Once your little one is asleep for the night, we want them to “sleep” all night long. Why did I put sleep in quotes? Because no one truly sleeps all night. We all wake up countless times- oftentimes we roll around, feel that nothing has changed, and we keep sleeping. We may not even remember these wake ups in the morning. Simple enough, right? Our littles do the same thing. They also wake up many times overnight and the goal is for them to continue sleeping too.
Why then, does a short, expected wake up sometimes turn into a long, drawn out ordeal? Remember that I’m talking about wakings that turn into habit for a few days or weeks.
Here are the top six reasons your little one may be waking up at night.
1. Bedtime associations
2. Night time associations and your response
3. Sleep timing is off
4. Sleeping too much or too little
5. Sleep environment and light
6. Developmental progressions
A Quick Note
I want to keep in mind that in my opinion and experiences in working with families, most babies (after 4 or 5 months), toddlers and preschoolers are able to sleep through the night. If we work together, that is usually our goal. And we reach it!
However, I also acknowledge that parents may have different perspectives and expectations for their little one’s sleep. If you don’t think babies can/should sleep through the night, then this article is probably not for you.
If you’d like some help in figuring out why your baby or toddler is waking up at night- here are my top 6 reasons!
You may have heard this before but when our little ones need help getting to sleep at the beginning of the night (by rocking, holding, feeding, laying together), they may expect to recreate those conditions when they have those night wake ups. This means if they fall asleep in your arms and wake up two hours later in their own bed, they need your help again to fall back asleep.
Imagine falling asleep on the couch and suddenly you wake up in your bed. This may be confusing! Now imagine you can ONLY fall asleep on your couch. You may need to make your way back to the couch to sleep again if you suddenly wake up in your bed instead.
Work on helping your little one fall asleep independently at bedtime. This will make it more likely that when they wake up in the middle of the night, they can roll right over and continue sleeping without calling for you.
Nighttime associations and your response
Similar to how they fall asleep at bedtime, what happens when your little one wakes up in the middle of the night? Do you pick them up, rock them, replace the pacifier, feed them, etc.? If you respond most times to help them back to sleep, they will look for that again and again with each wake up. If this works for you and you don’t mind, then you do you! No need to make any changes.
If you don’t want to be part of their night time equation, you may need to change your response and give them the space to fall back to sleep on their own.
Teaching independent sleep doesn’t mean your little one won’t call out for you when something is wrong. Teaching independent sleep means you will be able to differentiate when something is wrong (and it’s always ok to respond!) versus when they are transitioning between sleep cycles and simply want to continue sleeping.
Sleep timing is off
There are times during the day that sleep is more restorative. This is thanks to our body clock, the circadian rhythm. When naps happen outside of these windows or when bedtime is too late, it is likely that your little one is becoming overtired, making fighting sleep, night wakes, and early wake ups more common. Having too much time between the last nap and bedtime may be doing this too.
Shifting the sleep schedule to one following their biological process can help improve the quality and quantity of sleep. Sleep timing and day sleep can have a huge impact on night sleep. Read more about the sleep science and the right nap schedule that will support your little one sleeping through the night.
Sleeping too much or too little
I hesitate to include sleeping too much because this usually is not the case. More often, missed daytime sleep or too much time between the last nap and bedtime can lead to fragmented nights. If your baby is not sleeping enough during the day (say they’re taking one nap when they may still need two, or only taking short cat naps), nights may be affected. Pay attention to their mood throughout the day and approaching bedtime- cranky and tired, or hyperactive, may indicate that they need more daytime sleep.
Focusing on getting enough daytime sleep may lead to your little one sleeping better through the night.
There can be situations when too much day sleep leads to fragmented nights. This can happen with our preschoolers who may still be taking long naps which may also be ending too late. If your preschooler is struggling with night sleep and everything else seems ok, shaving time off their nap may help. If your little one is closer to 2, there’s probably something else going on- don’t drop your two-year-old’s nap just yet!
Sleep environment and light
If your little one is waking in the early morning (usually considered before 5:30am/6:00am), consider the sleep environment, particularly light. Light coming into the bedroom may signal the brain that it’s time to wake up. Especially in the summer when the sun rises early, take care to make the room pitch black; cover up light coming in along the edges of curtains and through “black out” curtains. Sometimes they’re not as black out as they say!
A sound machine with white noise can also help to block out household or outside noises. A loud car, sibling, or garbage truck can disturb sleep and make it difficult to return back to sleep in the early morning.
Rolling, sitting, crawling, standing, walking, talking… your little one is busy learning new skills ALL the time. These milestones may completely change the way your child experiences the world. Their bodies may want to master these skills and even practice all night– and disrupt their sleep.
Offer many opportunities to practice these new skills during the day. Make simple games to help them master and enjoy their new abilities during the daytime so they are less interested in practicing all night long.
Do your best to avoid starting new sleep habits. This will likely prolong the disruption because you will also have to spend time undoing new habits. Instead, if nights and/or naps are very disrupted, lean into that early bedtime. This will help prevent an overtired baby and the buildup of sleep debt.
It's all about the full picture
Waking up in the middle of the night can be one of the hardest sleep issues our little ones face– and it’s no fun for us either! It can be particularly frustrating if they were previously sleeping through the night and night wakes suddenly appear.
Make sure your little one falls asleep and returns to sleep on their own. This will make sure that typical, short wakes, remain short and not disruptive to restorative sleep. Balancing daytime sleep needs and avoiding feelings of overtiredness at bedtime will decrease night wakes as well. Developmental milestones may cause temporary disruptions and staying the course should make healthy habits return. Finally, taking note of the light and sound environment will keep external factors from interrupting your little one’s sleep.
Have you identified the issue with night wakes but need some support to carry out the fix? Book a discovery call to get your whole family sleeping peacefully!