Do you find yourself dreading bedtime because you know it will be a hassle to get any shut eye? Do you lay your baby down for the night while simultaneously hoping and praying you’re not woken up by cries in the next two hours? Are you struggling with the overwhelming task of trying to pinpoint why your baby will not sleep at night?
Dealing with nighttime disruptions and sleep deprivation can be a hard pill to swallow, however, night waking can oftentimes be a developmentally normal behavior during those first few months. Baby sleep is very different from adult sleep. Babies are very rarely in deep sleep, and they often need to wake just to feed — in order to grow. You shouldn’t expect babies to sleep for more than 4-5 hours at a stretch until they are at least 3 months old.
Most issues related to a baby not sleeping are caused by temporary things like illness, teething, developmental milestones or changes in routine — so there shouldn’t be cause for concern. Persistent & long term sleep problems, however, can limit adequate rest and could be a sign of a bigger issue.
It's helpful to know the possible reasons why your baby won’t sleep at night, so here’s a list of things that might be going wrong, and what you can do about it.
Internal clock is out of sync
It might seem like your baby is nocturnal — sleeping all day, and staying up all night. But this is actually completely normal behavior for a newborn. It’s frustrating and exhausting, but it’s temporary. Your baby is still adjusting to life outside the womb, and those nocturnal tendencies should correct themselves with time. You can help your baby differentiate between day and night by limiting daytime naps to three hours, and making clear distinctions between day and night — like keeping the nursery dark during naps.
Want to teach your baby that day is for play and night is for rest?
- Keep them awake a little longer during each awake period during the day. This will help increase the need for sleep later. You might also try playing with your baby for a few minutes after a feeding instead of letting them fall asleep.
- Get your baby outside in natural light to help reset their internal clock. If you can’t get outside, place your baby’s crib or bouncer near a window that gets steady, bright light. (And always make sure their skin is protected.)
- Keep lights low or off in baby’s sleeping area at night. Your goal should be zero disruptions, so keep sound and movement on the down low as well.
Doesn’t know how to fall asleep independently
Most likely, the number one reason your baby will not sleep at night is because he/she doesn’t know how to fall asleep or self soothe independently yet. Thankfully, there are sleep training methods that can help resolve this issue quite quickly. If you can, try not to feed or rock baby to sleep. Instead, feed or rock them till they’re drowsy, and then lay them down and allow them the chance to drift off to dreamland independently.
Too much stimulation
Babies are sensitive, and the new big world they just entered can be pretty overwhelming. Too much stimulation can throw them off their sleeping game. A busy day full of noise and activity makes it hard for babies to relax.
Stimulation can come in the form of mom eating too many sweets that come out in the breast milk, too many pinches and squeezes from Auntie, or just too much play during the day. Learn to gauge how much activity is too much for your baby, and try not to cram too much on one day.
Taking too many naps
As your baby gets older, they’ll need to transition to fewer naps and less hours of daytime sleep. Your baby not sleeping well at night can be due to napping too many times during the day. Too much sleep during the day will contribute to disrupted sleep at night, as well as extended periods of wakefulness during night wakings.
Starting at four months of age, most babies should nap only up to about 3.5 hours. If baby starts their day at 7 am and goes to bed around 7 pm, naps should total no more than 3.5 hours each day. Many kids sleep a lot less than 3.5 hours and that’s ok. But all infants/toddlers should max out at around 3.5 hours total across all naps. If your baby is napping a lot longer than 3.5 total hours each day, that may be contributing to night time wake ups.
Napping too late into the afternoon
The brain seems to treat sleep after 4 pm as “nighttime” sleep. If your child regularly naps beyond 4:00 pm, their brain may be having a hard time consolidating overnight sleep into a 12 hour stretch. Try to keep the last nap before 4pm, and see how that helps.
Babies get hungry (or “hangry”) just like adults do. Hunger is a common reason babies wake during the night, and they need frequent feedings in order to grow and thrive, so it’s not healthy to try and change this need. It may seem like your baby is requiring endless amounts of milk, but the truth is, your newborn isn’t really eating all that much in a single feeding. Breast milk actually digests quickly, which means a baby can wake up hungry and ready to fill their belly — all over again — within a couple hours. Even if you just fed your baby a couple hours earlier, check to see if food is what your little one needs. Thirst is another reason babies wake up, so a drink of breast milk or formula may just do the trick.
Dream feeding is a technique in which you provide your baby with a big meal immediately before you attempt to fall asleep yourself. The idea is to help your baby “tank up,” so your baby (and you) will sleep longer.
May not need a night feeding anymore
When infants keep night feedings for longer than necessary, they may be confused as to why some wake ups overnight are responded to with a feeding (assisting them to sleep), and others are not. They may cry for extended periods looking for the same assistance to sleep as they had when they are fed. For this reason, night feeds can become crutches and hinder baby from falling asleep independently. With permission from your pediatrician, it may be helpful to eliminate your night feed.
Woken up by something in the sleep environment
Sometimes infants are less likely to sleep soundly through the night if they are room sharing. There can be sights or sounds that are distracting or wake them from their slumber. When your baby is at the right age and you’ve talked to your pediatrician, try to have baby sleep in their own private nursery.
Always make sure their sleep environment (whether in their own room, or shared) is conducive to sleep. Use blackout curtains to really seal out any light. A white noise machine can help to mimic the womb, while also drowning out any other distracting noises in the home. Keep baby safe & comfortable to avoid any wake ups due to discomfort. Swaddles can be super helpful in those early stages to limit baby’s limbs from flailing and jolting them awake. Woolino merino wool sleep bags are another great option for assisting in temperature regulation, so baby won’t wake up too hot or cold.
Doesn’t feel well
Not too many people can sleep when they’re uncomfortable, or under the weather. I’m sure you can sympathize. And babies are no different. If they don’t feel well, nobody feels well, and sleep is scarce.
Your baby could be experiencing any of the following:
- Teething pain
- a cold or allergies
- gas pains
Every one of those things will cause a baby to wake up often during the night or your baby will not sleep at all. Check with your pediatrician if you suspect pain or allergies could be the culprit. If you think gas is the problem, there are some natural remedies, such as massage, that can help relieve the discomfort.
In the middle of a developmental milestone
A major reason babies struggle with nighttime sleep is due to developmental milestones. Developmental milestones are the stages of growth and development your baby faces that may bring about anything from discomfort to curiosity, which can affect their ability to fall asleep. Thankfully, while these milestones may disrupt sleep, dealing with them properly ensures they do not permanently alter your child’s overnight sleep patterns. The following half of this blog will give you some insight on the developmental changes that are happening in your baby’s first 6 months.
Sleep problems: 0 to 3 months old & how to solve it
When it comes to newborns, sleeping is almost all they do, yet it can also feel like your baby isn’t sleeping hardly at all. That’s because, even though they generally sleep about 14 to 17 hours in a 24-hour period, they’re still waking up frequently to feed both day and night.
A newborn’s biggest sleep problem is having to adjust to a regular sleeping pattern. Days and nights can be mixed up for them, and they’re not yet on a consistent nap schedule. Very young babies take brief snoozes, almost like catnaps, often because they need to wake to eat again so soon. In the first few weeks, you shouldn’t expect much consistency. Sleep, eat, and poop is pretty much their routine, and because they’re so dependent on you so frequently in the night, it can feel like sleep is nonexistent. But don’t worry… this stage is only temporary.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix approach when it comes to feeding a newborn. It simply just has to be done, but thankfully, this is only a temporary stage. Your little one will be sleeping longer stretches in the night soon enough. To help your baby’s internal clock, you can try making clear distinctions between day and night — like exposing your baby to natural light during daytime play, and keeping the nursery dark during sleep.
Sleep problems: 4 to 5 months old & how to solve it
Sleep regressions and changing nap routines are the biggest issue for 4-month-olds and 5-month-olds. Sleep regressions happen when new developmental changes cause a frustrating, uncomfortable, or distracting situation for a baby, which causes their good sleep habits (if any) to back track. Major change can wreak havoc on sleep, and sometimes finding the right amount of sleep for your little one can be tricky. Keep in mind that the general amount of sleep for a 4-month-old is 12 to 16 hours of sleep a day, broken up into 2-3 daytime naps totaling 3-6 hours, and then another 9-11 hours at night. 10 to 11 hours at night is the norm for a 5-month-old, with two to three naps during the day.
Sleep problems: 6 months old and up & how to solve it
By 6 months, your baby’s sleep pattern should look consistent, and hopefully much improved. He or she should be clocking 10 to 11 hours of sleep at night and take two or three naps during the day. But more importantly, babies 6 months of age and older are completely capable of sleeping through the night. However, that does not mean you will be without some sleep trials. There are still plenty of things that can disrupt their slumber.
A few sleep problems you may experience at this age range may include:
- Teething pain
- Early wake ups
- Unable to fall asleep independently
- Restless sleep because of feedings
All of these problems are encompassed in a sleep regression. As babies get older, more teeth break through their gums, causing much discomfort during the night. The amount of hours they are expected to sleep becomes less (reducing their need for naps), and if your child hasn’t transitioned to fewer naps yet, that could be the reason they’re waking more frequently during the night. As they move into their toddler years, they might experience nightmares or night terrors, which can cause issues trying to get them to fall asleep independently. Growth spurts and hunger can even cause wake ups all over again.
Sleep problems after illness & how to solve it
A sore throat, congestion, or a fever can make it harder for babies to sleep soundly. Since I’m sure you will empathize with your baby’s discomfort, you’ll probably take extra care of your little bundle-of-snot while they’re feeling under the weather. That means you may go to the trouble of checking in more frequently, or rocking & nursing baby to sleep. It’s possible that baby might get used to the midnight visits, snuggles, or feedings. Your baby’s normally good sleep habits will become disrupted when sick, and once healthy again, your baby may still wake up crying for you during the night.
To resolve the bad habits formed while sick, you’ll need to be consistent again once your baby is well. Once back to her bubbly self during the day, be sure to get back to the usual sleep habits at night. It might take a few nights to get back to the routine, so hang tight. The more consistent you are, the sooner she’ll get the message nighttime is for sleep — not hanging out.
Problems in the sleep department are common, and even normal! The good news is that they’re usually solvable and/or temporary. Have patience in the process, and take comfort in knowing that as your baby grows and changes, sleep will come again.