Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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Why is my Baby Waking Up Frequently at Night? Hunger, Habit or Something Else?

When my son was 3 months old he was waking up every 2.5 hours at night. Born at 10 lbs 4 oz he had a voracious appetite from the beginning. He had to be hungry each time he woke, right? …….There was an issue, but it wasn’t hunger, and largely it was me.

Why is my baby waking up frequently at night? Hunger, habit or something else?

A night time sleep cycle is 3 hours. If a baby is waking up every 3 hours, she is not transitioning from one cycle to the next.

Reasons for not transitioning:

  1. HUNGER.  If a baby is waking up frequently and hasn’t eaten in say more than 4 hours as a newborn, then hunger will prevent the baby from drifting into another sleep cycle.   Conversely, if a baby is 6 months old and waking up every 3 hours, hunger is not the reason.  Waking from hunger usually occurs at different times at night.

Common night feeds:

4-5 months: 1-2 feeds over 12 hours at night

6 months: 0-1 feeds

12 months: 0 feeds

  1. HABIT.  A baby who is waking out of habit will wake up around the same time every night.  For example, every night at 12:30 or 12:15 or 12:45.
  2. TEETHING: Chronic teething occurs for months and involves lots of drooling. Acute teething occurs over 2 days right before the tooth pierces the gums. During acute teething, baby will be noticeably uncomfortable during the day and naps are often short. Teething will usually interrupt falling asleep and early morning wake ups. Baby does not usually wake up every 3 hours or multiple times per night during teething.
  3. WET DIAPER. Back in the day perhaps a wet soggy diaper would be so uncomfortable it would prevent a baby from moving into another sleep cycle. In the days of 12 hr stay dry, a wet diaper is not usually a reason to keep a baby up. I can’t speak for cloth diapers however. A poopy diaper however will keep a baby up.
  1. GAS. Some babies are more sensitive to formula or a breastfeeding mother’s diet than others. If babe needs to burp, this will be uncomfortable and prevent moving into the next sleep cycle. Think “The Princess and the Pea” with the pea being a burp in her stomach trying to get out. Just can’t get comfortable.
  1. NOT KNOWING HOW TO RELAX. Yes, this is a skill! It is the “self soothing” that you may have read about. If you were nursed to sleep, bounced or held to fall asleep and then you wake up in the middle of the night, you would look for these same techniques to help you fall back asleep.
  1. BEING OVERTIRED. Imagine you were back in your twenties and had partied all weekend and were exhausted. So tired, that you are “wired’ and actually have trouble falling asleep. This can happen to babies too, much more easily.

In my experience, the most common cause of a baby waking up multiple times a night is not knowing how to fall asleep independently and having “sleep crutches”. Sleep crutches are external things that baby uses to be put to sleep. These include . When the time is right, sleep training may be needed to help teach baby to relax on her own to drift into sleep, and be able to put herself back to sleep. While sleep training is an important tool in the sleep coach’s repertoire, other aspects of baby’s day are equally important. Is baby getting enough calories in during the day? Is baby getting enough naps in during the day? Does baby have any digestive issues? Is baby being put down in the ideal “sleep window”? Are we setting baby up for success before we do the sleep training?

From 3 – 6 months, baby needs 3 -4 hours of naps during the day and 11 -12 hours of overnight sleep.

From 6 – 12 months, baby needs 2-3 hours of naps during the day and 11 -12 hours of overnight sleep.

If your baby isn’t getting this amount of sleep then he/she will be in the overtired zone. This will make it harder for baby to fall asleep, and stay asleep resulting in frequent night waking, short naps and an exhausted Mom!

Did you find my information helpful?  You can join my FREE Helping Babies Sleep Facebook Group where you can post sleep questions and hear from myself and other Moms.  Feel free to offer your support as well.

If you want to improve things quickly and are interested in personalized sleep help, I offer free 15 minute calls to discuss your situation and how I can help. Contact Me

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