Night Wakings: What Causes Them and How to Navigate Them

9:30 p.m., 11:00 p.m., 2:00 a.m., 4:30 a.m., 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. Rinse. Repeat. The newborn phase is a vicious cycle. And some parents struggle with night wakings for months. Some years.

Is your little one seemingly waking at all hours of the night? Night after night (and, quite honestly, day after day) the round-the-clock feeding, diaper-changing, and not-sleeping takes its toll on tired parents. 

Why do our babies seem to sleep so sporadically? What causes all these wakings? Well, mostly science. And small tummies and immature circadian rhythms to start. 

The good news is, over time and with the right practice, these middle-of-the-night wakings should seemingly lessen and lessen until your baby is sleeping a consolidated 10-12 hours through the night. I say seemingly because night wakings never actually go away. That’s right. Even as adults, you and I have multiple night wakings as well, as we rise and fall between sleep cycles. The difference is that you and I know how to fall back asleep on our own and we likely don’t even notice these wakings – lucky us!

Depending on your baby’s age, there are a few reasons they may wake up in the middle of the night:

  1. They’re hungry
  2. They’re overtired
  3. They’re under tired
  4. They haven’t yet been taught to sleep independently

Let’s walk through each of these scenarios and navigate them together.

They’re Hungry

For the first few weeks of your baby’s life, they’ll need to feed around the clock, likely every 2-3 hours. As their tiny stomach grows, though, you’ll start to notice that, hopefully at night, they can go a bit longer between feedings. If you can try your best – easier said than done, I know – to ensure full feeds during the day and at night you should start to see these stretches lengthen over time as your baby continues to grow and develop.

Try to make independent sleep practice during the first nap of the day a priority. The more you can practice laying your baby down somewhat awake to put themselves to sleep, the better they will get at it. If your baby is having long stretches of sleep during the day, it’s okay to wake them after 2-3 hours to keep the daytime feeds a priority. Ensuring that as your baby matures and you’re certain they’re getting most of their caloric intake during the day will help with getting the longer stretches of sleep at night.

Most babies will no longer need night feedings by the time they are 15 lbs. or are 6-months old. This can vary greatly from baby to baby.

They’re Overtired

Did you know that most babies have only a certain amount of stamina to stay awake? Have you ever heard of the idea of “sleep pressure” or “awake windows”? If your baby stays awake too long during the day without taking a nap, they’re likely going to be overtired, and when their body wants to sleep, it’s going to be a struggle because of the systems at play.

What are these two systems I’m referring to? Our circadian rhythm and our body’s attempt to maintain homeostasis. 

Circadian rhythms are essentially our hormonal sleep cycles that are directed by light and darkness. This is why (most people) sleep at night and are awake during the day. Your baby’s circadian rhythm develops between 6-12 weeks, typically. You can help this process along by exposing them to sunlight during the day, especially when the sun is rising in the morning and setting in the evening. You want to follow your baby’s natural circadian rhythm, directed by cortisol and melatonin levels throughout the day, for waking during the day between 6-8:00 a.m. and going to bed at night between 6-8:00 p.m.

Let’s go back to high-school biology to review the concept of homeostasis. Your body tries to maintain certain physiological states such as temperature, blood sugar levels, etc., to maintain an equilibrium of sorts. If something in our homeostatic state goes awry, you will likely notice it as disease, illness, or feeling unwell. Um, sleep deprivation anyone?? When your child is young, they NEED more sleep to maintain homeostasis. As they mature, they build more awake time stamina and can still maintain homeostasis with a bit less sleep. This is where the idea of sleep pressure and awake windows comes into play…naps for the win!

Babies of different ages need different amounts of sleep during the day to carry them over until nighttime. Check out my free sleep chart to help you navigate this as your baby grows.

They’re Under Tired

As mentioned above, your body’s need to maintain homeostasis is key when it comes to sleep. Same with your baby. If they take too many naps during the day or sleep too long, that need is being fulfilled then instead of at night, when we ideally want our baby to be sleeping the most. Night sleep is what you should focus on because this is when the magic happens. Naps simply take the pressure off of the day and carry your baby over to nighttime. At night, restorative sleep occurs – our bodies heal and grow, memories get sorted and stored or pruned, I could go on and on – you get the idea!

If your baby’s sleep pressure tank isn’t full at bedtime, they won’t be able to sleep through the night.

They Haven’t Yet Been Taught to Sleep Independently

If you have all the other pieces into place perfectly, your baby might just be a naturally good sleeper. This isn’t the case for all children, though. Think of it like learning to read – some children pick up on it very quickly simply because they’ve been exposed to it, while others need a little more intervention to get the hang of it.
If you’re finding yourself in this latter category, do not worry! This is why I do what I do as a sleep consultant. If you’re not sure where to start or have questions about what might be best for your child, make sure you set up a free 15-minute discovery call with me to learn more about how I can help.

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