Let’s see if this sounds familiar… it’s 12 am and you have just gotten your baby to fall asleep on your chest after a feed. You gently lay your baby down in her crib, holding your breath to not make a sound. As her warm body leaves your hands you pause. She stirs but stays asleep. Slowly, slowly, you back away. As the door latches behind you, you wait with bated breath. Success! She’s sleeping! You make your way back to your own bed, now cold, and try to stop your brain from spinning out of control. As you start to drift off to dreamland you hear it, that piercing cry. She’s awake. Again.
Why is baby waking every hour when they’ve just fallen asleep?
It can be hard for new parents to understand why their baby is waking so frequently at night. As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, baby sleep is a delicate balance of the right schedule, sleep hormones, and independence. Babies that are overtired, not tired enough, or have not yet learned independent sleep skills will have more frequent night wakings.
Now that we know the basics, let’s dig a little deeper into these causes of night wakings.
Reason #1 your baby is waking every hour: Overtiredness
Overtiredness is the culprit of a lot of the sleep issues babies and young children face. This article describes the signs of overtiredness in your baby. Signs of overtiredness include: difficulty settling into sleep, short naps, crankiness, and disrupted nighttime sleep. When a little one stays awake longer than biologically appropriate, their body begins to secrete an excess of cortisol, a stimulating hormone our bodies produce when stressed. Cortisol causes a spike in energy and makes falling asleep difficult for your baby.
Because overtiredness can hinder a baby’s sleep, we work hard to share age appropriate wake windows with our clients and followers. Be sure to check out our article about wake windows here. Wake windows change frequently, especially in the first 6 months of life, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on where your baby should be. By putting baby to sleep before his or her body produces an excess of cortisol, you make it possible for baby to fall asleep more peacefully.
Frequent disrupted sleep further contributes to overtiredness, causing a vicious cycle many parents find difficult to stop. We will cover how to fix this issue later in the article.
Reason #2 your baby is waking every hour: Not tired enough
We’ve discussed being overtired, now let’s take a look at what happens when your baby is undertired. In our work with families we see overtiredness impacting poor sleep far more often than undertiredness, but it’s still worth mentioning.
A baby who is put down before the optimal amount of time they should be awake will not have enough sleep pressure built up. This is also known as undertiredness. Parenting Science describes sleep pressure as “the physiological urge to sleep”. The longer we are awake, the more sleep pressure builds. If babies are expected to go to bed too soon after their last nap, they may not only fight falling asleep, but they also tend to have more wakings during the night. Extending your baby’s wake window a little at a time will help build the right amount of sleep pressure to result in longer, consolidated night sleep.
Reason #3 your baby is waking every hour: No independent sleep skills (yet)
What exactly do we mean by independent sleep? When adults complete one sleep cycle and move on to the next, we may wake up briefly but are most often able to put ourselves back to sleep in a split second. This ability to connect one consecutive sleep cycle to another is what we call the skill of sleep independence. It is a learned skill that we have acquired over time through practice and experience. Babies, however, are not born with the skill of sleep independence. They must learn how to connect sleep cycles on their own, or they will wake between cycles at nap or in the middle of the night looking for “assistance” from a parent to get back to sleep.
If your baby has the skill of sleep independence, he or she is not dependent on feeding, rocking, bouncing, holding, co-sleeping, or any other external aid to fall asleep, and get back to sleep at night. A lack of independent sleep skills is one of the biggest factors leading to frequent night wakes.
So what can you do about it?
Teaching sleep independence will solve many of your baby’s sleep struggles. Let’s look at exactly what this means.
Make sure it’s safe
First, your baby needs to be placed in a safe sleep space. Many parents find themselves desperate to get some much needed rest and wind up utilizing tools not deemed safe by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). You can find a full list of the AAP recommendations here. The ABCs of safe sleep from the AAP are: Alone, on their Backs in an empty Crib or bassinet. This AAP article also discusses common sleep props to avoid. It’s important to remember that bumpers and loungers are never considered safe sleep spaces.
Your baby should have their own space, whether it’s in your room or their own nursery. Their bassinet or crib should be flat and covered with a fitted sheet. A boring sleep space is a safe sleep space!
Remove the feed to sleep association and other sleep props
Now that we know your baby is safe, it’s time to discuss the transition away from a feed-to-sleep association. Although feeding to sleep can be a helpful tool in the newborn stage, after the infamous 4 month sleep regression it often leads to disrupted night sleep and short naps. Because your baby enters a sleep cycle while feeding, when his body connects to the next cycle, his brain seeks the same “assistance” it had getting to sleep in the first place.
Alternatively, we recommend an eat-play-sleep pattern to avoid a feed to sleep association and to encourage full, active feeds once baby is awake and well-rested. Most parents notice feeding improves once it happens after a sleep period, because baby isn’t using it as a means to get to sleep. Rather, she is awake and fully able to concentrate on eating.
The concept of baby being dependent on some form of external assistance applies not only to feeding, but to other sleep props as well. If your baby relies on props such as bouncing or rocking, co-sleeping, playing with mom’s hair, cuddling, stroller or car movement, a pacifier, or other infant sleep aids, he or she will wake looking for the same assistance between sleep cycles.
Practice putting your baby down awake
If you realize your baby is dependent on a sleep prop to get to sleep and back to sleep at night, it’s time to consider teaching your baby the skill of sleep independence. The thought of putting baby down awake can be stressful and scary for many parents. Those feelings are normal! This step takes time to accomplish fully and will be an adjustment for both you and your child. Be patient as your child learns the skill of falling asleep from an awake state alone. Practice makes perfect. The more your child practices falling asleep and self-soothing, the better they will get at it.
As mamas ourselves in addition to working with in-home clients, we have seen firsthand how quickly babies learn to do this, and how much better they sleep once given the opportunity to fall asleep independently.
When teaching independent sleep, stay consistent
Consistency is key in helping your baby develop solid sleep skills. Consistency can show up in a few different ways. First, make bedtime look the same every night. We always recommend that families develop a routine that can be replicated nightly.
Next, choose how you’re going to intervene or react when baby wakes in the night. Are you going to continue offering feeds? Are you going to pull all night feeds? At what point will you intervene when baby wakes? Make sure that any other caregivers are on the same page as you so that baby is receiving the same message from everyone.
Finally, do your best to bring in that consistency to your daytime schedule. Following eat-play-sleep will help with this!A bedtime routine will help signal to your baby that it's time to sleep. Try to stick to the same routine every night, including a bath, story time, and some calming cuddles.
What if that doesn’t work?
Sometimes teaching your child to sleep independently can be complicated. Maybe your baby isn’t responding well to the changes, or you can’t seem to kick the hourly night wakings no matter how hard you try. Or maybe you feel like you could use some support, accountability, and guidance in reaching your family sleep goals. Whatever it is, please know there is help and support available to you!
At the Sleeper Teachers we love nothing more than to be the newest member on your family’s sleep team. We have accompanied over a thousand families on their journeys to teach their little ones to become great sleepers. It has been truly life changing for so many families, and we’d be honored to guide you on your sleep teaching journey as well. Head over to this link to book a free sleep introductory call with one of our pediatric sleep consultants so we can get to know your family and chat about how we might be able to help you.
And if you’re still in doubt, head over to our reviews page to read how impactful teaching independent sleep was for our clients. Lives change when everyone in a family sleeps!