“Not again!” I moaned, pulling the duvet over my head to muffle the sounds of my little one cries. I was utterly exhausted. My baby was waking every 40 minutes of the night – it was 1am, and I’d already been awake 4 times since falling into bed at 10pm. “Can you please go?” I pleaded with my husband. He stumbled out of bed, and tried to soothe her to no avail after which I gave in, nursed, put her back to bed, and tried desperately to sleep for another precious 40 minutes of sleep before the whole dreadful cycle began again…
Does anything about this story sound somewhat familiar?! Nursing or rocking baby to sleep? Frequent night wakings? Exhaustion and sleep deprivation? Actually, this very scenario was me almost exactly 6 years ago – just before I checked myself into the hospital for a few days of respite care due to severe sleep deprivation and postpartum depression.
Back then in the throws of first-born motherhood I asked myself every day “WHY?! Why the ?!*% is she waking up so often?!” I wish I could go back in time and give myself some of the helpful tips I now know as a sleep coach – I know for a fact that I could have avoided many of my daughter’s sleep issues had I been more informed. But as with most difficult experiences there’s always a silver lining – because of my journey through sleep deprivation I’m here today, hopefully able to give YOU those tips and helpful information that I would have needed to hear back then.
So, why do babies wake frequently in the night and what can be done about it?
Reason #1: Hunger
Obviously one of the main reasons that babies wake in the night is because they are hungry! Babies have very small stomachs, especially when they are little. Newborns will usually feed every 2-3 hours throughout the day and night, and most babies will still biologically need at least 1 feed at night till about 9-12 months of age. At this age, solid feeds are increasingly meeting more of baby’s nutritional needs, so milk feeds throughout the night are no longer needed. This means that we want to see a progression within the first year from feeding every 2-3 hours at the beginning to needing no feeds at all by about 12 months. Within this time, if there is a regression to where baby is waking every 1-2 hours, it’s usually not hunger!!
Reason #2: Overtiredness
I used to think that if I got my baby really tired out, she’d sleep more. (At least that’s what us sleep deprived parents would do, am I right?!) But believe it or not, overtiredness is one of the main causes of frequent night waking! Not getting enough sleep stimulates the production of stress hormones, which are responsible for keeping us awake and alert. Even though baby does have a natural biological drive to sleep, when overtired, these extra stress hormones can result in your baby having difficulty settling for naps and at bedtime, and also make transitioning through light sleep phases throughout the night really hard. Did you know that night terrors can be related to overtiredness? I can’t tell you the number of families I’ve worked with who have a child that struggles with frequent night terrors or waking in the night crying – once we get their day routine on track so that baby gets enough sleep at the right times of day, VOILA! No more night terrors!
Reason #3: Baby is too cold or too hot
Babies don’t have the ability to self-regulate their body temperature very well. So if they are under- or overdressed, or the bedroom is too cold or too hot, they’ll really struggle to sleep well. What’s more, your baby’s body temperature is the lowest just at the time that baby’s sleep is the lightest (between 4-6am), which can result in frequent waking at this time. Keeping the room between 18-21 degrees Celsius and layering baby’s clothes rather than using warm blankets can really help encourage longer stretches of sleep at night.
Reason #4: Development
Did you know that baby’s actually practice their new moves in their sleep?! That’s right! When baby starts to learn to roll, sit up, crawl, pull up on furniture, or walk their brains are working overtime to create new brain connections to develop those skills – and a lot of that development happens in the night (FYI often between 1-3am!). This can really cause a regression in sleep, and rightly so. Imagine you fell asleep lying in your bed, only to wake up standing on your spouse’s side of the bed, not knowing how on earth you got there! You’d be a little freaked out too I imagine. That’s just what it’s like for babies when they are learning new motor skills. Their brains are stimulating their bodies to almost uncontrollably practice whenever and wherever they can. Needless to say, this can lead to frequent night waking and difficulty settling. However, this should only last 2-4 weeks at most. If the frequent waking goes on for longer than this then it’s probably not a developmental leap causing the unsettled sleep.
Reason #5: Sleep associations
The main cause of frequent night waking that I see working with families (and the reason my 5-month-old was waking every 40 minutes throughout the night in the story above!!) is because of an unhelpful sleep association. Especially after the age of 4 month, babies are very aware of how they fall asleep. This becomes an ingrained habit or association, which they then require for being able to settle. If baby isn’t capable of settling relatively independently to sleep, then they will demand that same help every light sleep phase at naptime (every 40-45 minutes) or throughout the night (every 2-4 hours after 3-4 months of age).
In the above example, my daughter was either falling asleep with the dummy or at the breast, so she had a strong “suck-to-sleep” association. Because of this she wasn’t connecting her sleep cycles during the day naps, resulting in short nonrestorative catnaps. Not only that, but her bedtime was too late and her awake times between naps too long. So she was way overtired! Hence why she so easily fell asleep at the breast at bedtime, but so frequently woke throughout the night demanding to be fed.
I know you’re dying to know, how did my story end!? When did the change happen, enough for me to become a sleep coach?!
Well, when my daughter was 11 months, we sought the help of a professional sleep coach where we …
- adjusted her nutrition to give her adequate calories during the day so that she wasn’t hungry during the night
- optimised her day routine so that she got enough restorative day sleep
- tweaked her sleep environment to be more sleep-friendly
- learned how her development and movement impacted sleep
- weaned her off of the suck to sleep association
And guess what?! Within 3 days of implementing our new sleep plan (and way less tears than I expected!!) my daughter slept through the night. 12. hours. straight. I felt like a new woman, and actually, like a new mom! My baby was more rested, and I was more relaxed and patient, and we had way more fun together than when we were tired and cranky. 🙂
If you are in a similar situation, and want to chat to us about how we can help you reduce your baby’s night wakings, book your Initial Consult with us!