Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
The magic phrase “sleeping through the night” definitely casts a spell over us as parents. There are a lot of opinions and perspectives out there about what is “normal” for a baby in terms of their night sleep and if you want some more info on how to head towards your baby sleeping a full night, see THIS article. But here, I just want to address what is actually very common from our vast experience and interaction with thousands of babies, in terms of night waking in infants.
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 information probably isn't for you.
However if you'd like some help with possible reasons for your baby's night waking, read on...
FEEDING: This is a massive 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.
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 beyond 4-months you can start to think about sleep associations (see THIS article). For night waking under 3 months, assume hunger and feed your baby at any wake. 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 for these night feeds. Feed baby in the room they're sleeping in so there is no sudden temperature change. We also recommend babies this age are swaddled, so keeping your baby tightly wrapped for their night feeds will 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 well after the feed or they might wake again 15 or so minutes later or be more difficult to settle.
NAPS: 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 many or too few. They might be over or under tired - see THIS article for more details. Newborn babies can also seem to have their days and nights around the wrong way and might happily sleep all day, then stay awake all night! It's not difficult to reverse this pattern simply by having a bit more control over the amount of nap hours they do in the day, so they leave their big chunks of sleep for overnight. The best way to combat this is with our Sleep Programs.
SETTLING: At this age sleep gets a bit trickier as babies experience a maturation in the way their brains handle sleep and they can start waking fully between sleep cycles (every 45 minutes in the day and 2 hours overnight). A baby can come to rely heavily on the method of going to sleep that they are used to (rocked or fed to sleep or use of a pacifier are the common ones), 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. But, this can be hard to work out unless your baby is able to go to sleep independently for their naps and at bedtime, in which case you’d be far more able to identify your baby’s waking as a need to be fed out of genuine hunger rather than a need to be fed back to sleep. If your baby needs some help learning how to self-settle, our Sleep Programs have a selection of methods 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!
FEEDING: 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. This is often a sign they are starting to need solids introduced as their calorie intake on milk alone isn’t quite getting them through the night. Milk is still the most important food for a baby until 8 months of age when they start having more solids, 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 treat any wake overnight as hunger and feed straight away. If you have started solids and your baby is still waking it is likely that you need to increase them more. We would advise you to refer to health guidelines or talk to your GP about starting solids if you think your baby is ready.
If you are using a pacifier and overnight you are resettling with a pacifier instead of feeding (if you haven't introduced solids), be careful. A pacifier can mask the fact that your baby is actually waking because they are hungry. When a baby sucks a pacifier, like when they are feeding, even though they may go back to sleep, their brain thinks that it's getting food. You could be resettling with a pacifier when the reason for the wake was actually hunger.
FEEDING: 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 yet taking enough solids (or protein at the lunch meal) to help them get through the night.
HABIT WAKE: Beyond 6 months babies can begin to form habit wakes, so if you are feeding multiple times a night yet you think your baby surely doesn’t need the milk, they may be waking out of habit rather than hunger. If you suspect your baby has a habit wake, the methods in our Sleep Programs are gentle, effective ways to help your baby learn to sleep better. What can end up happening is that a baby can take most of their milk calories during the night and consequently need less in the day. This turns into what we call reverse cycling - when they have their feeding times/quantities the wrong way around!
NAPS: Between 6-8 months babies will transition to 2 naps a day. Babies who are still having that third late afternoon nap can begin to wake overnight simply because they are now ready to drop the nap.
8-12 MONTHS AND BEYOND
FEEDING / HABIT WAKE: 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 water in the day to keep them hydrated. At 8 months solids start being fed before milk and 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.
NAPS: Between 12-15 months most babies will drop down to one nap a day. If your toddler is still having 2 naps or napping longer than 2 hours across the day, it can definitely start causing more night waking because they're simply not tired enough to sleep deeper.
Here are some other common causes of night waking in babies of all ages, if you can rule out hunger:
- 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 4 months)
- Their sleep environment is too stimulating - ie there is a nightlight or a musical toy
- They have a medical condition such as refluxor 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.
Take the guesswork out of your baby's waking! Our Sleep Programs are the BEST place to start.