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Interpreting Night Wakings

Decoding your baby’s night waking pattern can be very helpful if you are trying to make improvements in sleep. Understanding if your baby is hungry, overtired, or simply uncomfortable plays a big role in the sleep training process and managing your expectations of your baby. The follow list describes 5 Common Types of Night Wakings: False Starts, Difficulty Falling Asleep, Frequent Night Wakings (Every 60-90 mins), Frequent Night Wakings (every 2-3 hours), Frequent Night Wakings (every 10-20 minutes). Your baby may have more than one type of waking in a single night!


1. “False Starts” at Bedtime:

The Sleep: Your baby falls asleep well at bedtime but you usually get a short stretch of 20-60 minutes, then a wake-up requiring you to re-feed, re-rock or re-soothe your baby back to sleep. Your baby may do this once or even 2-3 times before your baby settles into a longer, more predictable stretch of sleep.

The Science: False starts can happen for several reasons. The most common cause is short daytime napping. A day of short or non existent napping is a stressor that can translate into more fragmented nighttime sleep. Less common are long naps happening very close to bedtime which can sabatoge your baby’s sleep pressure, making it very hard for her to stay asleep at bedtime. Finally, sleep associations. If your baby doesn’t know how to fall asleep on her own, she may wake and cry for help again in the first part of the night a few times before she gets into her first long stretch of deep sleep.

The Solution: For over tiredness from loss of daytime naps, plan to prioritize napping and catch your baby up on daytime sleep even if this means providing some extra soothing, rocking or holding for several days. For naps too close to bedtime, consider reducing the need for a last late nap by improving the quality of previous daytime naps, waking from a too long/too late nap OR creating a longer interval of wakefulness between the last nap and later bedtime. See our Age by Stage Schedules blog here. For sleep association pop ups, using a sleep training method that feels like a good fit for you and your baby will help solve this problem.

The Overview: If your baby has false starts at bedtime, inappropriate daytime napping is the likely cause. Also check baby’s schedule expectations and baby’s ability to fall asleep independently.

2. Difficulty Falling Asleep At Bedtime:

The Sleep: Your baby seems well rested overall and when putting your baby down for sleep at bedtime it requires more than 20 minutes of rocking, holding, non nutritive nursing or other soothing. OR, your baby knows how to go to sleep at night but lies awake in his crib for more than 20 minutes at bedtime.

The Science: It takes a healthy sleeper approximately 5-20 minutes to fall asleep at bedtime in an ideal sleep environment. Babies and children who are generally rested and know how to fall asleep on their own, but who lie awake for more than 20 minutes each night are probably being put to bed too early or have a problem with their sleep environment. Babies and children who are generally well rested and have a sleep association they enjoy (like bouncing or rocking) but still take more than 20 minutes probably also need a later bedtime.

The Solution: Review your expectations and your baby’s schedule to be sure you are asking your child to fall asleep at the right time. Temporarily make your child’s bedtime later, at the time she has been naturally falling asleep lately, to get her back in the habit of falling asleep quickly and easily at a time she can achieve. Take a close look at the sleep environment – particularly at temperature and light to be sure the room is not too hot or too bright for sleep.

The Overview: If your child is generally well rested and has difficulty falling asleep even under ideal soothing conditions, a too early bedtime is the most likely cause.

3. Frequent Wakings (Every 60-90 minutes):

The Sleep: Your baby usually falls asleep with assistance at bedtime ( ie: feeding, rocking, patting to sleep), although some babies with frequent night wakings are pretty spectacular at going to bed on their own. Your baby then (usually) does one fairly long stretch of sleep (usually 2.5 – 5 hours) at some point during the first half of the night, but then wakes every 1-1.5 hours during the second half of the night. Not all of these waking seem to be associated with hunger/full feedings though some moms may be nursing briefly at each wake up.

The Science: Babies wake briefly between each sleep cycle. This is a normal and natural occurence and happens approxmately every 60-90 minutes during the second half of the night. Babies who have a parents lead sleep association (a need for something external from their parents like sucking, rocking, soothing) will wake fully at each of these sleep cycle and call for help going back to sleep.

The Solution: Using a sleep training method that feels like a good fit for your family is the best option in these situations. You’ll work towards changing a parent lead sleep association into a baby lead sleep association by following a consistent set of responses in the night. These responses could be very interactive and involve you staying in the room with your child, or less interactive with periods of being out of the room. For more information on different sleep training techniques, please schedule a sleep consult consult.

The Overview: If your baby is waking every 60-90 minutes, parent lead sleep associations are the likely cause.

4. Frequent Wakings (Every 2-3 Hours):

The Sleep: Your baby is usually able to sleep a long stretch of 3-5 hours during the first third of the night, but then wakes approximately every 2-3 to eat hours after that.

The Science: Babies who are sleeping 2-3 hours at a time are usually capable of putting themselves to sleep independently (if they weren’t, they’d be waking more frequently as noted in the Waking Every 60-90 min section) so usually wakings of this type are truly due to hunger. See our blog on night feeding expectations here.

The Solution: If your baby is eating more than needed overnight, you’ll want to taper down the extra feedings and rebalance the calories into the day. See our blog on reducing night feedings here.

The Overview: If your baby is waking every 2-3 hours overnight and easily goes back to sleep with a feeding, hunger is the likely cause. A gradual calorie rebalance should occur to shift extra nighttime feedings back into the day.

5. Frequent Wakings (Every 10-15 Minutes or at atpyical times):

The Sleep: Your baby can’t seem to get comfortable for more than 10-15 minutes at a time at bedtime and it’s very difficult to get into the first long stretch of sleep. Or, your baby wakes at a time when he or she is NEVER awake (ie: 9:30 pm). Or, your baby has a good first stretch of sleep but then is fitful and can’t seem to settle for more than 15-20 minutes at a time.

The Science: Since deep sleep dominates the first third of a baby’s night it would be very rare for a wake up to occur during this time in a baby whose circadian rhythm was organized. Wake ups in the first third of the night are most likely due to pain/discomfort/illness/overtiredness or, more rarely a sleep disorder. Later in the night sleep cycles occur every 60-90. Babies who cannot settle into even one sleep cycle (especially under the best of circumstances like with rocking or holding) are likely uncomfortable.

The Solution: Your child may be uncomfortable. Take steps to adjust your child’s environment or clothing for more comfort and be sure your baby is not too hot. Feed your child if he is hungry. Provide intervention for pain or illness and try to return your child to a state of comfort so that he may fall asleep again.

The Overview: Off cycle wakings and ultra frequent wakings should be discussed with your chlld’s pediatrician and interpreted as discomfort. Look for signs of overheating, illness, pain or teething, reflux or allergies, or itching.