3 Common Reasons Your Baby is Waking Up in the Middle of the Night

independent sleep night wakings sleeping through the night Oct 05, 2021

I know how exhausting it can be when your baby wakes up in the middle of the night. As tiring as these night wakings are though, they are completely normal and natural! In fact, did you know that no babies (or adults) actually sleep through the night? 

This is due to the body’s progression through the stages of sleep cycles. Newborns only have two stages of sleep in their sleep cycle, whereas babies around four months of age transition into four stages of NREM sleep, just like adults do - and we all wake briefly between sleep cycles, but most of us don’t even remember it. The question is whether your baby is able to seamlessly fall back to sleep on their own when they wake after a sleep cycle, or whether they need additional help to get back to sleep! Newborns will wake to eat every 2-3 hours in the night anyway, so we are not considering babies 0-8 weeks when we talk about needing help to get back to sleep! When babies learn to connect these sleep cycles and fall back to sleep independently, this is when they truly “sleep through the night.” 

But what if your baby is continuously waking during the night and then requires some sort of help to fall back to sleep?  Here are three reasons that could be causing these types of night wakings. 

What Are Night Wakings and What Causes Them?

Most babies are developmentally able to sleep through the night by 6 months of age [1]. When your baby experiences night wakings past this point, think of it as you would adult insomnia! Just like insomnia, night wakings affect both sleep duration and sleep quality, which affects mood and daytime functioning (for both you and baby!). [2]

When it comes to night wakings, there are many possible causes. Are they experiencing a “regression” in sleep? Are they going through a developmental milestone? These could definitely be things to keep in mind. Remember with regressions and milestones, they won’t last forever! So, just stay consistent with healthy sleep habits and it will pass. 

If your baby is having consistent night wakings and you’ve ruled out that it’s not because of a developmental sleep disruption, it’s most likely due to one of these basic causes:

1. Hunger

If your baby is 6 months or younger, or if there are any health or weight concerns, they may still need to be fed during the night. If they wake up because they are hungry, definitely feed them! As they get older (and as long as they are not underweight), you can begin to wean night feeds if you choose to.  If you need some extra help weaning your baby’s night feeds, I have helped countless parents with my baby sleep guides do exactly this.

2. Comfort

When your baby experiences discomfort in any form during the night, they are probably going to wake up from it. If your baby wakes during the night and they are not hungry, take into consideration these other possible disruptions:

  • Do they have a dirty diaper?
  • Are they too hot or too cold?
  • Are they teething or ill?
  • Are they having separation anxiety?

Even your baby being overly tired could be considered a discomfort and a reason for their night waking! Check out this blog post to help determine if your baby may be over-tired and as a result need better sleep. 

3. Habit 

Babies that require external help to fall asleep (rocking, feeding, etc.) are more likely to develop a habit of waking up in the middle of the night, as they will rely on that specific sleep association to fall back to sleep in between sleep cycles [3]. When we, as the parent, provide this external support to help get our baby to sleep, we are reinforcing these sleep associations. But the great news is that we can also encourage independent sleep habits by allowing our children the opportunity to fall asleep independently!

When it comes to sleep associations, it’s important to understand the difference between need and habit. As a parent, I understand wanting to make sure your baby’s needs are met. This is how a secure attachment with your baby is created! Oftentimes though, when meeting these needs, it’s common to misunderstand your baby’s cues and provide them with external support to fall asleep as a need, when really it has just become a habit.  For example, providing a feeding to get your baby to fall back to sleep when they are not actually hungry will most likely create a habit of your baby waking up to be fed. 

How to Fix Your Baby’s Night Wakings

Allowing your baby to develop independent sleep skills will help them learn how to put themself back to sleep when they wake naturally in between sleep cycles during the night. 

Putting them down for naps and night sleep completely awake (not drowsy!) and encouraging them to fall asleep on their own without any external support consistently over time is the best way to help your child learn this skill. Will this be an overnight fix? Definitely not - and that’s ok! Babies get used to what they’re introduced to and encouraged to do.  Practicing this skill consistently will aid them in developing these skills and to be able to sleep longer and better throughout the night! 

As a parent, you know your baby best! If your baby wakes during the night and you're unsure of the cause, try waiting 2-5 minutes to see if your baby will settle and fall back to sleep on their own. If they don’t, take a deep breath and take a minute to determine what your baby actually NEEDS so that you are able to meet that need. If the need is to sleep, then it’s a great time to begin implementing tools to encourage independent sleep! 

If you find yourself still struggling with your little one’s sleep, please know that you are not alone and that I am here to help. Download one of my comprehensive sleep guides or schedule a call with me for some personalized support. 


[1] [2] [3]   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7940085/

Need help transforming your child's sleep? Check out my sleep offerings for children 0-3 years old!


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