Constant nighttime waking is one of the most common issues that brings tired parents to my organization, The Baby Sleep Site®. And once they connect with me, the question I hear most often from these exhausted parents is, "Why?!" More specifically, why do babies wake at night? Why won't a baby who's so obviously tired, and who is fed and freshly diapered, just fall asleep already? Well, as I tell parents, baby sleep isn't quite so simple. In truth, there are many reasons babies wake at night, but the top 5 reasons below tend to be the most common.
1. Sleep Prop
The official name is “sleep association” but these are more widely known as “sleep props” or “crutches.” This is something your baby “needs” (using that term loosely) in order to sleep. For most babies, in my experience, this will be a pacifier, bottle, or breastfeeding (so a nipple of some sort, because sucking is so soothing to them). For many others this might be movement such as rocking, bouncing, walking, the car, etc. A smaller number of babies require something really small, like a hand on their back, just a little reassurance, picking them up for a minute, or a quick snuggle with mom. And, of course, some babies have more than one sleep prop; some high-needs babies may need all of the above and more to fall asleep!
Weaning your baby away from her sleep props is a key part of helping her learn to sleep through the night. Why? Simply because a baby who can fall asleep without any help from you is a baby who can also fall BACK to sleep when she wakes between sleep cycles at night. As for how to wean your child away from sleep associations: this is the process we call sleep coaching. There are a variety of ways to do this; some are incredibly gentle, others involve more tears but tend to produce results quickly. However you approach this process, however, the ultimate goal is to get to the point where your baby is soothed by his or her sleep props, but not actually put to sleep by them.
2. Developmental Milestones
When your baby is learning how to roll, crawl, pull up, cruise, walk, talk, etc. this can disrupt their night sleep, as well as their naps. This might not be too surprising to you, since you probably know all too well that when you have a lot on your mind, you might have trouble sleeping, too. Well, that same logic applies to your baby; when your child is going through a developmental leap, sleep tends to fall apart. The two biggest sleep disturbances I tend to see in my line of work are the 4 month sleep regression, and the 8-10 month sleep regression.
The key to handling the sleep disturbances that stem from developmental milestones is to keep your expectations in check. Remember, every developmental milestone your child goes through is important and necessary. While these periods of development cause collateral sleep damage, it's all part and parcel of raising a healthy child. By the same token, however, be careful about chalking EVERYTHING up to "developmental milestones". You don't want to spend a sleepless 2 or 3 years assuming that all of your child's sleep problems are the result of developmental milestones! While it may seem that there are a lot of developmental changes in your child's first few years (there are), there are also plenty of times during which your child is ready and able to learn healthy new sleep habits.
Gah! Teething. It feels like babies teethe for a constant two years, doesn't it? And many parents have seen first-hand that their babies seem to be teething for months before a tooth actually pops through. This can make you feel powerless, because you have to constantly wonder if teeth are trying to pop through or not. Is he in pain? Is this why my baby is waking all night? Then, of course, there are those babies who seem to sleep great even when they're in the middle of cutting four teeth at once! What's that about? Well, I can tell you there are plenty of babies who are great sleepers, but who wake for a week (or so) due to teething and then go back to sleeping well, so I know teething does affect most babies - even those who are generally fantastic sleepers.
Having a “teething plan” is of utmost importance. I tried to be sensitive to my sons during teething, but also had to keep sleep at the top of my list of priorities, for everyone’s sakes. My second son had a much rougher time with teething than his older brother (who had more sleep problems, ironically!). Finding a healthy balance of helping them through teething without creating a bunch of sleep props is the key to getting through the two years (or more) of teething.
This one might seem obvious, but there are some people who are surprised when a 5 month old breastfed baby is still waking at night for a feeding or two, especially if their doctor has told them their baby should not need to eat at night. However, remember that there is no hard-and-fast age at which all babies will be able to night wean. The truth is that while formula-fed babies may be able to go 8 hours or more without eating by 6 months of age or so, breastfed babies often need to keep their night feedings longer; it's perfectly normal for breastfed babies to eat once per night up through 12 months of age. It's very important that you don't attempt to night wean too early; this can actually make your baby's sleep problems worse. Instead, focus on offering plenty of feedings during the day, and watch for these 3 signs your baby is ready to night wean.
5. Being Human
This one seems to surprise people. A lot of new parents seem to be confused as to why their baby does not sleep and eat at the same every day. Well, consider this a friendly reminder that our babies are not robots! I, too, wondered why my baby woke up at a different time every day or a different time at night for his feeding or took a different length nap every day. Not only did I wonder, but it drove me crazy!! Now, looking back, I wondered why I expected him to be the same every day. Perhaps it was the books I was reading. I honestly don’t know. The truth is that NOT all babies are predictable; my son certainly wasn't. Yes, there are some babies by whom you can set a clock; then, there are those like my son who’s different every. single. day. without fail! And this makes sense, doesn't it? Not many of us could call ourselves 100% predictable and consistent with our daily schedules, right? I look at myself and realize that I am not 100% consistent every day, either. Sometimes I’m starving when I wake up and other days I’m not. Some days I’m ready for lunch by 11 a.m. and other days I wait until 1 p.m. to eat. Some nights I sleep like a log, and other nights I toss and turn. Why did I expect my baby to be the same every day when I’m not? I’ll never figure that one out, but I can share my wisdom with you: your baby will have good days and bad days just like you do, and that's okay.
Need more sleep through the night help for your baby? My free e-book, 5 Ways to Help Your Child Sleep Through The Night, lays out 5 simple sleep coaching strategies you can try with your child, to encourage better, healthier sleep habits. It's a quick read, and it's 100% free; I hope you'll grab your copy today!