Frequent Night Wakes
By Angela Wilson
Certified child sleep consultant, MA Natural Sciences Cambridge University and co-founder of Baby Smiles Club
‘My baby keeps waking every hour or two in the night and needs my help to go back to sleep – help!’ is something we hear all the time. Frequent night wakes is actually one of the most common issues faced by parents with their babies’ sleep. It can result in a baby not getting enough sleep, and exhausted parents getting up throughout the night, every night, to help their little one get back to sleep.
So what’s the reason? And what can be done about it? We’ll explain!
Why does my baby keep waking up?
Firstly, let’s look at WHY your baby is waking up. There are a number of reasons for night wakes, but the starting point is your baby’s age.
Up until a baby is around a month old, frequent night wakes are the norm due to biology – most babies simply aren’t able to sleep for longer than a few hours at a time because their stomachs are tiny and they wake because they need to feed.
From around a month old, babies typically start to sleep for longer stretches. At this age (and from birth), babies are sleeping in sleep cycles but the sleep cycles aren’t like ours. The cycles are much shorter (around 35–50 minutes), and consist of only two stages: ‘active sleep’ and ‘quiet sleep’. When they get to the end of a sleep cycle, they’ll either wake up or they’ll roll into the next cycle.
Now, typically sometime between 3–5 months, babies go through what’s called the ‘4 month sleep regression’. It’s called a regression, but it’s actually a leap forward! It’s when a baby changes to having a 5-stage sleep cycle like ours. The cycles last 1– 2 hours. When a baby gets to the end of a sleep cycle, they’ll wake up or come close to doing so.
So it’s no coincidence that many parents say their 4 month + baby wakes every single hour or so in the night – they’re doing so because that’s how sleep cycles work!
So why is it some babies can sleep the whole night?
Now, you ask, if sleep cycles last only 1–2 hours, why is it that my friend’s 7 month old is sleeping solidly the whole night whilst I’m up all night, every night?
Firstly, we’ve explained that when a baby gets to the end of a sleep cycle, they’ll either wake up OR come close to doing so. A baby is more likely to roll through sleep cycles without fully waking up if their ‘sleep hormones’ (melatonin and cortisol) are in sync.
If a baby’s sleep hormones are out of whack, their melatonin levels won’t be as high as they should be in the night – and they’ll be more prone to waking at the end of a sleep cycle and struggling to go back to sleep.
Secondly, where a baby does wake at the end of a sleep cycle, two things can happen. They can either happily send themselves back to sleep, or they’ll need your help. Happily sending themselves back to sleep, perhaps after just a momentary rumble, or a minute or two where they feel more consciously awake, is known as ‘self-settling’.
Some people think self-settling means leaving a baby alone to cry whilst they ‘learn’ how to go to sleep. It doesn’t – it simply means the physical act of a baby closing their eyes and falling asleep, without needing your direct presence or help to do so. It doesn’t mean you’ve just ‘left them to it’, but rather that you’ve lined everything up for them to make falling asleep natural and easy.
Some babies are happily able to self-settle from early days, but others will need your help to master the art.
Why is self-settling so important?
It’s important for a baby to master the art of self-settling so that when they do wake up in the night (in between sleep cycles or otherwise), they can happily send themselves back to sleep, without thinking that they need your help. If they think they need you, what would otherwise be a momentary wake can turn into a full blown wake, and a struggle to get back to sleep.
Studies show that self-settling babies have longer continuous sleep periods AND total longer sleep times at night. This means better sleep for your baby, and also for you!
A baby will find it much easier to go back to sleep at night if they feel comfortable and cosy. They might be able to self-settle, but can’t go back to sleep because something is bothering them, like being hungry, too hot or too cold, or they’ve got wind. So it’s important that you help create a cosy sleep environment for your baby, and understand their needs.
How we can help
Our Baby Sleep Program has a chapter and video explaining everything you need about gently helping your baby learn how to self-settle. We’ll also help you understand the ingredients for good sleep, including creating a cosy (and safe) sleep environment.
Our Baby Sleep Program is founded on the most up-to-date science about how babies sleep, and is created with kindness and empathy. Helping a baby to sleep using our approach fosters and strengthens the parent-child bond.