Learn what causes your baby to wake every 2 hours, all night long, and how you can improve your little one's sleep...
2 hours seems to be the magic (or dreaded!) number of hours many babies will sleep before waking again. All. Night. Long.
You might have noticed (we certainly have) that this is worse beyond the 4-month mark. In this article we explain the factors behind why your baby might have started waking every 2 hours overnight, especially past midnight.
Please note, we are not referring to newborn babies waking for feeds every couple of hours, which is very normal and to be expected. We are referring to those babies who had started sleeping longer stretches at night, between 4-6 hours in a go, and then suddenly started waking every 2 hours. Or sleeping well between bedtime and midnight and then waking 2-hourly after that, or babies who have continued to wake 2-hourly beyond the newborn stage.
We also have to say that the purpose of this article isn't to discourage night feeding or advise you to force your baby to sleep through the night if they (and you) aren't ready. We simply want to share our knowledge of what causes this overnight change in your baby's sleep cycles and some possible ways around it, if you're interested.
Lets start by looking at your 8-12 week old baby:
At this age, your baby's sleep and sleep cycles are still relatively immature and they will more easily drift between sleep cycles in the day. Some babies would sleep all day if you let them! Their night-time sleep cycles are 4-6 hours long and this is why, at about this age, your baby might start doing longer stretches at night, waking only once or twice for a feed. You'll start to feel like a new person again after coming through the tricky and exhausting newborn phase!
Somewhere around 4 months:
Beyond 12 weeks and around 4 months, your baby's sleep neurology matures. This is commonly called the "4 month sleep regression" as it certainly appears to be a regression in their daytime napping and their night-time sleep, especially if you'd gotten used to the longer sleep stretches at night. The daytime cycles change first - your baby's level of arousal between their daytime cycles is increased, meaning they can start to fully wake at the end of each sleep cycle, which is around 45 minutes. Sound familiar? This is known as catnapping: sleeping for one sleep cycle at a time, all day long. Read THIS article for more info around catnapping and ways around it. At this point, your baby, although catnapping in the day, might still be doing good long chunks of sleep overnight. Many people are happy to tolerate the shorter day sleeps because the nights are still manageable.
Until that changes too...
Between 4-6 months:
Eventually your baby's night-time sleep cycles mature and shorten to be just 2 hours in length. Much like the daytime sleep cycles, this change is accompanied by a full wake between each one. This is when you will experience your baby do a noisy resettle more regularly in the night, or, they will wake up completely if something is bothering them or if they need help to go back to sleep. Every 2 hours.
Once your baby has reached the sleep milestone of their daytime and night-time cycles maturing, their sleep habits and sleep associations really come in to play. This means that if your baby has learnt to go to sleep by being actively settled, ie by you feeding or rocking them to sleep or by using a pacifier (that they cannot yet replace themselves), they will start to need that method replicated every time they wake between sleep cycles in the day (45 minutes) and at night (2 hours). It is the only way they know how to go to sleep and back to sleep overnight. Many babies this age are able to learn sleep cues and associations to help them fall asleep without the need to be actively settled; things such as white noise, having a nice dark room, a bedtime/nap routine, being properly ready for sleep by following a good nap pattern are great ways to encourage your baby to find their sleep. A baby who can happily drift off to sleep on their own, when all the conditions for sleep are lined up right, will be able to resettle themselves back to sleep when they naturally wake between sleep cycles in the day and overnight.
The midnight situation:
A lot of misunderstanding surrounds night waking after midnight. Many babies will sleep soundly from bedtime until midnight, then begin to wake 2-hourly after that. Parents can assume that it isn't a settling issue seeing as their baby can "self-settle" in the earlier part of the night...
Unfortunately it's more to do with the huge physiological drive to sleep that occurs in the first part of the night. Between bedtime and midnight your baby is being pumped full of the sleep hormone melatonin and their body is pushing them strongly towards sleep. They begin their night well, sleeping deeply until around midnight, which is when melatonin starts to drop out of their system. It continues to diminish between midnight and 7 AM and it's total disappearance in the morning (as well as a rise in cortisol) is the trigger that causes us to wake up. After midnight, your baby is far more prone to waking fully after each sleep cycle. If they cannot settle themselves back to sleep or if anything is bothering them such as hunger, being too hot or cold, sickness, or they are over or under tired, they will be very unsettled each time they naturally rouse. Every 2 hours.
What can you do?
The first thing you can do to improve the 2-hour waking is to ensure your baby isn't waking for reasons that are quite easy to control - such as having too much or too little day sleep. Both these factors will result in an unsettled baby between sleep cycles. Using our Sleep Programs will steer you in the right direction for the best times/lengths for your baby's naps, to lead to better night time sleep.
Hunger is also an obvious cause of night waking in a baby, however beyond 4 months your baby won't need to be feeding 2-hourly overnight, especially if they are able to go longer than this between feeds in the day. If you find your baby is waking and having a few sucks then falling back asleep, it is more likely that they are wanting to suck themselves back to sleep rather than needing the milk for nutrition purposes and we have several very gradual, responsive ways to help your baby learn to go back to sleep without needing you every 2 hours.
Your best line of defence against the 2 hour wake is to encourage your baby to self-settle at the start of naps and at bedtime - then the night resettles should naturally follow suit. Our Sleep Programs have helped thousands and thousands of parents and babies in your very situation and there is no need for harsh cry-it-out methods. Helping your baby towards the best sleep possible for them is well within your reach and before long, you can kiss those 2-hourly wakes goodbye!
To improve your baby's night sleep, choose your Sleep Program below:
Newborn Sleep Program (0-3 Months)
Baby Sleep Program (3-12 Months)
Older Baby Sleep Program (6-24 Months)
Toddler Sleep Program (12-36 Months)
Ultimate Sleep Program (0-3 Years)
Baby Nutrition Program (4-12 Months)
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