Let's set the scene... It's 10:15am and you are 15 minutes late. You "quietly" hustle into music class with your baby and diaper bag and sit next to the three mom friends that you signed up for this class with. Your hair is a mess, your socks are mismatched and you are certain that this time you really did lose your phone. Either that, or it's shoved between the cushions of your glider. You whisper to your friends, "Yup, baby did it again... We were all up between 3 and 27 times last night - I lost count somewhere between yelling at my husband to stop flushing the toilet so loudly and trying to update my Facebook newsfeed for the zillionth time since midnight, not understanding why nobody has posted anything exciting in the past 3 hours!”
Friend #1 laughs at you - she has a "perfect sleeper." Friend #2 (wearing the same shirt as yesterday - don't tell her!) empathizes, because her kid doesn't sleep either, and Friend #3 tries to diagnose the problem... So she runs through the "obvious":
MF#3: Is baby sick?
You: Obviously not - we're at music class!
MF#3: True. Is baby teething??
You: I don't think so...
MF#3: Could baby have been hungry??
You: No way, took a full bottle before bed!
MF#3: Dirty diaper??
You: Nope, we checked... Twice!
MF#3: Wasn't your Dr. appt yesterday? Could baby have been uncomfortable from the shots??
You: That's next week... Thanks for remembering though!
MF#3: Ok, I have no idea! Maybe ask a sleep consultant??
So here they are: 5 common reasons your baby is waking in the middle of the night (aside from the "obvious reasons"):
1. Sleep Associations: Did you rock your baby to sleep? Nurse her to sleep? Pat her to sleep? Sing her to sleep? Ok... So why did you stop?? It's the middle of the night and your baby is wondering why the circumstances under which she fell asleep are now different. Now baby is alone, not being held, fed, patted, or sung to. What happened? When did things change and how can he/she get things back to how they were before he/she fell asleep? Put yourself in your baby’s shoes – baby is confused and may just cry until someone comes and does what is expected/needed again! However, rocking your baby to sleep isn't necessarily a problem until it becomes a problem. So if baby always needs your help to fall back asleep, then it is time to help them learn to fall asleep on their own. This way, when they wake between sleep cycles, they can just roll over and get right back to it!
2. Milestones/Regressions: Is baby 3 or 4 months old? 8,9,10 months? 18 months? 2 years old?... And suddenly waking a few times a night for seemingly no reason? It could be a sleep regression! The regression could last anywhere from 2-6 weeks after which the normal sleep habits should return. With all developmental milestones, night sleep can be disrupted while your baby is going through this developmental leap. Either they are too busy practicing their new skills (either by choice or impulsively) or their brain is just too excited to settle down. Think about yourself, how well do you sleep when you have something important on your mind or you have a big event coming up? In situations like this the best thing to do is keep on keepin’ on! Keep baby right on schedule, maybe offering nap 15 minutes earlier than usual to help catch up on some of the missed sleep but no matter what, stay consistent! Baby will hit that milestone and start sitting/crawling/walking/talking soon and will need the comfort and stability of the familiar sleep routine!
3. Napping Too Much: Ever thought you would have to worry that baby is napping TOO MUCH?? Well, if baby is having multiple night-wakings, naps may be the culprit! If your 8 month old is still happily going down for 3 naps a day but is having multiple night-wakings or even waking for the day very early, then axing that 3rd nap may be your solution! Similarly, if your 20 month old is still rubbing those eyes and pointing to bed for a morning and afternoon nap, but waking up all night, again, the naps could to blame! Or, if baby is loving the second nap a little too much and is snoozing straight through the afternoon and still going to bed happily only a few short hours later, you may need to cap that nap! After all, baby needs to be tired for that night sleep to last straight through to morning! Don't forget, naps and night sleep need to work together in order for baby to be well rested!
4. Overtired: 6:30 pm rolls around and baby is having a blast! Crawling around, playing with blocks, laughing at everything... So you think that baby isn't tired and decide to keep him/her up for another hour. Then, at 7:30 pm, baby has a bath and bedtime bottle and is in bed by 8:30 pm and conks out! Success! But, 10 pm rolls around and baby is crying... And then again at 1 am and then baby is up for the day at 5 am and you think, "Oh man... This day is going to be a doozy"... Until 6 pm rolls around and again baby is ready to party and you guys are dancing around the kitchen and facetiming with grandma. Bedtime at 8:30 pm, baby is up at 11 and 2 am... What is going on?? Baby is overtired! Finding the right balance of awake time, nap time and wind down time is crucial to keeping baby in the "happy and alert" zone before he/she hits the wall and becomes over tired. Think about yourself - the longer you stay awake at night the more energy you miraculously have to clean out your closet or watch an extra episode of Homeland! Bedtime needs to happen before baby gets that extra jolt of energy – he/she will sleep better and so will you!
5. Environmental Factors: Is baby's room to bright/loud/hot? As adults, we can easily modify our sleep environment, depending on our mood or time of year, our little ones can't. Keeping their rooms super dark with the help of blackout blinds will keep them thinking that it's "sleep time" regardless of what time of day it is. Just don't forget to open those blinds with a burst of excitement after naps and in the morning! Of course, noise can be very distracting - especially when that noise is the voice of mom and dad who baby wants to be hanging out with! If baby's room can't achieve total zen-quiet, (hello NYC!) then a white noise machine can be really helpful! I think we all worry about baby not being warm enough at night but try to resist the urge to overdress them - keeping the room at a cool 68F is just right and a light sleeper and swaddle or sleep sack should be perfect! Maybe adding a little onesie on particularly cold winter nights! Use your judgment, but try to prevent yourself from overdoing it. They will sleep better!
Samantha Shinewald is a certified sleep consultant and an MSW. She has done her best to help you self-soothe (aka solve your sleep problems on your own). If you need additional help, contact her at email@example.com.