Hunger or Habit? How to Know Why Your Baby is Waking in the NightFeb 08, 2022
Night wakings can be stressful and exhausting; especially when they are frequent and recurring nightly long after the first few months of your baby’s life, where they are to be expected. We talk a lot about getting babies to “sleep through the night,” but did you know that your baby isn’t actually expected to sleep straight through the night? Even as adults we have night wakings!
These wakings that are so common and natural for all of us are due to the progression of sleep cycles. As a newborn, your baby only has 2 sleep cycles. Then around 3-5 months, your baby has a huge shift and develops 2 additional sleep cycles . Waking in between these 4 cycles is inevitable, but when your baby learns to fall back to sleep on their own and connect these sleep cycles, this is when they can begin to truly “sleep through the night.”
If your baby is over 4 months and has developed independent sleep skills that help them back to sleep during the night, it can be confusing when suddenly they are having frequent night wakings. But, because you know that they are capable of sleeping for longer stretches, it makes determining what could be causing them to wake in the night a lot easier.
Is Your Baby Waking in the Night from Hunger or Habit?
If a baby who knows how to fall asleep independently wakes to cry in the night, we know that they are crying because they need something, not because they don’t know how to get back to sleep on their own! So how do you determine what they need?
If your baby is under 6 months old (or underweight) they might still need to eat during the night. And if they do wake in the night from hunger, feed them! Sleep training doesn’t mean that you have to automatically drop necessary night feeds.
Most babies with independent sleep skills tend to drop their own night feeds naturally when they are ready because they aren’t using feeds solely as a way to fall back to sleep. But, although ideal, natural weaning isn’t always what happens. Check with your pediatrician if your baby is close to 6 months old and a healthy weight to see whether they think overnight feeds are still necessary (or how many), and then you can wean when you feel you and your baby are ready. Some babies are ready to drop overnight feeds and sleep 6-8 hours as little as 3-4 months, and some may keep a night feed until closer to 6 months. All of that is normal and depends on the specific baby!
When determining if your baby is waking from hunger, hold them to their consistently longest stretch of sleep. If they’ve been sleeping 5+ hours but now wake every 2 hours, you can feel pretty confident that they don’t suddenly need a feed, and that this is a sleep regression or disruption not associated with hunger. In this case, you can use other methods of soothing your baby during those wake-ups.
Babies get used to what they are introduced to. If your baby has never fallen asleep without being fed, rocked, or on your body, it’s likely that they will continue to need that sleep association to get back to sleep when they wake in the night between sleep cycles. As newborns, of course, we know that they are going to wake from hunger every few hours. If this continues on for months and months past the newborn phase, it’s likely your baby simply doesn’t know how to fall asleep independently and is crying because they need help getting back to sleep, not necessarily from hunger.
It’s also common to introduce them to a habit they didn’t have before as your baby goes through developmental milestones and sleep regressions that can cause sleep disturbances. I get it, we all just want to go back to sleep!
Offering a feeding when they don’t need one, rocking them back to sleep, giving them a pacifier over and over again… anything to help them get back to sleep during those restless nights. While these things might work to help get your baby back to sleep (temporarily), they will most likely cause a habit that your baby will continue to wake for even after the milestone or regression has passed.
When your child is waking from a habit, I know how defeating and overwhelming it feels when they will ONLY go back to sleep with that specific preference. It can feel impossible that they’ll learn to sleep any other way. The reality? There is no magic wand for switching a baby’s habit or preference. Babies get used to what they’re introduced to! The positive in that statement though is that YOU have the choice of what habits or skills you want to introduce, when to introduce them, and how you react to these wakings!
Of course, there are more reasons for wake-ups than just hunger or habit, like a dirty diaper, illness, discomfort from being too hot or cold, etc. These are great things to consider if you are unsure why your baby is crying during a night waking. If you feel all your baby’s needs have been met and they’re still waking frequently in the night, that’s when you can be pretty confident they are waking out of habit.
How to Get Back on Track When Your Baby is Waking in the Night
I know how exhausting these night wakings can be! So what can you do to help get your little one’s sleep back on track and you both sleeping well again?
- Early Bedtime. Frequent night wakings are associated with babies who are overtired by bedtime or perhaps didn’t get enough sleep during the day. Keep their bedtime early, with the first few days, or a week maybe, even earlier than usual while they are getting back on track.
- Regular naps. If your little one is overtired, it may be difficult to get them to take those much-needed naps. In this instance, do what you have to do to get your baby to have a great nap (i.e. contact naps, car rides, etc.). This will help your baby diminish some sleep debt and can help lead to better night sleep.
- Watch their wake windows. Wake windows are the key to avoiding an overtired baby and understanding your baby's cues (both tired and hungry). If you’re unsure of your baby’s wake windows, check out this blog post!
- Keep a consistent bedtime and nap routine. It’s been proven that a consistent sleep routine can help your baby sleep longer and better. Check out this blog post for the science-backed routine that I recommend!⠀⠀
When it comes to deciding what is causing your baby’s night wakings, it’s important to understand need vs. habit. A secure attachment between you and your baby is built upon meeting their needs. However, misunderstanding their cues and needs is common, and responding to every night waking with something that your baby doesn’t need (a feed, or introducing a sleep association) can reinforce these night wakings.
Though reading your baby’s cues and deciding what they need can often be overwhelming, remember that consistency is key! If something doesn’t seem to be working right away, that doesn’t mean that it won’t work soon. Change always takes time.
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.
Need help transforming your child's sleep? Check out my sleep offerings for children 0-3 years old!
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