. Missing mum and dad. 

Separation anxiety can also extreme for some bubs during this stage of development. Work on helping bub during the day by playing hide-and-seek and peek-a-boo games to help him understand that though you do go away, you will always come back. Offer plenty of comfort and reassurance.


6. Hunger pains? 

With increased activity and movement, bub has a need for increased nutrition. Consider his milk and solid intake during the day to rule out hunger being the cause of night waking.


7. Sprouting teeth. 

While teething discomfort is rarely the cause of night waking, it can make it difficult for your little one to settle back to sleep if he does rouse. There are lots of methods for dealing with teething pain, from cold washers to gum massage, and you can offer infant paracetamol or ibuprofen if needed.


Always remember that night waking is normal in little ones. How you choose to help your bub through these wakeful periods is up to you, but hang in there! Peaceful nights may be just around the corner.