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Why babies and toddlers wake up in the middle of the night

This morning I had a great chat with a very tired mom who wanted to know exactly why her older baby was up all night. It’s a legitimate question, especially when you’re all getting a lot less sleep than you should be getting!

Her older child had been a dream sleeper and she was completely caught off guard with how hard #2 was proving to be! But even though they’re related, siblings will likely have different temperaments and birth order will affect things too. (Remember with baby #1 you let him nap when he wanted and then #2 came along and now you’re schlepping her along to classes and playdates!)

But whether you’re dealing with night wakings with your first baby or your third one, here are five reasons why most kiddos will wake up in the middle of the night:

1. Dependency on sleep props
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know sleep props are the #1 offender with sleep issues.

When a child needs you to feed, rock or bounce her to sleep, any time she wakes up in the middle of the night, she’ll need you to recreate how she originally fell asleep because she doesn’t have the strategies to self soothe back to sleep.

If that’s the case, time to get rid of those sleep props so she has an opportunity to start learning how to do it on her own!

2. Routine and consistency
Staying on a fairly predictable schedule during the day, offering naps are appropriate times and not letting your child get overtired is key. Being consistent most days will help your child learn what’s expected of her and she’ll be able to develop those independent sleep skills more quickly.

Also if you have a very methodical bedtime routine that never changes but your significant other switches things up every time he/she is in charge, that sends a pretty confusing message to your baby. Then they start wondering if they can get extra cuddles or stories at bedtime and when they wake up, they’ll wonder who will come in and do you’ll do for them…and it can actually increase night wakings because they think they might get some extra attention at 3am!

3. Learned hunger
Babies need to eat in the middle of the night until at least 4-6 months, depending on weight and development. Once they’re at a certain weight and you’ve gotten the green light from your pediatrician to cut out night feeds, then it can take about a week to do the night weaning.

When I work with an older baby or toddler who’s still getting a bottle in the middle of the night, and the child is waking up at different times and usually not drinking much, that’s a sign that they have a feed-sleep association. Then it’s more of a sleep prop than for nutrition.

If that night feed at 3am is a full 8oz bottle for an 11 month old, then it’s a case of learned hunger and it’s time to close the all-night-buffet and get those calories in during the daytime hours!

4. Environmental factors
Light, temperature and sound will impact your child’s sleep. I count 5am wakeups as nightwakings (that’s an ungodly hour to be awake!), and most often I’ll see “blackout shades” that don’t address the perimeter light that starts filtering in in the early morning hours. These are the blackout shades I love and have used for my own kids. (Pssst. If you get my sleep tips newsletter, there’s a discount code for them!)

Temperature is also a biggie. Recommended sleeping temp is 62-70. The cooler end would be for older children who are aware and able to pull their comforter up in the middle of the night. For babies and toddlers who are just in sleep sacks, 68-70 is ideal. A great way to see if your child is too warm is to feel the back of her neck and see if it’s sweaty. If it is, then she either has too many warm layers on or you need to turn the thermostat down.

And the last one is sound. If you live next to the el or train tracks, a fire house or hospital, it’s a great idea to get a white noise machine. Or if you or your spouse get up early for work and there are creaky floor boards in the hallway. Or if your dog likes to try and outbark the neighbor dog at 9pm. If any of those are true, or you just notice you dread thunderstorms because your child will surely wake up, it’s time to invest in a white noise machine. Make sure the sound isn’t heart beats, rain or waves…just plain ol white noise.

5. Medical issues
If you’ve addressed the first four reasons and your child isn’t associating sleep with sleep props, you’ve got a great routine and are consistent, you’ve cut out the night feeds and you’ve ensured that environmental factors aren’t causing the wakeups, it’s a good idea to check in with your pediatrician.

If your child coughs more at night, that could be allergies or asthma. If she has tummy aches or vomits, that could be undiagnosed food allergies or sensitivities or acid reflux. If your child snores, sleeps with a hyperextended neck and has large tonsils, then sleep apnea may be the culprit.

If there is an underlying medical issue, anything you do to try and help your child’s behavioral sleep issues will be like putting a bandaid on the problem. First you need to take care of the medical issue and THEN teaching your child how to sleep will go much more smoothly!


Of course there are other reasons…like children who share a bedroom can wake each other up if there aren’t rules in place to help them sleep in the same space together. Or a diet with too much sugar and caffeine, especially in the afternoon and evening. Or some prescription medications have the side effect of sleeplessness. There are a ton of reasons why a baby or child could wake up in the middle of the night, but these first four are the ones I see most often. Take care of those, and you’ll likely have a much better sleeper on your hands!


Photo credit: Deposit Photos | luminastock




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