Night waking: Causes and expectations by age
The magic phrase “sleeping through the night” definitely casts a spell over us as parents, to the point where parents can start to be concerned if their baby isn’t “sleeping through” by a certain age. The reality is, there are many factors that contribute to your baby’s ability to sleep well at night.
In this article, we are drawing upon our vast experience and interaction with thousands of babies to share what we consider to be some realistic expectations around your baby’s night sleep, as well as some very common causes of night waking at different ages.
I'm going to add a wee disclaimer here, because articles of this nature are always met with very differing (and sometimes critical) opinions: baby sleep, as a topic, is a real can of worms. People parent in so many different ways and we are not here to judge or force you one way or another. We are here to offer help, from our position of experience, if you'd like help.
If you are happy with your baby's night sleep or don't believe babies can/should sleep through the night, the following article probably isn't for you. However, if you'd like some help with possible reasons for why your baby wakes at night, read on!
In this article:
- Night wakes between 0-3 months of age
- Night wakes between 3-6 months of age
- Night wakes between 6-8 months of age
- Night wakes between 8-12 months of age
- Other common causes of night waking
Night wakes between 0-3 months of age
This is a huge period of development in your baby’s life - the biggest, actually, they’ll ever have! The amount of physical and mental growth that happens in these few months is massive, so they do need lots of fuel for all this growing.
At this point your baby will be entirely milk-fed (formula or breast) and milk is digested much quicker than solid food, so your baby will be feeding every few hours in the day and you can certainly still expect night feeds too.
Settling & Sleep Environment
At this age babies aren’t really capable of developing “bad” sleep habits, so don’t stress too much about how you’re getting them to sleep or that they’re feeding in the night. It’s really only when you reach the 4 month sleep regression that you will want to start thinking about your baby's sleep associations.
For any night wakes under 3 months, assume hunger and feed your baby. Make sure these feeds are done in the dark, change their nappy only if absolutely necessary and avoid stimulating your baby or they will be very hard to settle back to sleep!
We recommend playing white noise all night long and definitely keep it going during these night feeds. Feed your baby in the room they're sleeping in so there is no sudden temperature change. We also recommend that babies this age are swaddled to suppress their startle reflex. Keeping your baby tightly wrapped for their night feeds will also help them stay in the sleep “zone” and they’ll be easier to settle again.
If you have a windy baby make sure you burp them really well after their feeds or they might wake again shortly afterwards and can be more difficult to settle.
If your baby is waking a LOT in the night or staying awake for long periods it is often attributed to what is happening in their day and with their naps. They might be having too much or too little day sleep, meaning that they are under or over tired. See THIS article for more information about how your baby's naps can impact their night sleep.
Newborn babies can also sometimes have their days and nights around the wrong way, where they happily sleep all day, then stay awake all night! It's not difficult to reverse this day/night confusion simply by having a bit more control over their naps during the day.
If you need a hand with this, we have daily, age-appropriate sleep schedules in our Little Ones App that you can use to guide you. These schedules help to ensure your baby is getting the perfect amount of sleep during the day for their age, so that they can settle and sleep well overnight too.
Night wakes between 3-6 months of age
Between 4-6 months your baby may start waking more in the night for milk, genuinely hungry, even if they can self-settle and had previously been sleeping through the night. This is often a sign they are getting ready to start solids, as their calorie intake from milk alone isn’t quite getting them through the night anymore.
Milk is still the most important food for a baby until 8 months of age, however, milk is digested very quickly and doesn't sustain your baby for long periods. So if your baby is breastfed or bottle-fed and you don't want to start solids until 6 months, you will need to assume your baby's overnight wake is due to hunger and feed them straight away.
If you have started solids and your baby is still waking, you may need to increase their solids intake. We would advise you to refer to health guidelines or talk to your GP about starting/increasing solids if you think your baby is ready.
If your baby uses a pacifier and overnight you are resettling them with a pacifier instead of feeding, be careful. A pacifier can mask the fact that your baby is actually waking because they are hungry. When a baby sucks a pacifier, their brain thinks they are getting food so they may go back to sleep, but then wake hungry again shortly afterwards.
If your baby is waking frequently to have the pacifier replaced, try feeding them at their first wake to see if they are actually waking hungry. If they continue to wake frequently, the pacifier could actually be causing more problems than it solves. You can read more about this HERE.
At this age sleep gets a bit trickier as babies experience a maturation in their sleep patterns and can start waking fully between sleep cycles (every 45 minutes in the day and every 2 hours overnight). Now, your baby can come to rely heavily on the method used to settle them to sleep (rocking, feeding pacifier etc.), and they will need that same method to go back to sleep between cycles.
This means night waking can definitely be caused by a settling issue rather than hunger. However, this can be hard to work out if your baby is not yet able to go to sleep independently for their naps and at bedtime. Once your baby is able to self-settle to sleep, it's much easier to distinguish between your baby waking out of genuine hunger, versus a need to be fed back to sleep.
If your baby needs some help learning how to self-settle, our Sleep Programs have several gentle methods you can use to guide your baby towards this skill. A lot of babies are capable of sleeping through the night, 7pm-7am, in this age bracket, if all their ducks are in a row!
Night wakes between 6-8 months of age
Some babies will still need a milk feed in the night at this age. Babies who started solids after 6 months or who are doing baby-led weaning are generally not getting enough calories from solids (or protein at the lunch meal) yet to help them get through the night.
Between 6-8 months babies will transition from 3 naps, down to 2 naps a day. Babies who are still having that third late afternoon nap can begin to wake overnight because they are under tired and ready to drop that nap now. Read THIS article to find out more about navigating this nap transition.
Beyond 6 months of age, babies can begin to form habit wakes - these typically happen at the exact same time every night. If you are feeding your baby multiple times a night, yet you think they surely don’t need the milk, they may be waking out of habit rather than hunger.
In som cases, what can end up happening is that a baby takes most of their milk calories during the night and consequently, feeds less during the day. This turns into what we call reverse cycling - when they have their feeding times/quantities the wrong way around! Read THIS article to find out how to switch things back around.
Night wakes between 8-12 months of age
Babies this age are far less likely to wake out of genuine hunger if they are well established on solids. By now, your baby should be also drinking small amounts of water during the day to keep them hydrated. From 8 months of age, solids can be offered before milk feeds but you’d still aim to have 3 good milk feeds a day. Waking overnight at this age is more often due to a settling issue or habit wake, rather than actual hunger.
As your baby approaches 12 months of age, they will get ready to transition down to one nap a day. This nap transition typically occurs between 12-15 months of age. If your baby is still having quite a long morning nap, this can have a knock-on effect with their second nap of the day and their overnight sleep. Our Sleep Programs can help you to prepare your baby for this transition, by gradually reducing the length of their morning nap as they get older.
Beyond 12 months, if your toddler is still having 2 naps a day, or is napping for longer than 2 hours across the day, it can definitely start causing more night waking because they're simply not tired enough to sleep through the night.
Other common causes of night waking
If you can rule out hunger, here are some other common causes of night waking in babies of all ages:
- They are too hot or cold
- They don’t have white noise playing all night and are being woken by environmental or household noises
- They are sick
- They can’t self-settle (beyond 4 months old)
- They aren’t swaddled (for babies younger than 5 months, who aren't rolling yet)
- Their sleep environment is too stimulating - ie there is a nightlight or a musical toy
- They have a medical condition such as tongue tie, reflux or allergies
- They have had too much or too little day sleep
- Separation anxiety in babies going through big changes or developmental leaps
- During particular periods in their development babies do wake simply to "practise" their new skills (crawling etc). This is common at 8 months and 12 months.
So there you have it... the most common reasons why babies wake at night based on our experience working with thousands of families all over the world.
If you're feeling exhausted by your baby's night wakes and would like a helping hand, take a look at our Little Ones App. Our trusted, evidence-based sleep solutions can help you and your baby to have a better night's sleep in no time!
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