Let’s be honest and say that not knowing why your little one is waking in the night is really tough. Of course, there’s the times of illness, teething, or the odd night that’s a little unsettled. As parents, it’s a given that there’ll be some challenging nights. But when it’s happening a lot and you’re exhausted, it can feel like there’s no light at the end of your sleep-deprived tunnel.
That’s why I’ve outlined 8 reasons your baby could be waking at night, giving you some insight into how you might be able to help them.
As a gentle holistic infant sleep coach, I talk to a lot of mamas who say they feel like they’re failing as a mother and perhaps doing something wrong and this breaks my heart.
Let me say right here mama, you are not doing anything wrong. There’s no failing. I trust you’re being the best mama you can be and that’s amazing! Now let’s dive into the 8 reasons your baby could be waking at night…
All allergy symptoms can impact on your little one’s sleep and be quite sleep disruptive for you all. CMPA (cows milk protein allergy) is the most common allergen but other foods can be a problem too whether your baby is being weaned or breastfed. Don’t forget that washing powders for laundry and clothing can cause upset too. Look out for symptoms such as grey bags under the eyes, watery eyes, runny nose, constipation, thin hair, diarrhoea, dry skin, skin rashes, hives and eczema. If you’re breastfeeding, watch out for any changes to your baby and if you have concerns, go to your GP. Usually, once an allergy is acknowledged and omitted from their diet, sleep will improve.
These can be a very common occurrence for toddlers and older children and usually happen in the early hours of the morning during lighter sleep. As soon as their imaginations begin to have a life of their own, so can their dreams. To a small child, this can sometimes feel very frightening. It can be hard for them to distinguish between the nightmare and reality.
The best thing I’d suggest is to offer cuddles, reassurance, acknowledge what they tell you and empathise with them. Telling them ‘it was just a dream and it’s not real’ can make things worse as it feels very real to them! I’d be mindful of how easy it can be to bring them into your bed at this point. If you’re 100% ok with this, then great! But just be aware of how you may be ok with it at 6 am but not at 3 am! Think about different rules can be very confusing for little ones. Have a clear yes or no rule, be consistent and it’ll be easier for all of you in the long run!
There’s no doubt (in my mind and that of scientists and researchers) that the first years of an infants life are the most important when it comes to their development. Right from newborn, there’s some form of developmental leap happening within your little one. From emotional to physical, neurological to mental growth, it’s all happening! Sleep regressions can be mixed up into these wonder weeks too. There may be times your baby was a great sleeper then literally overnight, there’s a sleep struggle that wasn’t there before! Know this is normal. Know that you are not doing anything wrong. It’s simply that as your baby grows and changes, so do their needs. A great book to read if you’d like some deeper understanding of this topic is ‘The Wonder Weeks’ by Hetty van de Rijt.
Too much daytime sleep
If your baby is up and seemingly wide awake and ready to start their day at 4 or 5 am (I hear you, mama, that’s waaayy too early) it could be they’ve had too much daytime sleep yesterday. Try to make sure they have their biggest nap in the middle of the day. Ensure their bedtime is consistent and try adjusting it in 15 minutes increments over a few days to see if that helps. If they are waking at the same early time every morning, here’s a challenging solution…
Quietly go to them 15 minutes before their usual early’o’clock wake time and gently partly rouse them from their slumber, with the aim of resettling them back to sleep in a new sleep cycle. So you might ‘shhh shhh’ and rub their back for example. If you try this over the coming mornings, you should find that after a while, they are able to sleep a little longer on their own.
Try to ensure you balance the sleep of your baby well, with their longest nap in the middle of the day. Keeping to a consistent routine is so important, especially including a 20-minute wind-down bedtime routine that is the same rituals in the same order every single night. It doesn’t need to be complicated! A feed, bath, change, story, cuddle, lullaby can be all it needs. The trick is to be consistent. This can really help them know what’s coming and prepare for bedtime sleep.
You might also find it useful to complete a sleep diary for a few days to a week to see if there are any patterns and work out how much sleep they are actually getting in the day and night. Get MY SLEEP DIARY FREE. If naps are a struggle, remember that it’s timings over technique so a nap when out and about in the car, sling or pram are all fine too.
It’s important that nap and bedtimes of your little one are optimised for their age and developmental needs. Otherwise, what can happen is they go to bed overtired. This means they’ve fallen into a lighter sleep for the night which causes them to wake more frequently and have a really unsettled night. So what does overtired really mean? Imagine your baby as having several ‘sleep windows’ throughout a 24 hour period. By that, I mean an ideal time to get them to sleep, for a nap or bedtime. If they pass this ‘sleep window’ then their body creates the awake hormone cortisol to help keep them awake and although they may suddenly seem more alert and raring to go, in fact, they probably need sleep pronto! Catching their sleep windows can help a lot to minimise the early wakings.
Sometimes parents think that minimising daytime sleep will often help their little ones to sleep better at night. This is a myth and not true! What actually happens is your baby will be producing the ‘awake’ hormone cortisol and have a harder time to settle at night. Then they fall into a lighter sleep with frequent wakings, usually within the first few hours of their bedtime.
Also, keep an eye out for how long it takes them to fall asleep. If it is almost instant as soon as their head hits the sheets or takes more than 20 minutes, either way, this can be a clear sign that your little one is overtired. Try to catch their sleep cues (yawns, rubbing eyes, looking away etc) before it’s too late. In this case, perhaps think about bringing their bedtime forward. Sometimes their optimal ‘sleep windows’ can be small so even a 15-minute shift can make a difference.
Babies can be easily disturbed by things as they transition from one sleep cycle to the next. They’ll briefly wake then usually re-settle but if something’s making them too distracted, hot or cold then this could be what’s waking them. Baby socks are a great idea in the winter to help regulate their core temperature. Think thin layers of night clothes rather than a thick single layer which they may get too hot in. Be careful in swaddling a small baby too tightly as they can overheat, especially when the heating is on during the cold winter months. Get a room thermometer to check; it should ideally be between 16 – 20 degrees.
In the early hours, their sleep tends to be lighter as they’ve had their most deep and restorative sleep from bedtime until about midnight. This means they can be very sensitive to noise and light disturbances. Things such as heating pipes coming on, birds singing, outside noise, daylight creeping through any gaps in the curtains or blinds. I recommend white noise for babies up to six months. Pink noise for babies over six months. This can be helpful when played quietly all night to minimise disruptive noises. Also, make sure their room is really really dark – blackout blinds where possible.
Depending on your baby’s age and developmental stage, they may still need a night feed. That’s perfectly normal of course. Often there’s a grey area of when they are genuinely hungry or simply seeking comfort. To answer this, a first step is to look at how your little one is settling to sleep at night. If they are being fed to sleep then I’d suggest feeding them at the beginning of their bedtime routine. Do this away from their sleeping environment. This means they are feeding close to sleep time but not associating a feed to sleep need.
If you have no concerns about their health and weight and they are still waking for a feed, then let’s look at their diet. Foods rich in tryptophan (an amino acid that helps the body produce melatonin, the sleep hormone) are great to offer as a last meal of the day. Think turkey, salmon, almonds, chickpeas, tofu, chicken, pork chops, cheese, eggs, milk, bananas. Also, low iron levels can affect your baby’s sleep. At around six months of age, the natural iron store they are born with will begin to deplete. Think red meat, spinach, broccoli and figs.
These can be quite distressing, although usually for the parents more than the child. Research shows your little one will not have any recollection of a night terror. They occur mostly in the first few hours of nighttime sleep and before midnight. Most common in older toddlers and pre-schoolers but they can also happen to babies too. Your little one may seem very upset, scream, kick, shout strange words, look wide-eyed or vacant.
They usually pass quickly but there’s three key things to bear in mind. Firstly, if they are potty training but not yet dry at night, take them gently and quickly to the toilet. Often a night terror can be triggered by the need for the potty. Second of all, don’t try to rouse them out of one, just let it be. Ensure they are safe and you are nearby. Thirdly, a common trigger can be over-tiredness. Do keep this in mind if your little one has more than the odd episode.
I hope these points can help shed some light onto 8 reasons your baby could be waking at night. So next time you have some ‘me time’ when your little one’s sleep, you can also relax and sleep, perhaps a little more deeply.
Together, let’s get sleep sorted!
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