As a new parent, you know how precious sleep is. You know that sleep is essential to your sanity and your baby’s well-being and health. The problem is, if your baby is suddenly waking more during the night it can be tricky to figure out exactly why is baby waking up at night.
Over the course of her first year of life, N had a LOT of night waking. And depending on what was going on with her developmentally or otherwise, it seemed to always be for a different reason. All of my troubleshooting and internet scrolling was almost as exhausting as the sleepless nights.
I wanted to compile all of this in one place so that if you find yourself with a baby who is suddenly waking more than usual, you’d have jumpstart guide. We’ll work on finding an answer to that age-old question, why is baby waking up at night? We’ll discuss ways to identify the obstacles, and some suggestions that can support baby through it.”
All of this is in the name of more sleep for everyone with hopefully the least amount of stress and tears possible.
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This article is a reference guide for common sleep-related obstacles. Within each section, I will highlight typical ages that it would apply to and specifics on what to do depending on your baby’s age when applicable.
There is never going to be a one-size-fits all solution to sleep. There are an endless number of obstacles that might be the root of the disruption, and you’d never apply the same strategies with a 4-month-old as you would to a 1-year old and beyond. So many sleep articles and blog posts I encounter generalize baby sleep which isn’t helpful to solving your problems.
Related Article: The Sleep Myth That Set Me Up for Failure
10 Reasons Why Baby Could Be Waking Up at Night
- Growth and Hunger
- Mental Leaps
- Physical Milestones
- Room Temperature
- Sleep Associations
- Separation Anxiety
- Sleep Regressions
Now, let’s look at the details!
Why Is Baby Waking up at Night?
Let’s look at ten common reasons your baby could be waking, and what you can do about it at different ages.
1. Growth and Hunger
This is the sleep disruption that you will likely encounter the most often during your baby’s first year of life. Between birth and 12 months, your baby will go through at least eight separate growth spurts. During these spurts, your baby may do larger chunks of sleep but when they wake they will be ravenous. In an older baby, if they were previously sleeping through the night, or waking only once or twice, you may see more waking because baby wants to be fed.
What to do for 0-4 Month-Olds:
This early on in your baby’s life, you frankly shouldn’t be concerned about sleep or creating bad habits. Up until this point, it is critical to feed your baby on demand. If you are nursing, it is essential to your supply. And whether you are nursing or bottle feeding, it is essential to baby’s health and growth. Your baby will need to eat around the clock for the first few months of life. During a growth spurt, your baby’s hunger will ramp up.
If you are nursing, you will likely experience cluster feeding. This is when baby nurses non-stop for a long period of time, switching from side to side or takes only 30-minute breaks between nursing sessions. During this window of time babies typically have growth spurts at 10-14 days old, 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 9 weeks, 3 months and 4 months. A LOT of growing happens during this time.
My best advice for dealing with hunger and growth-related night waking this early on is to keep night time feeds as boring and unstimulating as possible.
- Aim to keep the room as dark as possible and avoid making eye contact with your baby. Only change their diaper if they poop, wet diapers can wait until the morning.
- Don’t do any unnecessary swaddling, changing or adjusting.
- Using a sound machine during the night is helpful to create an optimum sleeping environment. Leave this sound machine on during your night feedings.
- Immediately after baby is done eating place them back into their safe sleep space.
- If they cry upon being place back to sleep, use calm techniques to help soothe them back to sleep, or offer another feeding. Remember, they are waking because they are hungry and growing, so they may just need a little more to eat.
What to do for 4-6 Month-Olds:
Within this window of time your baby will go through growth spurts around 4 months and 6 months. Remember that all babies are unique and won’t necessarily follow this to a T. However, if your noticing your baby is suddenly nursing or taking a lot more bottles during the day, and is waking at night looking to eat, you’re probably dealing with a growth spurt. They typically only last around 3 days, so it is best to give your baby what they need.
This is still very early on in life, and while you can definitely focus on healthy sleep habits, I wouldn’t get too worried about creating a sleep association because they want to eat more at night during a growth spurt
Some ideas to help get more sleep, or longer chunks, if you have a night eater, is to tank baby up before bed. Offer to nurse or feed your baby every hour or so leading up to bed time. You can also focus on adding more feeds gradually to the day in order to replace some of the feeds at night.
This time in your baby’s life is often filled with distracted eating. This means that your baby may not be getting as much during the day as they could be, growth spurt or not. Resulting in a hungry baby during the night.
- You can help remedy this by attempting to feed your baby in boring unstimulating places during the day.
- At home, a darkened room works great.
- In public, some mothers find a nursing cover to help with this, less for their own privacy but more as a blinder for baby. Here is one that Trina loved.
What to do for 6-12 Month-Olds:
This age range has typical growth spurts around 6 months, 9 months and at the year mark. If your baby is suddenly waking more during these times you likely need to endure the sudden night time feedings and know that they will soon pass.
When you go in, you can try to first comfort baby without a feeding and consult other possible reasons for waking. If hunger is definitely the culprit, make sure that feeding is boring and do not engage in play. Try to avoid having baby fall asleep while eating if possible to avoid creating sleep associations.
Some strategies that can help with general nighttime hunger in this age range are:
- Tank baby up during the day. During this time your baby will be eating more and more solids.
- Choose healthy, filling and high fat options like avocado, plain whole-milk yogurt and cheese.
- Smoothies are also a great choice once you know baby can tolerate all of the ingredients. I like to add nut butters to N’s smoothies to make them extra filling.
- More daytime calories = less need for calories during the night.
- If your baby is still starting out with solids, avoid trying new foods at dinnertime and risking an upset tummy which could also be disruptive to sleep.
Sleep Is Ever-Changing!
In just reason one alone you can see, how much variation there is over the course of the first year. With so much going on at different months, it’s no wonder no single method works!
Make sure you have a go-to sleep resource that is not only educational but also provides a network of support with access to experts. The baby sleep site has always been my go-to ever since N was born. No matter what the issue is, I end up there every time.
2. Mental Leaps
Mental leaps account for a lot of baby’s night waking. Just like they grow physically during the first year, your baby is also learning and developing so many mental skills. To name a few, they learn how to categorize and process their world. They learn to draw connections, infer and expect outcomes.
Your baby is also “digesting” every word and utterance they encounter. They will learn to comprehend and then communicate. All of this change can really affect sleep.
There have been countless nights where N seems to just not be able to shut her brain off. My husband and I often say, “She can’t sleep, her brain is going crazy!” When this happens, I usually find it ineffective to nurse or calm in another way because she is too manic. I know this is the culprit for a night waking if she seems wide awake.
If it’s language related, you might hear your baby making tons of noise, babbling, or trying out new words/songs. If it has to do with a process or skill they will be looking for a way to practice in their crib. This could be related to cause and effect, taking something on and off, or testing out a routine.
What to Do About Night Waking Due to Brain Development?
Often, the first night this occurs we indulge her need to use her brain. So if you’re reading this on night one of this night waking, I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer! However, when we do this, we make sure to keep the lights off and do not engage more than necessary. Often reading books by nightlight fulfills her need to feed her brain and she will eventually settle.
Specific books will fulfill and correlate to what your baby is working on.
- Repetitive sound and rhyming books can be good for early sounds. They won’t yet be following a storyline but appreciate sound repetition and alliteration. I love, The Bear Snores On and other books in that series.
- A “First Book of Words” book is good for the emerging talker, like this one.
- Books with repetition, or that test objective permanence can be good for other mental leaps. We love, Where Is Baby’s Belly Button and Where’s Spot
- Pay attention to what books your baby is most interested in and respect their needs to read the same one again and again. It will help ease their mind and result in sleep faster.
The key to dealing with night waking that seems to be caused by developmental leaps is to feed their need during the day. Always after a night like this, I attempt to offer plenty of opportunity during the next day to exercise her mental need. This ensures we won’t have repeat nights of nighttime skill practice.
You can find more information about when mental leaps occur and specific activities for each one in the book, Wonder Weeks. This book is an invaluable resource to parents to help understand your baby’s mental growth and ways to support it.
3. Physical Milestones
You can identify night waking due to physical milestones easily. Your baby will wake up, or refuse to go down, because of an obsessive need to practice their new gross motor skill. If they are still working on the skill they may cry out because they cannot successfully complete the task.
For example, if baby is learning to roll they may first only be able to do it one way. Some babies learn to sit up but can’t lay back down, or pull-up to stand but cannot get back down. Other reasons for waking or crying out might be because their sleep space doesn’t allow enough room to practice their skill, like crawling or walking.
How to Reduce the Need for Nighttime Practice?
With night waking due to physical milestones, it is best to go in and attempt to calm baby without disrupting the environment of the room in any way. If your baby cannot settle, you may need to indulge them. Just like with mental milestones, I would usually indulge N, but keep the room dark and not engage. The key will be the next day to give them LOTS of opportunity to practice so that by the time bedtime rolls around they are exhausted.
The physical milestone that caused the most difficulty in our house was when N learned to crawl. One night, she was up for over 2 hours, rocking on her knees like a maniac. It was like she couldn’t stop her body from moving even though she was exhausted. That night was rough, but by spending the entire next day focusing on allowing N to do this, no other nights resulted in night waking even though she didn’t actually crawl for quite some time.
Follow Your Baby’s Lead During the Day
Awareness with what it is your baby needs and wants to do during the day, will result in more sleep. This is because you will be able to fulfill their need to practice during the day. When in doubt, follow the child. See what activities or motions they are drawn to without your interference. They usually know what their body needs to strengthen and develop.
Teething is one of the most frustrating, yet common, answer to the question of “Why is baby waking up at night”. It may also be the answer to, why does my baby suddenly wake up crying? They may have a sudden outburst in response to the pain.
It can sometimes be tricky to know if this is the reason your baby is waking though. This is because they often feel pain before we can actually see the tooth. When the tooth is about to break through, we have more obvious visual clues and can help our babes out with the pain.
Each tooth can cause issues with sleep, or you may notice that some are worse than others. Some mom friends of mine reported their babies just one day “waking up with a molar” while others lost weeks-worth of sleep over the molars. You just never know how your baby will handle it.
When Does Teething Happen?
In the first 18 months of life, your baby will get between 12-16 teeth. There is a wide range of normal for when they all emerge. As a resource, here is a chart from the American Dental Association on average tooth eruption. Use it as a guide but know that some babies follow their own route. For example, N had 4 molars before she had her lower lateral incisors and had her upper lateral incisors before the central ones. You can never be sure when the teeth will emerge.
How do you know when a baby is teething?
- you may notice puffy, red swollen gums.
- You may be able to see the tooth beneath the gumline before it emerges, or notice small white bumps right before it breaks through.
- With the molars, there may even be blood blisters present due to all of the pressure.
- you can look for excessive biting or need to chew.
- You may see them biting on a lovey, crib rail, book, or their own fingers.
Even when N was getting her first tooth around 7 months, I remember taking her out of the crib to nurse as we usually would, but all she wanted to do was gnaw on my finger. These would all be clues that new teeth are to blame!
You might also notice:
- Excessive drooling
- Redness with light bumps on their chin or necks dues to chapping from drool.
- Some babies will pull at their ear or have decreased interest in solid foods because it irritates their sore gums.
- They may show extra interest in cold and frozen foods.
It is possible that you won’t see signs of teething until the night. This is because daily life can distract your baby from the pain. When they lay down and start drifting off, that nagging, aching feeling makes them unable to settle.
What to Do About Teething?
Daytime remedies come in the form of teethers, frozen fruit, smoothies, and liquid and soft foods. At night time, my best advice is to not shy away from using pain relievers. If you are relatively certain that teething is to blame, go for it. We found pain relievers to be life savior at night time with N. This will guarantee a better chunk of sleep, at least to begin the night. It was especially important to help her get some sleep at night because she was better able to tolerate the pain the next day when she was rested.
OTC Pain Relievers for Teething
Motrin (ibuprofen) is great because it lasts for 6-8 hours, if you are notice your little one needing relief again before that window is over, you can overlap dosing by alternating between Tylenol and Motrin. We find Motrin to be more effective for N’s tooth pain, but some moms I know swear by Tylenol.
See what your baby seems to respond better to and use that to start your night. Keep in mind that it will take 20-30 minutes for the medicine to take effect, so I usually try to give N Motrin at the beginning of our bedtime routine.
Always read instructions carefully and discuss any medicine use with your doctor or nurses when in doubt.
Why is baby waking up at night? It could be because they don’t feel good. This can happen at any age and will look different depending on their illness. You will know your baby is likely waking because they are in pain if they are crying inconsolably. You can look for obvious symptoms like a stuffy or runny nose, coughing and sneezing.
How to Spot an Ear Infection
Try to notice if they are pulling their ear or putting their finger in their ear which may indicate an ear infection. If your baby is unwilling to nurse on one side, that can also indicate a possible ear infection due to pain.
Check Baby’s Temperature
If you are in doubt, check your baby’s temperature. My experience with nighttime fevers is that when I picked N up her little body felt like a furnace! It was very clear to me that she had a fever. But sometimes, it can be hard to identify, so always consult a thermometer. Forehead and ear thermometers are not accurate in young babies, opt to take their temperature rectally for accuracy through the first year. Your pediatrician will likely ask for a reading this way too.
How can you help a sick baby?
Coughs and Colds
If a cold or cough is to blame it can be helpful to run a humidifier in baby’s room. You can also put their crib mattress on a slight incline to promote clearing of the nasal passage. This worked for us really well when N was still swaddled at night during her first cold. You can also use the Nose Frida. A genius invention to suck the snot right out of your baby’s stuffed up nose.
Unfortunately, once she started rolling and moving in her sleep, she never reliably kept her head on one end to benefit from this technique. But it is worth a try! If your baby is very congested it can be helpful to rock and soothe them in the bathroom with built up steam before putting them back to bed. You can also treat any discomfort with an over the counter pain reliever.
Remember that any temperature over 100.4 is considered a fever. General guidelines about contacting your pediatrician are as follows:
- In newborns, always call your doctor if fever is present.
- From 3-6 months, call your doctor for a fever over 101
- From 6 months and up, call your doctor about a fever over 103.
These are just guidelines! Always follow your mama instincts. If you see any signs of dehydration, or baby is extremely fatigued or in pain, call. You will be glad to be told everything is fine, and even more glad if you caught something earlier for getting in touch.
Be Prepared BEFORE The First Cold
It’s helpful to talk about handling colds and other illnesses in your baby with your pediatrician before they happen. We discussed colds, cough and flu with N’s pediatrician at her 2-month appointment which fell at the start of this season. It was really helpful to be equipped with knowledge and a handout of remedies to try at home before her first cold hit.
N has, knock on wood, only had one ear infection, but even compared to the stomach virus and numerous colds, it impacted sleep the most. She was in so much pain, and unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot that can be done outside of pain relievers ☹
Get Your Baby Seen ASAP
If your baby is showing signs of an ear infection, do not wait to be seen by the doctor! I was pushed off by the nurses for a few days instead of following my gut and things got worse. Once she was seen and started a prescription, her infection cleared up right away and she was finally able to sleep so that her body could full heal.
While waiting for relief from an ear infection be prepared to give your baby lots of snuggles and comfort. My husband and I took shifts because N was unable to sleep lying flat. It seemed to put too much pressure on her ear canal. We took turns allowing her to sleep on our chests in the rocking chair in her room. An inclined mattress might work in this case, but again, N doesn’t reliably keep her head on one end, so this doesn’t work for us.
Stomach Viruses in little ones is the worst! They just don’t understand why it’s happening. Luckily, these nasty viruses are usually short lived. The biggest concern you need to look out for is dehydration. If you baby vomits more than twice in one hour, always err on the side of caution and call your pediatrician to get specific signs to watch out for. You will also get advice on how often to nurse, offer fluids, and solids if applicable.
Streamline Your Clean-up
As for sleep during a stomach virus, your baby will wake when they vomit, and depending on the frequency may or may not be able to resettle. In my experience, N was always able to go back to sleep after vomiting. Her body was run down and obviously needed rest. You can make night time clean-ups easier by keeping clean PJs, sheets and sleep sacks at the ready.
Keep Things Calm
You may need to do some middle of the night baths if things are really messy. If you do need to do this, try to keep things calm and lights dim. Your baby already doesn’t feel good, so adding in bright lights and panicked energy doesn’t help. Easier said than done, for sure.
6. Room Temperature
If your baby wakes during the night, and there are no obvious signs or needs, consider temperature. Is your baby’s head sweaty? Does the back of their neck feel hot and sticky? Are their hands or nose cold? Your baby is not able to put on and remove blankets, so they will cry out due to temperature discomfort.
Keep A Constant Temperature
This can be especially tricky to navigate in homes with large temperature swings. We heat our home with wood, so as the stove dies down, our house gets a lot colder than it is at bed time. In the summer we don’t have AC, so when the sun goes down, the house temperature also drops. Because of this, we ended up using a window AC unit, and a portable space heater in her room seasonally. Make sure to get a space heater that allows you to set a temperature to keep the room at. This will prevent unnecessary heating expenses. Keeping a stable temperature in her room helped with sleep so much. The difference in sleep chunks was well worth the cost to run these.
I find this chart to be helpful when it comes to knowing how to dress your baby for different temperatures. It is only meant to be a guide. Look for your baby’s unique cues to help you know what layers they need.
Does anybody else’s dog randomly become a super protective guard dog at 2 am? Ah! Any surprising, loud or sudden noise risks waking your baby. Some babies are naturally heavier sleepers, and some are not. Their likelihood to wake due to noise is also reliant on what point they are at in a sleep cycle.
To learn about baby sleep cycles from birth until around 4 months, check out this post about newborn sleep.
To learn about how baby sleep cycles change, check out, The 4 Month Sleep Regression article.
What Can You Do About It?
The best combat against noise, other than shushing everyone constantly (guilty), is a sound machine. It made an instant difference in our house, and we still use it today because I just don’t live in a quiet house.
Some moms also put cute signs on their doors, like these, to discourage doorbell ringing.
8. Sleep Associations
If your baby is suddenly crying out during the night, they may be waking because of a sleep association. This occurs when baby is unable to fall back asleep without a certain support. For many babies, this is nursing. For others this might be bouncing, rocking, singing, a pacifier, a bottle. The list goes on and on.
Interestingly, to fix it, you typically use the same strategy. You want to first focus on separating the crutch as far as possible from the initial “going to bed”. You can read more details about how to break sleep associations. See point 5 in that article specifically.
For advice and details about removing nursing as a sleep association, see the article How to Navigate the Relationship Between Breastfeeding and Sleep.
9. Separation Anxiety
You’ll know you’re dealing with separation anxiety and sleep when your baby is suddenly unwilling to let or watch you leave during bedtime. For N, after a few months of letting me walk out of the room while she was still awake, she was suddenly standing up screaming mama as I walked out. It was a huge shift, and one that really broke my heart to see.
Luckily, there are a lot of great ways you can help your baby overcome separation anxiety.
What Age Does Separation Anxiety Begin?
Separation anxiety typically begins sometime in the 12-18 months window. In general, it is associated with when your baby begins to walk. This is because they suddenly have a clearer understanding about their sense of self separate from you. If your baby is an early walker, you may deal with separation anxiety sooner than the typical window.
How Long Does Separation Anxiety Last?
Most sources agree that it peaks in the 12-18 month window, and will start to ease up naturally around the 2 year mark. As with most things baby, there is a wide range of normal. The good news is that there are some great tips and strategies that can try to help your baby overcome separation anxiety sooner.
How Can I Help My Child Overcome Separation Anxiety?
Trina wrote an entire article dedicated to this topic which you can read, Separation Anxiety Wreaked Havoc on My Baby’s Sleep, for specific advice and details.
The long and short of it is:
- Work on it during the day first, try games like peek-a-boo, leaving the room for increasingly longer amounts of time, and even leaving baby with a loved one for 10 minutes at a time and slowly increasing the time
- Always say goodbye to your baby when you need to leave. It’s harder in the moment, but in the long run establishes trust and they can mentally process your departure
- Then work on naptime. Maybe first letting baby fall asleep with or on you. Then while you’re sitting in the room. Next, you move closer to the door, until you’re finally leaving them awake
- Next, work on bedtime in the same manner.
- With all of these strategies in place you should see night waking for this reason resolve Otherwise, use the same strategies that started at nap.
10. Sleep Regressions
If you’ve ever googled baby sleep, you likely know about sleep regressions. They are times in most baby’s lives where sleep gets seriously disrupted due to a huge change. Typically they occur at 4 months, between 8-10 months and at 18 months. There are different strategies for each one. If your baby is suddenly waking more during the night, are in these age ranges, and aren’t experiencing any of the other things on this list, it’s probably a regression.
4 Month Sleep Regression
You can read details about how to deal with the 4 month sleep regression. This one occurs because your baby’s sleep cycles change to be more like those of adults.
Other Sleep Regressions
You can read about the 8-10 months sleep regression, and the 18-month sleep regression in Trina’s Article, The Sleep Myth That Set Me Up For Failure. This article details the fact that once your baby sleeps through the night it doesn’t mean they always will. She debunks this myth and provides supports through the timeline of typically sleep obstacles.
For guidance with the sleep regression in breastfed babies read about, Breastfeeding and Sleep.
Create Good Sleep Habits
Outside of this list of specific reasons for waking and what to do about them, always revisit basic sleep foundations in your house. Be sure that you are providing adequate time for your child to wind down by having an appropriate bedtime routine. Look at awake times during the day, overtiredness can result in disrupted sleep at night. You should also make sure your baby has a good sleep environment.
You can read about these key foundations here:
If you are looking for sleep advice about napping, we have a nap series that educates about sleep cycles, needs, and how to get the best naps possible in a variety of age ranges:
- How to Lengthen Your Newborn’s Naps
- How to Get Your 0-4 Month old to Nap Independently
- How to Get Your 4-6 and 6-12 Month Old to Take Longer, Independent Naps
To learn more about creating a nap schedule based on your baby’s age and sleep needs read our article all about Nap Schedules. You can subscribe to gain access to our library of printables, which includes a worksheet to help you determine the ideal nap times for your baby.
For even more sleep help and support, head to our sleep section and browse through all our articles.
If you have any specific questions or need advice, please leave a comment below. I love to hear from readers 😊
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Alli Wittbold is a wife, mama, blogger, and online teacher. She feels passionate about connecting expectant mothers with childbirth class educators, and supporting them to achieve the birth they desire. After having her first baby delivered by a Certified Nurse Midwife, Alli is an advocate for midwifery prenatal care. She has learned so much about labor and delivery by attending and reviewing dozens of birth classes to help mothers learn and explore options. Alli co-authored the Week-by-Week Bump Smart Course, the Nesting Planner and the Breastfeeding Handbook, resources she is proud to share with as many expectant and new mothers as possible. Read more about Alli.