Being a parent is a beautiful experience, but it’s also a tough job. You get to experience new things every day as your baby grows. While some experiences are like treasures, some can give you nightmares.
One such nightmare is sleeping problems. Initially, newborns sleep throughout the day and regularly wake at night. This is normal and healthy. But as they start growing, their sleep pattern changes and they learn to sleep through the night.
However, at times, babies become fussy and do not feel like sleeping at all. Parents often get concerned over their baby’s frequent awakenings, especially if their little one has started waking after sleeping through the night for a few weeks or months.
Infant sleep problems can be frustrating and tiring as parents feel so helpless to fix them.
Usually, there is nothing seriously wrong with infants who wake frequently in the night or don’t seem to sleep at all.
It can be due to anything from thirst, hunger, tiredness, teething or colic. Once you fix the problem, your baby will sleep fine and so will you.
Here are the top 10 common reasons why babies don’t sleep through the night.
1. Hunger and Thirst
Some babies wake up at night due to hunger. Whether a baby is formula fed, breastfed, fed on demand or fed every four hours, a baby can feel hungry during the night or just before going to bed.
Newborns need to be fed every few hours, especially when it comes to breastfed babies as breast milk is easily digested. If your baby is older than 6 months and not on solid foods, he or she is likely to wake up frequently at night.
If your baby is going through a growth spurt, he or she may feel hungry and need more food than normal. Commonly, growth spurts occur at 7 to 10 days, 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 3 months, 6 months and 9 months.
Feed your baby on demand. Give extra milk, if you are bottle feeding. If you are breastfeeding, feed without worrying about your supply of milk. Your milk supply will meet the demand of your baby. You might just need to take extra fluids, as you may feel thirsty after all the feedings.
Just like hunger, thirst can also be one of the main culprits here. Keep your baby hydrated through the day and, if needed, try to give your baby a drink of water in addition to milk, if he or she is older than 6 months.
For babies younger than 6 months, check with your doctor before offering water.
2. Needs a Sleep Prop
This is one of the most common reasons for a baby’s night waking. If your baby is conditioned to sleep with a sleep prop, he or she may need it when waking up during the night. It can be a pacifier, bottle or breast.
During the night, your child cycles through deeper sleep, lighter sleep or might even wake up for a minute or two every few hours. Babies who know how to put themselves to sleep will fall back asleep on their own.
But if your baby is accustomed to a sleep prop, such as falling asleep while breastfeeding or with a bottle or pacifier, your baby is less likely to go to sleep on his or her own. This is the main reason for short naps and frequent night waking.
There are many ways a baby can self soothe to sleep. Teach your child to sleep on his or her own by putting him or her to bed when drowsy but awake.
3. Change in Regular Bedtime Routine
Consistency is the key with children, especially when it comes to sleep. Any change in your baby’s bedtime routine can make it difficult for him or her to enjoy sound sleep.
It is important to maintain the same sleep schedule for setting your baby’s internal clock, which will regulate day and night hormone cycles. This helps a baby get sleepy and fall asleep around the same time every day.
Do not try to put your baby to bed too early (when the child isn’t tired) or too late (when the child is overtired). Do not encourage naps in the late afternoon or evening as your baby would find it difficult to sleep again at night when he or she has recently awakened from a nap.
A 2005 study published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies reports that small babies needed less help falling asleep at night when parents lengthened the time between the last nap of the day and bedtime.
4. Overtired or Overstimulated
Adults have difficulty falling asleep when they are tired and endless thoughts are racing around their brain. Just like adults, when babies are super tired, they can’t sleep well. When overtired, babies will sleep less, wake up more and become cranky.
An overstimulating environment can also make it difficult for your baby to calm down easily. Noise, toys, people and electronic screens can make it difficult for your baby to sleep soundly. This is why physical exercise and other forms of excitement should be avoided right before bedtime.
Try to create a peaceful bedtime routine for your baby. A relaxing warm bath, a massage, cuddles and hugs, a quiet story, a cuddly feed, or being carried around in your arms or a sling can help your little one calm down before bedtime.
It will help your little one sleep soundly through the night, wake less in the night and wake up in a better mood in the morning.
Stick to a regular bedtime routine and put your baby to sleep earlier if he or she is showing tiredness cues.
5. Illness (Colic, Teething, etc.)
Frequent awakenings during the night may also indicate certain underlying health problems. Anything from tummy aches, gas, acid reflux, colds and coughs to teething can cause sleep problems in babies.
Babies with colds or upper respiratory infections can wake up due to congestion or coughing. Using a humidifier in the room can help.
In case of a stomach ache or gas pain, applying a paste of asafetida water around the navel can help.
Your baby could also be waking up from teething discomfort. During the day, your baby’s regular activities keep him or her distracted from the teething pain, but at night, the pain tends to upset your baby more with fewer distractions around.
Breastfeeding at the time of teething can comfort your baby and help him or her sleep through the night.
Consult your doctor if you think your baby is unwell and having difficulty sleeping.
6. Wants to be Close to You
Babies go through separation anxiety around 6 to 8 months of age, and it can continue until they turn 5 years old.
You may find your baby waking up several times a night, crying and refusing to go back to sleep. Your baby gets frightened when waking up and not finding you around. He or she just wants to be close to you.
According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the more emotionally available mom was at bedtime, the easier it was for the baby to settle down to sleep and also to sleep well during the night.
If your baby co-sleeps, give him or her a cuddle or a comforting rub on the back when he or she wakes up in the night and starts crying.
If you are encouraging your baby to self soothe, you need to decrease your presence at bedtime. When your baby wakes up in the night and starts crying, stay in the same room at first and gradually withdraw your presence or return to reassure your baby periodically.
At times, your baby may be fearful or anxious. He or she may just need closeness at bedtime for a while.
7. Uncomfortable Environment
If your baby wakes up in a different environment than where he or she was put to sleep, they will be confused and more likely to be frightened and unable to go back to sleep.
Make sure to put your baby to sleep where he or she will sleep all night or with the same conditions like light, noise, warmth and so on.
Sometimes, temperature changes can affect a baby’s sleep. If your baby is sweaty, shed a layer of blankets or clothing. Also, check if your baby is feeling cold. In that case, make him comfortable by adding a layer.
Lights can also bother a sleeping baby, as they disrupt the sleep-wake cycle. Illumination suppresses melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep. If you suspect light to be waking your baby, try room-darkening or black-out shades.
A wet diaper can also make your baby wake in the middle of the night.
8. Not Napping During the Day
A daily nap is important for your baby’s growth and development. Without a daytime nap, your baby will become overtired, grumpier and less able to go to sleep later.
But it is important to make your baby nap at the right time. If your baby naps too late in the afternoon, it will be hard for him or her to fall asleep at night.
The next time your baby is snoozing during the mid-morning or early afternoon, join him or her to ensure they are sleeping soundly.
Also, do not make the mistake of waking up your baby from a nap. This can make your baby fussy and inconsolable.
9. New Developmental Skills
Your baby has learned a new skill. He or she has recently mastered the art of crawling, kicking, rolling, sitting or standing and is probably excited to try it out — even during sleep.
An exciting new skill could inspire him or her to wake up at night and practice it. This can prevent your child from sleeping through the night.
Give your baby some practice time for newly acquired skills during the day. If he or she has just mastered sitting up, teach them how to lie down again.
If he or she sleeps on his or her back, they often roll from back to front even before they learn to roll from front to back or vice versa.
As a result, a child will often cry out in the night for parents’ help because they are stuck in a position and do not know how to get out of it.
As your baby masters the new skill, he or she will enjoy sleeping more peacefully.
10. Not Getting Sunlight
Exposure to light during the day and darkness during the night also helps babies set their circadian rhythms and sleep more at night. Getting fresh air and sunlight is beneficial for babies and helps them sleep properly.
According to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research, 6- to 12-week-old infants who were exposed to more light during the early afternoon slept well at night.
Moreover, sunlight is essential for producing vitamin D, which is vital for proper growth and development.
Expose your baby to significantly more light in the early morning and afternoon periods. Also, keep your baby away from artificial lights before and during bedtime.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, MD (Pediatrician)
Is it normal for a baby to wake up multiple times at night?
It is absolutely normal for baby to wake up at night. In fact most babies have their days and nights mixed up at first.
When pregnant, you may have noticed a lot of movement by the fetus at night than during the day. Once born, this often continues and your bundle of joy is often wide-eyed and alert when you are the most exhausted, making night time overwhelming and difficult for a new parent.
However, as the baby’s stomach grows over the first few months, he/she can eat more per feeding which helps your little one to stay asleep for longer periods of time.
Do daytime naps affect a baby’s sleep at night?
By the time babies reach 3-6 months of age, their average amount of sleep is 15 hours in total including 2-3 naps during the day. They gradually begin to have longer stretches of sleep at night which may extend to 6-8 hours (sometimes even longer).
It’s important to let your baby nap as it is much more difficult to settle down an overtired baby for sleep at night. However, make sure the last nap is not too close to bedtime, as the baby will struggle to doze off if he is already refreshed from the previous nap.
You should look for cues such as yawning, rubbing eyes, stretching arms and legs which babies often use to communicate that they are sleepy.
How can I tell if the baby is cold at night?
It’s best to keep the temperature of the baby’s room between 68-72 degrees F. In fact, most new parents tend to keep their baby’s room too warm which can make the baby feel hot, sweaty and become excessively fussy.
Newborns can be made to wear an undershirt, pajamas, and you can even use a swaddling blanket or a sleep sack to keep the baby warm. However, be sure not to bury your baby under sheets of extra blankets, as it can increase the risk of suffocation as well as SIDS.
What is the best way to lengthen a baby’s sleep at night?
You should ensure that your baby has a consistent nighttime routine so that he/she can learn to identify and anticipate bedtime. 3-month old babies are old enough to be taught how to fall asleep on their own, which is the first step towards extending their nighttime sleep.
Putting babies down to sleep while they are still a little drowsy and not fully asleep helps them learn to settle themselves. This is important because when the babies do wake up in the middle of the night, it will be much easier for them to put themselves back to sleep on their own. Do not overlook this key step in your nighttime routine.
What is main reason for baby to wake up during the night?
Babies can wake up for a variety of different reasons at night including hunger, wet or dirty diaper, gas or stomach upset, noise, light, and simply newborn reflexes, fever or illness as well.
What are the most effective ways to make a baby sleep through the night?
To help baby sleep through the night, you want to set the tone of the room which should be calm, quiet and dark. Turn off all forms of distractions-loud televisions, computers or radio. Close the curtains or blinds and dim the lights in the baby’s room.
Create coziness- try a swaddle for the first few months as it will help the baby feel secure like in the womb. Make sure to be consistent about putting your baby down to sleep while still drowsy, and to give them a few minutes to settle down to sleep on their own. Most babies fuss a bit before drifting off to sleep.
Don’t run right in the first second you hear the baby make a few sounds on the baby monitor. It is common for babies to cry out and then soothe themselves back to sleep. If not and they continue to cry, go to them, pat them, let them hear your soothing voice but try not to pick them up particularly if you know they are not hungry or need changing.
Reassure the baby with your light touch. You should know that its ok to leave a baby in the crib and let them try to settle back down to sleep. It’s a learning process and every baby learns at his/her own pace. If they really are crying and need to be held, do so, but remember to put them back down into the crib before they are sound asleep in your arms.
This way they are using their skills to soothe themselves back to sleep. A very important skill needed for sleeping through the night.
How many hours does a 3-6 month old baby sleep?
Babies that are 3-6 months old sleep about 15 hours in total including 2-3 naps a day.
Important Sleep tips
Nightime routine- helps baby anticipate time for bed
Example- singing to baby, bath, infant massage, pajamas, feed,storytime, lullabies, off to sleep
Sleep Safety to avoid SIDS in infants under age 1
- Make the baby sleep on his/her back, and never on the side or stomach
- Don’t make the baby sleep with a wedge or side sleeper
- Use a firm crib mattress with a fitted sheet
- Don’t use bumpers
- No fluffy bedding or plush toys
- Keep the baby’s room comfortably cool-avoid overheating by keeping the temperature at 68-72 degrees F
- Avoid over-bundling the baby in too many layers
- Room sharing- crib or bassinet in same room as parents
- If you feed the baby in bed, make sure to return him/her back to the crib
- Breast feeding has been shown to be a protective factor against SIDS
- Pacifier is also considered a protective tool against SIDS
- Avoid smoke in the home and around the baby
About Jen Trachtenberg, MD: Dr. Trachtenberg is a board certified pediatrician, nationally renowned parenting expert, author, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She has a successful private practice in New York City for over 22 years.
Dr. Jen’s mission is to maximize the potential that is within every child. She is the creator of Pediatrician in Your Pocket: the only science-based, mom-tested, no-judgement, video guide for new parents.