Interpreting Night Waking

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, not tired enough, waking out of habit, or simply uncomfortable is very important so that you can troubleshoot appropriately. This blog describes five common types of night waking: False Starts, Difficulty Falling Asleep, Frequent Night Waking (Every 60-90 mins), Frequent Night Waking (every 2-3 hours), Frequent Night Waking (every 10-20 minutes). Note that your baby may have more than one type of waking in a single night.

Interpreting Night Waking


1. “False Starts” at Bedtime:

The Sleep Pattern

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 settling into a longer, more predictable stretch of sleep.

The Science

False starts often occur due to a misalignment between the circadian rhythm and the homeostatic drive for sleep (more on how the sleep drives work here). This misalignment can be caused by short daytime napping, or bedtime being too early. A day of short or non-existent napping can translate into more fragmented nighttime sleep. For example, babies who have too much awake time or insufficient daytime sleep are more likely to experience a wake up after a short bout of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep at the beginning of the night. Similarly, when bedtime occurs too early a baby will often have very fragmented sleep at the beginning of the night. This often happens after the spring Daylight Saving Time transition, or after a day with short naps. This is because the circadian rhythm is strongly promoting wakefulness right before your child's biological bedtime. If you try to put your child down too early, then she may keep popping up because her internal clock is preventing sleep from stabilizing.

Finally, sleep associations can cause frequent waking early in the night. 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 overtiredness from daytime naps that are too short, 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. Use these better naps to help move bedtime later to better align with your baby's sleep pressure and circadian rhythm drive for sleep. If you aren't sure how much sleep your baby needs, then see our Age by Stage Schedules blog to make sure your expectations are reasonable.

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 (our sleep class covers four different options for sleep training).

The Overview

If your baby has false starts at bedtime, inappropriate daytime napping or a too-early bedtime is the likely cause. However, if your baby is not falling asleep independently, then that could also be part of the waking.


Need More Help?

We offer several options for optimizing your child's sleep:

SLEEP TRAINING CLASS (for well babies 6-15 months)

PHONE CONSULTATIONS (with one of our sleep experts)

THE SECRET TO NAPS (downloadable e-book)


2. Difficulty Falling Asleep At Bedtime: