It’s such a common issue, and it’s not always easily solved. That’s why there are countless books, articles, courses, and blogs about baby sleep—how to get it and how to make it stay.
Pre-children, the idea of sleep wasn’t too high on my agenda. I could stay up late, go to bed early, have a catch-up nap. Sleep was entirely in my control and completely taken for granted. Moms and dads, you know what I’m talking about.
Then the baby comes along, and you start to realise how good sleep is, how much you miss sleep, and how much you really, really love sleep. The amount and quality of sleep you get are no longer in your control, but in the hands of the beautiful but sometimes tyrannical tiny being you created.
Sometimes you love the midnight feeds and cuddles. Funnily enough, the 4 am feed with my boys when they were newborns was my favourite. The house was totally quiet and still; I had them all to myself. They would feed and head back to sleep after a little cuddle, and it was wonderful.
But, sometimes the night feeds become all too frequent, and nothing seems to be working. The more tired and more sleep deprived you get, the harder it is to do anything about it, except for a quick-term fix to get another 40 minutes of sleep.
Here’s the thing.
Waking at night is totally normal and expected, especially if your baby is under 3 months of age. Some babies will also still need a night feed right up to 9 months of age.
But, here’s the other thing.
As normal as night wakings are, we can always improve the situation and make life liveable again. I don’t know about you, but I am one cranky unpleasant momma without enough sleep. When our children haven’t had enough sleep, they are also irritable and prone to more and excessive tantrums. Sleep is good for getting us all through the day in a happy and productive mood.
4 Obvious Reasons Your Baby Isn’t Sleeping and You Have Probably Already Tried Resolving
There are four things commonly recommended to parents, and I’m just going to mention them briefly. You know them and have most likely already tried them. These are the following:
- Hungry – I always laugh when I see this listed as a reason for poor sleep. Of course, hunger is a reason but is this not the very first thing you try. Whip out the boob or grab the bottle.
- Put them down drowsy but awake – It’s very good advice, but it’s overstated, and it needs you to have perfect timing with your child’s sleeping window. There is so much more going on here.
- Sickness – You’ll know if your baby is sick. They are snotty and coughing, running a temp or have diarrhoea, and sleep will be disrupted.
- Teething – It’s a tricky one. But teething is often blamed when it’s not the problem.
Other Reasons Your Baby Is Not Sleeping and What You Can Do
1. Not Having Realistic Expectations
First of all, let’s make sure we have realistic expectations for when babies can sleep through the night. Just because we all have that magical friend whose baby slept through the night at 6 weeks and continues to sleep like a champ even though they are 9 months now, it doesn’t mean all babies will. I have a miraculous friend whose baby slept through at 3 weeks.
It’s also doesn’t mean that sleeping will always go smoothly forever. Your child’s sleep in the first few years of life is really fluid and ever-changing with development and different needs. So let’s talk about what is a realistic expectation for sleeping through the night.
Newborn–0 to 3 Months
Most newborns will still need to wake to feed during the night. The first few weeks of life, they might be waking every 3 hours to feed. They have little tummies and need to feed little and often. By 6 weeks, night sleep is beginning to consolidate, and you can expect some longer stretches of 4 to 6 hours. By 12 weeks, you can expect to be down to 1 to 2 feeds a night.
For example, they might have a bedtime feed at 6 pm, 10 pm, 3 am, and 7 am, including bedtime feed and breakfast feed. These are the minimum expectations for babies this age, and it may be that they still need a few extra feeds.
If your 12-week-old baby is waking every hour to feed, it is most likely a little excessive and exhausting for mum and baby. It would be a good idea to talk to a lactation consultant or your GP about your feeding schedule during the day and night.
Generally, babies will still need to wake once or twice during the night to feed. Again, if your baby is waking excessively to feed or comfort suck, you can improve their night feeding routine.
With the 4-month regression and difficulty settling at night, it can be easy to accidentally feed too much at night and then not enough during the day. Keep track of when and how much you feed, and aim to reduce night feeds and increase day feeds.
During this time, most babies are ready to drop their last feed, and it is realistic to expect that they can sleep through the night. Being prepared to drop night feeds also depends on the size and weight of your baby. If they are over 7 kg, feeding efficiently during the day, and growing and developing well, it is reasonable to expect they could sleep through the night.
Always be sure to talk to your doctor or lactation consultant about dropping the last night feed. After, do a few extra weigh-ins and make sure your child is still gaining a healthy amount of weight for their age.
Your child at this age is capable of meeting all their caloric needs during the day and sleep 12+ hours at night.
2. Sleep Environment Is Too Bright, Too Light, Too Warm
Make sure you have the best environment set up for your child’s sleep. Get your baby’s nursery ready with black-out blinds and a white noise machine. These two products are lifesavers when it comes to quality and consistent sleep, especially concerning daytime naps.
Do your best to make sure the room where your baby is sleeping is cool. 18 to 20 degrees is considered the perfect temperature for sleep. Have all the pretty knick-knacks that you want, but invest in some quality sleep products as well, like swaddles, sleep sacs, a baby monitor, and sleep-approved bassinet and cot. Your baby should have a firm, flat sleeping surfacing and always on their back to sleep.
3. Not Enough Daytime Sleep
More sleep means more sleep. It seems so strange, but the most sleep your baby gets, the better they will sleep. Make sure your baby is getting enough daytime sleep in their schedule, so they are not overtired and waking during the night. Get an age-appropriate routine and work on daytime sleep as much as nighttime sleep.
4. Your Baby Has Outgrown Their Current Routine
They grow so quickly and so change so rapidly, especially in the first year. Maybe you’re inadvertently still trying to put your 14-week-old down for a nap after 60 minutes of awake time because that’s all they could manage as a newborn. You trying to put them down, but they are actually not tired yet. Or maybe you’re still trying to get your 8-month-old down for a third nap in the late afternoon.
Keeping up with changing sleep needs in the first year can be a challenge. Have a look for an age-appropriate routine, and make sure your baby is not getting too much daytime sleep.
5. You Are Transitioning Away From a Nap
Moving from 3 naps to 2, from 2 to 1, or from 1 to none? Dropping naps and changing day time routines can affect night sleep. We are currently transitioning to no naps. I’m so scared. I always find that dropping naps always brings the dreaded early morning wake up, and the days can be a bit messy for a few weeks while we move this time of transition. While your child is getting used to a little less sleep, it can mean they experience a bit of overtiredness and a few night wake-ups.
6. Your Baby Is Not Napping at the Best Times of Day
Is your baby napping during the best time of day? Biological nap windows are when your baby experiences a natural dip in energy. These are the best times to put your baby down for a nap. The times are 9–10 am, 12–2 pm and 6–7 pm.
Putting your baby to sleep during these times can help your baby fall asleep easier and stay asleep longer. This is also why the later afternoon catnap at 3:30–4 pm can be such a difficult one to settle your baby for. If your baby is going down for the morning nap too early, it can cause early morning wake-ups. Meanwhile, if your baby is sleeping too late in the day, it can make bedtime difficult. Each of these can lead to overtiredness and difficulties for your child to sleep successfully through the night.
7. Reflux and Spitting Up
Feeding often helps babies fall asleep, but laying them down too quickly can result in an upset tummy and some spit-up. After feeding your baby, give them some time sitting up or propped up on your shoulder to ease their digestion before going to sleep. This technique is particularly helpful for younger babies.
8. Your Baby Doesn’t Have a Good Wind Down Routine
A reliable and predictable wind-down routine is one of the best tools in your baby sleep toolbox. Creating a comforting and relaxing time of 10 to 20 minutes before nap time will help your baby to sleep better and longer.
The elements of your wind-down routine also become cues for your baby that it is time to sleep. Things like being swaddled or getting in their sleep sac, hearing white noise, and getting their lovely all help your baby know that it is time to sleep.
9. Overtired and Overstimulated
Getting into the overtired and overstimulated territory is easy and painful for everyone in the family. It can be easy to miss a nap on a busy morning and find yourself with a baby who won’t go down for the midday nap, then falls asleep at 4:30. And then your baby won’t go to bed until 9 pm, resulting in waking up at 5 am to start the day. It’s like, why? Please, please, please, sleep in, just this once.
But no, their bodies are just not built that way. The more sleep your baby misses, the more overtired they become, and the more hormonal imbalance they experience. As their body tries to deal with being awake for too long, it releases cortisol and adrenaline.
Now there is nothing wrong with these chemicals; they occur naturally in our bodies for a variety of purposes. But it can be a problem when the balance is off-kilter. When too much cortisol is released—keeping the body awake and alert—and at the same time, your baby’s drive to sleep is increasing with the coming night, your baby’s two systems are not working in harmony. They are instead conflicting, making restful sleep difficult for everyone.
10. Sleep Regressions
There are sleep regressions at 4 months, 9months, 12 months, 18 months, and 2 years. The thing about regressions is that not all babies will experience them, and not all babies will experience them at the same time. However, it can give you some confidence in determining why you are dealing with all these extra night wake-ups and why your baby is refusing to sleep during the day.
11. Day and Night Confusion
This is particular to newborns. At around 6 weeks of age, babies start to consolidate night sleep and begin to sleep longer stretches generally in the early evening. They might now sleep a 4- to 6-hour stretch. However, sometimes babies can start taking this long stretch during the day and not at night.
Help your baby to fix their day and night confusion by making sure naps and bedtime are in the dark. Also, don’t let them sleep for longer than 3 hours during the day. This way, they won’t miss any day feeds and start looking for them at night. Check out our comprehensive article on this topic and how best to help a baby stop sleeping too much during the day and stay awake all night.
12. Starting Solids
Everyone tells you that when they start solids, they will start sleeping through the night. Sometimes it helps. Often, it doesn’t, and sometimes it can make sleep worse. I’m not trying to frighten you, but sometimes babies actively need help to learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Starting solids means introducing new foods to your baby’s tummy. Your baby’s tummy is changing, and new foods can cause an upset stomach as your baby’s body works on digestion.
Here are a few tips for starting solids. Giving new foods at lunchtime is a great idea, so any upset tummies occur during the day and not at night. Don’t go straight to three feeds a day. At 6 months, they are probably just having a bit of lunch. Pear and apple are great first foods as they are nice and gentle on the tummy.
By 7 months, dinner is on the menu. Don’t look to introduce breakfast until the baby is around 8 months and sleeping through the night. Sometimes introducing breakfast too early can encourage night wake-ups as well.
13. Your Baby Needs You
There are times when your babies just need you more than usual. If your baby is a newborn, they need all the cuddling and settling they can get. They cannot self-settle, and they need help from mom and dad. Your baby might be having trouble with separation anxiety, going through a sleep regression, teething, sick, or maybe you’re travelling and staying in new places. There are times all through our children’s lives when they just need a bit extra of mom and dad time.
14. You Went to Get Your Baby Too Quickly
This is especially true with newborns and younger babies. They can be quite noisy, even when they are sleeping. Before rushing in at the very first sound, wait a few moments and see if they settle back to sleep. We all have partial waking during the night; your baby will wake slightly and stir in between sleep cycles, too. Give them a few minutes, and see if they can settle back to sleep themselves.
There is a tricky balance between leaving them to settle in a few minutes and getting in just in time to help resettle them back to sleep if they wake up too early. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, and they are up and awake whether you are ready or not.
15. Medical Reasons
Sometimes your baby’s sleep just doesn’t get better. It doesn’t matter what you’ve tried; nothing seems to be working. There could be an underlying medical issue getting in the way of your baby’s ability to sleep comfortably.
Allergies, reflux, food intolerances, ear infections, and sleep apnoea can all cause sleep issues for your baby. If you think your child is suffering from allergies or illness, go to the doctor for a visit and get a diagnosis.
Lastly, if nothing is working, if you have visited your doctor and got the all-clear for allergies or intolerances, then get some help. A qualified sleep consultant is a great way to make sure everything is in place to help get your baby and your family the sleep you need. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint why your baby is waking up during the night. Even more so when you are exhausted and have been up constantly and consistently through the night. There is always help, whether it’s from a sleep consultant, a course, a book, or from your family.