A question most people love to ask new parents is, “Is the baby sleeping through the night?” Some babies will begin to sleep for longer stretches between 4 and 6 months, but sleeping through the night (or at least for more than an 8-hour stretch) usually comes later. However, every baby is different and will do things when they’re ready.
There are some things parents can do to help their baby sleep a little longer. For one thing, be sure that the baby goes to bed at a decent hour. An overtired baby will often take longer to fall asleep, wake up frequently, and wake up early in the morning.
Parents should also establish a bedtime routine and stick to it every night. Consistency is key. Many parents like to give their baby a bath in the evening and read a few stories before bed.
Just like all babies are different, there are many different methods for “sleep coaching” or “sleep training.” What works for some families might not work for other families. In fact, what worked for one baby in the family might not work for the next baby. It’s important for parents to talk to their pediatrician and do their homework before deciding how to approach getting the baby to sleep longer.
And even when the baby does start sleeping through the night, they may still have issues at time. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out why the baby is waking up. Other times, there might not be a clear cause. Here are some of the reasons why babies might have trouble sleeping.
15 Baby Needs A Midnight Snack
Newborn babies need to nurse or take a bottle frequently, but as they get older, their need for feeding overnight should decrease so that they’re only waking up once or twice. However, it's not at all unusual for younger babies to sleep for much longer stretches without needing to eat – or for older ones to continue waking up to eat. It's different for everybody. Somewhere between 4 to 6 months, most babies will be sleeping for longer periods night because they’re getting enough calories during the day to keep their little bellies full.
When you think the baby is ready to eliminate night feedings, start the weaning process slowly. Nurse for a shorter amount of time or give her a smaller amount in the bottle at night. If the baby wakes up overnight, try to soothe her and get her back to sleep rather than offering her the breast or the bottle. If mom is usually the one going in to comfort the baby during a middle of the night wake-up call, the smell of her (or her milk) might make your baby want to nurse. If you think that’s the case, you might want to give the night-time duty to dad for a little while.
14 Dirty Diapers
There’s really no way to prevent wet or soiled diapers from waking your baby up. But you can try your best to avoid leaks and accidents. Be sure to do a diaper change right before bed. If you have a really sound sleeper, you might even consider doing a diaper change before you go to bed. (If your little one will sleep right through it.)
When your baby or toddler starts nearing the upper end of a diaper’s size/weight limit, you should probably go ahead and by the next size up. Sometimes using a bigger diaper is all it takes to solve any nighttime leak problems.
Although they can be a little more expensive, you might also consider buying and using special overnight diapers. For older kids, try to avoid giving them anything to drink right before bed. (The last drink should happen about an hour before bedtime.)
In the event of a nighttime accident, try to keep things calm and quiet. Keep the lights turned low and don’t use this time to talk to your baby or get him riled up. Instead, get in, change the diaper, and get back out. If you have to change the sheets, here’s a tip: Layer as many waterproof mattress pads and crib sheets on the mattress as you can. If you have a leak, all you have to do is rip off the sheet and mattress pad to reveal a clean sheet and mattress pad underneath; no looking around for crib sheets or making the bed at 2 a.m.!
13 Too Hot? Too Cold? Just Right?
Babies sleep best when the temperature is consistent and cool – somewhere between 68 and 72 degrees. A lot of parents are concerned that their baby will get cold and keep the room too warm; babies tend to be a little restless when it gets too warm. A good idea is to keep the temperature where it’s comfortable for a lightly clothed adult. If you’re too hot, the baby is probably too hot. If you’re too cold, then the baby is probably too cold.
The crib location is also important. Make sure that you pick a spot that’s not directly in the way of any heating or air conditioning vents. The sudden changes in temperature may startle and wake the baby. Position the crib away from windows, too, to keep the baby away from any drafts.
Consider using a fan. The use of a fan in the nursery may reduce the risk of SIDS by circulating the air. The fan won’t actually make the room colder; they don’t cool the air – they just move it around.
12 Lights Off!
Our brains associate light with being awake and darkness with nighttime and sleepiness. Keeping your baby’s days bright and his nights dark will teach him the difference between day and night, and hopefully help him figure out when he’s supposed to be sleeping. During the day, allow plenty of sunlight into the house or take your baby outside to get some fresh air. If the morning sun shines into your baby’s room, causing him to wake up early, consider adding room-darkening curtains to the window to block the light out.
Before bedtime, set the mood a little by dimming the lights. Darkness triggers the brain to release melatonin, a sleep hormone. If your baby does wake up over night, keep the lights off and don’t take the baby into a room with the lights on. The change from darkness to light will make him alert and think it’s time to wake up. Instead, keep the lights off, or keep them dim, and try to get him to go back to sleep in the darkness of his room.
11 Too Noisy? Not Noisy Enough?
Some babies are just light sleepers and every little bump and thump will wake them up. There’s not really any way to teach a baby how to sleep through noises. However, you can help them sleep through bothersome sounds by using a white noise machine or app to block everything else out.
It sounds a little bit silly and unhelpful, but white noise actually needs to be louder than the sounds around the baby to help them get to sleep. Think about when your baby is crying and you’re trying to soothe him. You probably make some sort of “shushing” sound – that’s like your own version of white noise. In order for the baby to calm down, they need to be able to hear your shushing over their crying. That means you’re shushing pretty loudly. The same thing works for white noise.
Some parents may worry that their baby will become addicted to white noise and won’t be able to sleep without it. It’s actually very easy to wean babies away from white noise. All you have to do is gradually lower the volume on the white noise machine until they get used to sleeping without it.
White noise isn’t a bad idea for you, either. A lot of times parents will wake up every time they hear their baby squirming or yawning in their crib. Having a white noise machine in your room can help you sleep better, too.
10 Sleep Associations
A sleep association is something that a child associates with falling asleep. It can be anything: their room, their crib, a blanket or toy, a pacifier, nursing, rocking, a lullaby… A sleep association can be a very strong addiction. It’s not a problem, exactly, until the baby needs YOU to help get her back to sleep if she wakes up. Babies go through several sleep cycles throughout the night, sometimes waking only partially. A lot of times, babies won’t return to sleep unless things are the same as when they went to sleep.
One example of a sleep association would be rocking the baby to sleep. Your baby might love to be cuddled, snuggled, and rocked to sleep. (And you might love doing the cuddling!) But if the baby wakes up overnight, she might not be able to fall back to sleep on her own because she’s used to being rocked to sleep. So what happens when she wakes up? You go into the room and hold her and rock her until she falls back to sleep again. She’s used to falling asleep in your arms, so when she wakes up in her crib all by herself, she expects you to come hold her so that she can fall back to sleep again; it’s all she knows.
9 The Dreaded Sleep Regression
Sometimes, even babies who are great sleepers end up with unpredictable sleep behaviors every once in awhile. These periods are called sleep regressions, and they can happen a few times during the first two years of a baby’s life. During a sleep regression, a baby will suddenly have a hard time falling asleep, wake up constantly over night, stay awake through nap times, and of course will end up being tired, cranky, and miserable. (And so will the parents.)
During sleep regressions, babies may also seem fussy, clingy, and more needy than usual. Rather than entertaining themselves, they would rather be held and cuddled.
Sometimes a sleep regression can occur in tandem with a growth spurt. A tired, fussy baby may also want to feed a lot. Even though they only last a few days, nursing moms may feel like the baby is attached to their boobs constantly during a sleep regression or growth spurt.
8 Teething Is A Pain
Teething can get a lot of blame for sleep troubles. The problem with teething is that it can start at just a few months old, and continues until the baby has all of their teeth, somewhere around 2 years later. The symptoms for teething vary from kid to kid, and there are lots of symptoms that could be teething, or could be associated with an actual illness. Opinions differ on whether or not teething can cause fever, diarrhea, or a runny nose.
Whatever the symptoms, it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for those teeth, and be prepared for when things get tough. Teething rings, chilled washcloths, and teething gels may work during the day, but they’re not going to do you any good at night. A lot of parents will give a dose of infant acetaminophen or ibuprofen before bed to help ease any pain that might cause the baby to wake up overnight.
7 Sick And Tired
When your baby gets sick, any good sleeping patterns may go right out the window. Sick babies have a lot of the same problems we adults do when we feel under the weather. If they’re congested, they will have trouble breathing. Being congested can also make it difficult for a baby to keep a pacifier in their mouth if they’re using one. (And if the baby depends on that pacifier for sleep, they might wake up when it falls out.)
If the baby has a sore throat, they might not want to eat as much, and the baby might wake up hungry. Coughing can prevent a baby from falling asleep, or it can wake them up once they finally do fall asleep.
And without getting enough sleep, a sick baby may be increasingly tired and fussy. You’d think that if the baby wasn’t feel well and was worn out, that they’d sleep even more, but an overtired baby usually doesn’t sleep well.
6 Pain Keeping Him Up At Night
There are lots of things that could make a baby uncomfortable and wake them up (or keep them up) at night. It could be something as little as an itchy tag in their pajamas or something a little more serious like teething pain or pain from where they received a vaccination. Gas, reflux, and other digestive issues can be very painful for a baby, and will obviously keep them from sleeping comfortably. Food allergies could also be to blame.
Food allergies can cause a lot of problems for babies – including sleep issues. Studies have shown that an allergy to cow’s milk may cause baby sleep problems like shorter sleep cycles, frequent wakings, and reduction in total amount of time spent asleep. If you’re concerned that your baby has a food allergy, discuss it with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician may recommend changes to the baby’s diet. If food allergies really are to blame for your baby’s sleep problems, then symptoms should improve within a few weeks of making changes.
5 Overtired And Overstimulated
You would think that keeping your baby up later to “tire him out” might help him fall asleep and sleep longer at night. The reverse is actually true. Babies who go to bed later tend to be overstimulated and overtired at bed time, and therefore end up sleeping worse than babies who go to sleep earlier.
A lot of parents assume that babies will just fall asleep when they get tired. Some will, but some won’t. For the first few weeks, your newborn may only be able to stay awake for something like a half an hour at a time. However, even if he seems to be happy staying awake for longer periods of time, it’s not a bad idea to help him sleep more frequently. Babies who are kept awake too long may have a harder time falling asleep. They might also cry more and have trouble sleeping at night.
4 Napping Too Much
While you don’t want to keep your baby up too long during the day, you also don’t want them to nap too much during the day. Long daytime naps are great – until they start to interfere with nighttime sleep. Your baby (or toddler’s) total daily amount of sleep tends to stay about the same, but they will shift the sleep around from daytime to nighttime. That means that if your baby takes really long naps during the day, they might have trouble sleeping for a long period through the night, or they might wake up really early!
After a few months, you should be able to recognize your baby’s sleep patterns or schedule. When your baby starts to have trouble sleeping at night, it’s time to look at their naps. Did your baby wake up early and then take a nap somewhere in the morning? Did she take a second nap and wake up late in the afternoon? It could be that she gets so much sleep during the day, that she’s sleeping less at night/waking up early in the morning. And then the cycle continues. A lot of times, shortening naps, or even dropping a nap, might make a real difference in a baby’s nighttime sleep.
3 Night Terrors
Night terrors are a sleep disturbance, similar to a nightmare – and they can be pretty terrible. A baby or child having a night terror may suddenly sit up in bed, mumble, moan, cry, and scream. His eyes might be open, but he’s not fully awake. And what’s really scary is that because he’s somewhere between being asleep and being awake, he might be unaware that you’re in the room and unable to respond to anything you’re saying or doing to comfort him.
Doctors think that babies’ night terrors occur when there’s some sort of glitch in the transitions they make from one sleep cycle to the next. While the episodes can be frightening, your baby might fall right back to sleep afterwards and have no memory of the night terror the next day.
Night terrors are fairly common, and happen more often in toddlerhood through grade school. Kids who experience night terrors usually grow out of them by the age of 12.
2 Reaching Milestones
It’s not unusual for babies to have trouble sleeping as they come close to reaching developmental milestones. The trouble can start when a baby learns how to roll over. The problem is that, although the baby may roll over onto their stomach with no problem, they might not have the strength to push themselves back onto their backs again. And for babies who aren’t crazy about tummy time, this can be quite a dilemma – especially in the middle of the night!
The problems can continue as the baby learns to do more. A baby might wake up and push up into a sitting position all by themselves. But then they might get “stuck” in that position because they haven’t yet learned how to lay back down. The same thing can happen with a baby who has just learned to pull themselves up to stand. They might be able to pull themselves up on the bars of the crib, but they aren’t quite sure how to get back down. And a baby that’s newly mobile might want to practice crawling (or walking) around the crib, rather than sleeping.
1 Separation Anxiety
Young babies can’t comprehend the idea of object permanence – the idea that you can go away, but that you’ll come back. As a result, your baby can feel separation anxiety. They get panicked and scared when they wake up in the middle of the night and you’re not there. This is especially true if you were there when they fell asleep. (Remember what we said about sleep associations?) If your baby wakes up in the middle of the night, he might not fall back to sleep until you go to him and recreate whatever the conditions are to get him to sleep. The worst thing you can probably do is go in and socialize with your baby, because then it becomes a game to him and he’ll want to visit with you – when he should be asleep.
To help your baby understand object permanence, teach him that you’ll never disappear by playing peek-a-boo or hide and seek. When you leave, be sure to say goodbye to your baby, and make a big deal out of your return, so that he knows that even if you go away for awhile, you’re going to come back. And if your baby wakes up in the middle of the night and you need to reassure him, be quick about it. Comfort him, give him a kiss and a quick cuddle, and let him know that you’re leaving because it’s time for him to sleep. You, too!