There is an expectation that babies sleep a lot, 12 hours at night, 4 or 5 hours during the day, that they will start ‘sleeping through the night’ from 6 weeks old, that they can be popped in their cot and they will happily drift off to sleep with a yawn and a sigh. If you have a baby like this then you got the exception and not the rule; you might have been told you have a ‘text book’ baby? The people who wrote the text books generally dont have babies/are men/are scientists/live in a fantasy land….
Babies do generally NEED a lot of sleep, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will easily get as much as they need; its up to parents to work with our babies to help them get the sleep that they do need. So often I hear people struggling with bedtimes, night wakings and nap times; at a loss as to why their baby is waking up, so here are 10 reasons why babies wake up or struggle to fall asleep, and some tips to help overcome them.
In addition to the reasons listed below, babies (and adults) all wake up during the night as we shift through sleep cycles. Most of us just turn over, adjust our pillow and fall back to sleep, but babies can have sleep associations; meaning that if your baby falls asleep snuggled up in your arms, and then wakes up alone in a cot he will probably get upset and want to be back in your arms to fall back to sleep, or if they fall asleep breastfeeding they will need that sensation to get them back to sleep when they wake during the night. For more information on this I highly recommend the No Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley.
1. They’re hungry
Its the most common reason given for a baby waking up and sometimes it will be the actual reason. Whether a baby is formula fed or breastfed, fed every 4 hours or completely on demand a baby (up until 18 months in some cases) can feel hunger during the night or right before they go to bed; they may be going through a growth spurt and need more food than normal for a couple of days, they may just be having a hungry day (don’t you ever have them?), teething may be changing their appetite, or they might just need to be fed every 2 or 3 hours (this is especially true for younger breastfed babies; they have teeny tiny tummies and breast-milk is digested very quickly so they need small and frequent feedings)… whatever the reason never rule out hunger as a reason for night waking, but equally don’t try to control ‘behaviour’ with food as they are lots of other things that can cause sleep difficulties.
2. They’re thirsty
This seems to be entirely overlooked a lot of the time. I sleep just fine most of the time but there are occasions when I wake up in the night thirsty, particularly when its hot. I always keep a bottle of water next to my bed. 12 hours is a long time to go without anything to eat or drink, especially when you’re tiny! Try to keep your baby hydrated through the day and don’t be afraid to offer a drink of water (check with your health care professional if under 6 months) during the night instead of, or in addition to milk, you’re not going to get into bad habits!
3. They’re over-tired (or over-stimulated)
Babies need a lot of sleep and can only cope with a certain amount of awake time (this varies depending on age but a 6 month old will probably only cope with about 2 or 3 hours at most before needing a nap). They also need a decent amount of sleep at night (this may be broken stretches) of about 11 hours. If baby misses a nap, or has a bad night’s sleep, or is over-stimulated by toys or noise or anything else they will probably be find it very difficult to fall asleep and will become irritated, fussy, cry-y or hyperactive if they are older. Some skin to skin contact, a relaxing bath, a cuddly feed, darkness, being carried in a sling or in your arms, or another way that your little one likes to calm down before attempting a nap or bedtime may help. Create a consistent peaceful bedtime routine, be patient and keep calm; baby will overcome the over-tiredness and settle down to sleep with your help and love.
4. They need movement
Babies and young children need gross sensory interaction, which is essentially being carried, moved and held in different ways. Babies have a lot to get used to as they transition from womb to world, they’re nervous systems are fragile and they do not have the emotional or physical capacity to cope with big feelings like hunger, tiredness and pain. Pressure, weightlessness and movement can ease the irritation on the nervous system and soothe physical anxiety. Imagine you have a back ache, or go back to the aches of pregnancy; if you ever went swimming during either of these you will probably remember the relief of pain and discomfort as the water supported your weight? Its a similar feeling for babies; they need you to take over their bodies and calm their nerves. Using a sling or wrap can be really useful as they hold baby tightly and securely to you.
5. They need to suck
For similar reasons as above babies have a physical need to suckle, be it on the breast, bottle or dummy. Lots of helpful relatives will tell you that your baby doesn’t need to breastfeed more than every 4 hours… they’re wrong basically. They might want to comfort suck or they may be suckling to increase your supply, particularly through a growth spurt. Some babies benefit from sucking a dummy/pacifier to release cranial pressure, or if they struggle to comfort suck at the breast due to wind, reflux or over-supply of milk. Allow your baby to suck when they need to, and ignore any unhelpful advice. Babies need what they need.
6. They are teething
Teething is awful. Some lucky children don’t appear to notice, others really struggle. Teething is also much worse at night when there are no distractions and baby is lying down, causing all the pressure to go to the head and jaw making discomfort worse, so even if your baby seems fine during the day they maybe suffering during the night. Teething can also cause restlessness, tummy ache and nappy rash, and can affect appetite, so try to help all possibly symptoms. Teething powders which contain Camilia can be really helpful. Suckling can also soothe toothache, cold milk or water, ice (for older babies), teething toys to chew on, movement, distractions, and medicines can also help.
7. They are learning a new skill
Is your baby learning to sit up, roll over, crawl, chew, grab, wave, talk, stand, walk or something else? Some babies when learning new skills will wake up in the night to practice or process the development. If your baby is waking up but not crying and wanting to play and talk with you its quite possible this is the reason. They might also find it hard to switch off at bedtime, wanting to practice walking, interacting with you or their siblings, etc… There isn’t a lot you can do about it really; a calm bedtime routine can help, and make sure that your baby has lots of opportunity during the day to explore their new world and just remember this too shall pass…
8. They are in pain or are poorly
Babies are sensitive little things; teething pain, tummy ache, trapped wind, acid reflux, colds and coughs, and many more aches, pains and illnesses can cause discomfort for your baby. Obviously if you suspect an illness consult your doctor and follow up with any prescribed treatment. For colds and coughs you can use baby vapour oil to help, baby massage, create a steam room in your bathroom, try raising the head of the cot a little, extra feeds, and lots of cuddles can help. For more prolonged cases of wind or reflux consider cranial osteopathy or cranial-sacral therapy. Don’t forget that babies cant tell us that they have a head ache or a sore throat, so if baby is fussy there is always a reason; just do your best to soothe them with the things that help your baby.
9. They need a change of routine
At about 6-9 months your baby will likely go from 3 naps to 2 naps, perhaps they will start waking up at 6am instead of 7am, or be very over tired at 8pm and need an earlier bedtime? All babies are different, but they do all go through changes as they get older, so try to be aware of any changes they are making in their routine, or lead the change yourself. If your 5 month old suddenly wont go to bed until 10pm perhaps they need to drop their early evening nap? If baby is waking up at 5am they may need an earlier (true) bedtime. Or consider shifting meal times for an earlier dinner, add supper time before bed. Do what works for your family, but dont be afraid of change.
10. They want to be close to you
Babies want to be close to their parents, especially mummy. For millions of years humans slept with their babies and children close to them, it was only with the invention of the bed and cot that this started to change. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH CO-SLEEPING! (safely). Your child will not stay in your bed until they’re a teenager, they won’t become clingy and you won’t “make a rod for your back” (Blah blah blah). It is natural for you and your baby to want to be close to each other. And you don’t have to co-sleep, you could just cuddle your baby to sleep and then pop them in their own bed. Babies are so little, but for such a short time; enjoy your snuggles.
I hope you find this list helpful. Remember whatever sleep struggles you’re going through it wont last forever and your baby isn’t not sleeping just to piss you off; there’s ALWAYS a reason. Please don’t leave your baby to cry on their own for any length of time… even if nothing is wrong they are just tiny people that probably need a cuddle.