How to solve baby’s nighttime sleep issues and get baby sleeping through the night. Get your baby on a solid sleep schedule.
While daytime naps are something we all want down, nighttime sleep is something we all NEED down! The better rested the baby is at night, the better rested we parents are at night, and the more emotionally stable we can be for the challenges of caring for a baby and other children.
All people, babies included, wake throughout the night. The goal is to get your baby to the point where she falls back asleep into the next sleep cycle rather than waking fully and needing your assistance to get back asleep (assuming she doesn’t have a need to be attended to).
There are lots of possible reasons for baby to come fully awake and request some assistance. This post will discuss reasons baby wakes and how to properly address those reasons so baby and you can sleep through the night.
How to Get Baby To Sleep Through the Night
Here are some strategies for dealing with nighttime sleep issues that come up.
REASONS BABY IS WAKING AT NIGHT CONSISTENTLY
If your baby is old enough he “should” be sleeping through the night, but he is still waking consistently each night, what should you do?
First, we want to identify the reason for waking. You can’t apply the proper “how” until you have identified the “why.” If your car won’t run because it is out of gas, but you assume it isn’t running because the starter is broken, no amount of fixing the starter (that isn’t actually broken) will fill that tank up with gas and make your car run.
The same is true with your baby. You have to address the proper reason for the waking to get past the waking. Here are common reasons babies wake in the night.
Hunger: Be sure your baby is getting enough feedings in the day. If your baby doesn’t get enough food in the day, she must take it at night. It is that simple. She needs the food.
A really good way to test to see if your baby is waking from hunger is to feed baby when she wakes. Almost every baby will take the feeding, hungry or not, but only the hungry babies will take a full feeding. If your baby is taking a full feeding, you know it is hunger, even if it is habitual.
If you still aren’t sure, you can try not feeding baby at when she wakes at night, help her fall back asleep, then see what happens. If she wakes 45-60 minutes later, she is probably hungry. If not, she probably was not really hungry.
If your baby is hungry at night, you can:
- Try to add a feeding during the day
- Try to add more food at each feeding during the day
Adding a feeding is simpler than it may sound.
One way to add a feeding is to feed more often during the day. If your baby is waking at night, you shouldn’t be moving past a 2.5-3 hour schedule during the day. Conquer the night before extending your schedule.
A dreamfeed is a great way to add in a feeding to what is more your “day” so baby doesn’t wake as often at night. A dreamfeed is a late-evening feeding. You can read all about the Basics of a Dreamfeed here.
Cluster feeding is another great trick to use to get baby to sleep longer through the night. Cluster feeding can be used instead of the dreamfeed or in addition to the dreamfeed. Read all about using cluster feeding to get baby sleeping all night here.
Also, be aware of Growth Spurts that can cause night waking, especially if baby is not fed in the day when hungry.
Pain: Does your little one have reflux or gas? Is baby teething? Are baby’s pajamas too small? These things will prevent baby from sleeping through the night. You will want to address the pain baby is in. It is hard to sleep if you are in pain.
Day/Night Confusion: Your baby might have night and day mixed up and not have the circadian rhythm where it needs to be. Read up on day/night confusion here. You will also want to understand circadian rhythm and how it impacts sleep here.
Habit: Watch for the time baby wakes in the night to be consistent. If it is all over the map from night to night (one night it is 5:45, the next, 4:15, the next, 5:15…) he is not waking out of habit and you can move on to the next reason to consider.
If your baby wakes up at 4:45 without fail every night, it is safe to assume it is a habit. You need to try to break that habit–assuming your baby is not hungry.
You can do that by trying the wake to sleep idea from the Baby Whisperer. Something I did with McKenna was purely by accident. One night, we had friends over so I didn’t do her dreamfeed until midnight instead of 10ish. That night, she passed over her habitual waking time and never went back! Read more about Wake To Sleep here.
Wet Diaper: Please do not gloss over this point! Not all babies will wake up because of a full diaper, but many will.
Is your baby wearing a big enough diaper? If my kids were close to the weight limit of a diaper, I put them in the next size up at night. You have to buy two sizes of diapers, but you will eventually buy the bigger size anyway.
Many people find that moving to a bigger diaper size or something like Huggies Overnites solves the waking problem. I know it did for both Brayden and McKenna.
You can read all about the nighttime diaper strategy I used with my babies in this post here.
Sleep Needs: Is your baby getting too much sleep in the day? Review your Babywise book and review the number of naps usually needed for your baby’s age. You might need to drop or shorten a nap in the day. Read up on my quick reference for when to drop naps here.
Conversely, is your baby not getting enough in the day? Sleep begets sleep, so if your baby is not getting enough sleep during the day, it can affect nighttime sleep.
How do you know if there is too much sleep versus not enough sleep? If your baby was sleeping at night well, then started waking more often, you might need to drop a nap. If your baby has never slept well, I would start by addressing not enough sleep before dropping naps.
You can also tell by your baby’s age. A four month old needs 3 naps, so if you have 3 naps, you can bet you do not need to drop a nap.
Bedtime: Keep bedtime early enough. A too-late bedtime will cause an early riser.
This might seem counter-intuitive to you, but when you think about sleep needs, it makes sense. If you consistently don’t get enough sleep, it is hard to sleep. At some point, you crash and get lots of sleep. This is called a sleep deficit.
Most babies have bedtime around 7-8 PM. You can read my tips for finding your child’s ideal bedtime here. Have a consistent bedtime and and bedtime routine.
Quirk: Is your baby just waking and talking? A review of page 132 in Babywise tells you that around 2-3 months old, many babies will wake and talk to themselves for up to an hour, and that phase can last over a month. This isn’t something specific to Babywise babies, either. This happens with many babies.
Expectations: Watch your definition of “night.” Kaitlyn often woke in the 5 AM hour, which to me was still night, but she had been asleep for 9 hours at that point. That is something to celebrate! 9 hours is a great length of time for a young baby, but we can easily get discouraged because baby isn’t sleeping until our definition of time to wake up for the day.
Temperature: Be sure your baby is dressed warm enough or cool enough to sleep well. Keep your house at a good temperature as much as you can.
Don’t underestimate the importance of dressing appropriately. Kaitlyn didn’t sleep well with socks on her feet. McKenna didn’t sleep well without socks on her feet. Make sure you are Dressing Baby for Sleeping in the best way for your individual baby.
Noise: Is there some constant noise waking your baby up? If baby is waking at a certain time, evaluate what is going on at that time.
When Kaitlyn was a newborn, she would wake at a certain time in the morning no matter how long it had been since she last ate. I realized it was around the time my husband got up for work. After that realization, we moved her to her own room at night. White noise can help with a baby waking from noise.
Social Visits: I have read that some children will wake at night even if they don’t need to because that is when they get attention from their parents. This is rarely true in oldest children, but more likely to happen with additional children. An oldest child gets all of the attention, but a parent’s attention is understandably divided the more kids you have.
If this could be the case, you would want to give as little attention as possible in the middle of the night. I read this before Brayden was born, so I was always careful to not make nighttime fun for any of my children. I didn’t make it miserable, I just kept it all business.
When I fed Kaitlyn in the middle of the night, I didn’t talk to her or smile at her. I avoided all eye contact with her. It could be really hard when she sometimes tried to strike up a conversation.
I found this policy to be easy with Brayden. He and I got plenty of one-on-one in the day. But with my girls, the day could be hectic, so I treasured those night visits. It was a quiet time for us to be together
The night waking wasn’t, however, something I wanted to keep up forever. So I did not engage.
If you suspect social visits are the cause of your baby waking at night, don’t socialize in the night. You would also want to make sure she gets the one-on-one attention she needs from you in the day.
Sun: The sun was such a problem for all of my babies. They would wake with the sun. Room darkening shades or dark blinds can help. With Kaitlyn, she just needed her blinds shut, while McKenna needed dark blinds to help block the sun more. See Early Morning Wakings and the Sun for more info on this.
REASONS BABY IS WAKING AT NIGHT SPORADICALLY
Now let’s identify some possible reasons for sporadic night waking. This means your baby doesn’t necessarily wake up every night, but it does happen.
Do not think that once your baby has slept through the night one night or even several nights that baby will never again wake up in the night.
Be wary of the idea that if they did it once, they could do it always.
I didn’t start a baby schedule with my first until he was 9 weeks old, and when he was only three weeks old I remember there were nights he would sleep 8 or 9 hours straight.
Other nights he would be up a couple of times. I remember distinctly when he was 7 weeks old there was a random day he nursed 4 times in the day.
I say that to illustrate that a baby doing something one day doesn’t mean they can always do it. When it comes to sleeping through the night, sleeping longer stretches gives you the indicator that they are moving toward it, but I think most babies sleep through, then will revert back and wake up, then sleep through, then revert back….
Part of Progress: If your baby sleeps sometimes, then wakes sometimes, your chances are you are experiencing something normal. It seems a lot of babies do this off and on until they eventually stop and just sleep. I would guess the younger the baby is when they start sleeping through the night, the more often this would happen.
Kaitlyn and McKenna were both this way, especially McKenna. Not fun, but just the way it is. Be assured it is very normal. Progress is a Spiral.
Hunger: If your baby suddenly starts waking in the night again, try adding more feedings, adding solids, or adding more food at each feeding.
One night I woke up at about 2:30 AM STARVING. I was so hungry my stomach ached. I had eaten as I always do the day before. I managed to fall asleep without eating, but it made me realize that sometimes babies could wake up in the night who normally sleep through and be legitimately hungry for no apparent reason. They might be able to go back to sleep, or they might not.
Growth Spurt: You also have to be mindful of growth spurts that disrupt nighttime sleep for some babies, though not all.
If you resist a growth spurt in the day, your baby will likely seek the food she needs at night. For some babies, even adding feedings in the day isn’t enough, they need more at night, too.
Need to Drop a Nap: Too many naps in the day? Maybe it is time to drop a nap, or shorten one.
Teething or Sickness: Your baby might be teething or sick. These are things that can be disruptive for some babies at night.
Disruptions: Did you have a wacky day? By that, I mean did you have a disruptive day to your normal routine? If so, that is fine, we all have days like that, but it could explain the night waking.
Sun: Is the sun rising around the time your baby is waking? Maybe the sun is rising earlier now and is now disrupting sleep. See Early Morning Wakings and the Sun.
Wonder Week: For some babies, they wake during the wonder week developmental leaps. Read up on The Wonder Weeks and Sleep to know what to expect when.
Sleep Prop: You might be experiencing a sleep prop gone wrong. Babies can start off sleeping just great with props, but then come to depend on them and can’t make it through transitions without help.
SOLVING THE NIGHT WAKING PROBLEM
Now that you have an idea as to why your baby might be waking in the night, you can work on how to fix it.
How to Get Baby to Sleep Through the Night
It is a good idea to take things one at a time. If you can’t decide which thing is the reason for baby waking in the night, do not try both of them at once. I suggest you change one thing at a time. Otherwise you might fix one issue, but start a new one at the same time.
For example, you might think “It could be hunger but it could be a nap needs to be dropped.” If you add a feeding and drop a nap the same day, you could be fixing a real hunger issue but creating a sleep issue because your baby was not actually ready to drop that nap.
Address hunger and pain possibilities first. Then move on to comfort. The look at schedule issues. Move on from there.
It is possible that more than one thing is contributing to the problem. You might need to change more than one thing, just don’t do it all at once.
This is a time when keeping a log is quite handy. You can get a copy of the logs I used with my babies here.
Here are the steps to take to get your baby sleeping through the night.
Address Problem: You have decided why you think your baby is waking in the night.
Pick the appropriate how for your why. If your baby is cold, dress her warmer. If your baby is hungry, try adding feedings to the day. In the sections above, I linked a lot of helpful posts to help address the issue.
Help baby relax with this baby bedtime lotion from 8 Sheep Organics
Feed Baby More: If baby is hungry, increase the food in the day if your baby is hungry. Try adding a feeding. If you are on a four hour schedule, go back to a three hour schedule. If you are on a three hour schedule, add a dreamfeed or cluster feed.
Feed Baby Less: If baby isn’t really hungry, you can try decreasing the amount eaten in the night. If you bottle-feed, offer less in the bottle. If baby takes 6 ounces, do 4 for a few nights. Then do 2-3. Slowly cut back.
If you breastfeed, decrease the amount of time spent nursing, or offer only one side, or both. That is what I did with Kaitlyn, and this fixed the problem.
Do this only if your child is not in need of food at night. You have to decide if your child is ready or not. How do you know? One obvious way is if your baby isn’t really eating in the night. Another is if your baby is eating in the night but then not eating for the first feed of the day.
Sleep Train Baby: Your baby needs to have the skill to fall back asleep independently, no matter the reason for waking. Be sure you are working to help your baby learn to self-soothe. Read about my favorite sleep training books here.
Tracy Hogg says in Secrets of the Baby Whisperer to tackle daytime naps first, night will follow (page 268). I completely agree with this statement. This is advice I have long been giving moms who are trying to establish a consistent routine.
Focus on getting your day set and then after some consistency, night should follow suit. Some babies do need some training at night, but wait until days are going really well. It is too hard to train all day and all night at first.
Cry It Out: I think once you are sure your child doesn’t need to wake up and eat in the night, it doesn’t hurt anything to give it shot at Cry it Out. Many people do cry it out with success, so if you want to, give it a try.
Babywise says that to CIO in the night can take as little as one time, but some kids might take at least two weeks.
Something you should consider is if you would be as willing to stick with a CIO for several nights if necessary, when you know that you could be up only 20 minutes at the most instead if you fed him, and then you would be back on your way to dreamland. Do not start and stop cry it out.
Help Soothe: You might not be able to do CIO in the night. If so, I don’t blame you. I haven’t ever done it at night. You can try helping baby fall back asleep by shh-ing, patting, rocking, etc.
Some moms use pacifiers. Some do Pick Up/Put Down by the Baby Whisperer. Sometimes just getting baby used to sleeping through helps her get over the hump so she can do it on her own. We really like The Four S’s from Hogg and used that to gently sleep train our last two babies.
Set the Room Up: Make sure baby’s bedroom is set up ideally for the best sleep. See my post on what is essential to the babywise bedroom for more.
Other Ideas: Check The Complete Guide to Troubleshooting Short Baby Naps post on this blog and run through possibilities there. There might be something that typically impacts naps that is impaction your baby at night.
Pay attention to what is going on when baby wakes. Be analytical and introspective. Trust your instincts. Try one thing for a few days to a week, if it doesn’t work, go back to brainstorming to think of the next most likely reason for waking.
Babies do wake at night, but there comes a day when baby does not need to anymore. You do not have to let sleep problems persist. These tips can help you get baby to sleep through the night so you can too!
RELATED SLEEP POSTS
- 5-6 AM Night Wakings
- Early Morning Wakings: What To Do When Baby Wakes Early
- Baby Waking Shortly After Bedtime: What To Do
- Baby Not Sleeping Through the Night? Use These 11 Tips
- When To Move Baby To Own Room
- How to Stop New Skills From Disrupting Naps and Sleep
- 5-8 Month Sleep Disruptions
- Sleep Tips from the Baby Whisperer
- Tips to Get Baby Sleeping Through the Night
- Healthy Sleep Elements and Developments
- Baby Whisperer: Sensible Sleep
- Importance of Healthy Sleep in Babies and Children
- My Sleep Hierarchy For Newborns
- Newborns at Night: Wake After 5 Hours
- Nighttime Sleep: 9-15 Weeks Old
- Season Changes Disrupting Sleep
This post was originally published on this blog in January of 2010.