Eyes watering, vision foggy, you stumble through the darkness, tripping over someone’s shoes as you try, half awake, to get to your crying baby. The time? 2:47. On a Tuesday.
This scene is all too familiar to me, and parents. I stand in solidarity with you. That first year is magical, beautiful, and possibly one of the most exhausting ones of your life. Adjusting to a new baby’s sleep schedule isn’t something that happens for most people – you just survive, bleary eyed, and try to get enough sleep to not be a danger to yourself and others.
Some babies are magical unicorns and sleep through the night within their first eight weeks of life, but for an overwhelming number of parents, babies can continue to wake throughout the night for the first two years of their lives, or even longer.
Whether you’re breastfeeding or formula feeding, bed-sharing or letting your little bundle sleep in the nursery, there are a myriad of reasons for children to wake throughout the night.
Here we’ll break down some common reasons for erratic sleep patterns and excessive night wakings, to help you eliminate some likely causes of what could be keeping you sleep-deprived and your baby on such a challenging schedule.
#1 – Overstimulation
Children, toddlers, and infants all react differently to different types of stimuli, from visiting relatives to screen time. If there’s too much stimulation, it can actually keep your child from winding down and falling asleep at the end of the day.
Typical signs of overstimulation include unusually hyperactive behavior, erratic sleep and eating patterns, and challenging mood swings and tantrums. Try to limit screen time where you can, and schedule visits with friends and family at considerably spaced intervals, so that there’s plenty of downtime in between.
Remember to treat nap time as sacred ground, and not let any social obligations or errands get in the way of your baby’s routine.
#2 – Understimulation
Sometimes it feels like you just can’t win, right?
Just like some kids are prone to overstimulation, some are under stimulated, either mentally or physically, and have a hard time falling into healthy sleep cycles as a result. Children who aren’t getting enough stimulation might have a vacant, spacey look to them, and periods of intense hyperactivity.
Try to balance the quiet times with interesting activities for your child, whether it’s a great book or a run around the yard. Physical as well as mental exercise, with social interactions sprinkled in, is a good way to ensure your child’s sleep stays well regulated, that they’re tired by bedtime, and that their brains are actively engaged throughout the day.
#3 – Sugar
Okay, I really hate to state the obvious here, but I see it all the time in my son, without even realizing it – too much sugar makes for one cranky kid, and cranky kids don’t like to sleep.
It’s important to note that sugar isn’t just a stimulant, and that it can actually cause everything from mood swings to muscle aches. It also hides in everything. Take a closer look at your child’s diet and see if too much sugar could have something to do with their sleeping patterns.
Remember, it’s not just in ketchup and fruit snacks – yogurt, fruit, crackers, even milk is a form of sugar, and too much on a daily basis can be a perfect storm for a late night and an early rise.
#4 – Developmental Leaps
As infants, toddlers, and children mature, their brains mature with them, and quickly begin to process new information in new ways. This leads to motor skill development, problem solving abilities, and a rapidly expanding vocabulary.
All of that developing means that their brain is working overtime, though, and it’s extremely common during these developmental leaps for sleep cycles to go awry. Babies learn new skills that they practice late into the night, and as a result are likely to be fussier than usual.
Take a deep breath, sleep when you can, and repeat the mantra of tired parents everywhere: ‘This too shall pass.’
It’s normal for children to crave more attention and physical contact with their parents at these stages, so give them as much of yourself as your sanity will allow, and ride out the waves.
To keep an eye on these developmental leaps, check out the Wonder Weeks app – it’s a great way to get a feel for what you’re in for.
#5 – Inconsistency
We’re all guilty of it, but it doesn’t make it an easier for our children to stick to a sleep schedule. When errands and special events get in the way of maintaining a routine for naps and bedtimes, things tend to deteriorate rapidly.
Having a set bedtime and naptime with a routine you follow every night is more likely to produce the results we’re all after – a peaceful tuckin, and a child that stays in bed and gets the sleep they need.
Write your routine down if you have to, and make the only scenario in which you break your shiny new routine a code red emergency. It may be challenging at first, but eventually your child will come to associate these activities with sleep, and get drowsy right on cue.
#6 – Caffeine in Breastmilk
I know it’s like some sick joke of nature that we can’t use caffeine to keep ourselves awake during the most trying times of motherhood, but I promise, life will be easier if you limit the caffeine.
Some children are more sensitive to it than others, so this isn’t to say that you necessarily need to get rid of it completely, but be mindful of your child’s behavior within 24 hours of consuming caffeine to observe if it’s affecting their behavior or sleep.
If it turns out your child is being negatively impacted by your caffeine intake, try alternative, nutrient-based energy sources. Smoothies pack a powerful punch, and are a great way to get balanced nutrition in the era of eating with a baby on your hip.
#7 – Overtired
Ugh. This is perhaps one of the most challenging reasons kids don’t sleep: being too tired. Yep, it’s a thing, and it is the perfect recipe for the angriest, most hyperactive wild child you’ve ever seen.
When kids are overtired, they have an even harder time settling down, and will actually resist sleep even more. We’re talking the baddest of the bad meltdowns, climbing furniture, throwing toys, little crazy people.
There’s not much you can do but ride out the storm when you get to this point and create an environment that’s conducive for sleep (trust me, they’ll go down eventually). If anything, it’s an excellent reminder of the importance of setting aside time for naps – you’ll never grocery shop through one ever again.
#8 – Reflux
Reflux is a challenging and incredibly common condition in both breastfed and formula-fed babies alike that can make it very uncomfortable for them to sleep.
Reflux, or GERD as it’s sometimes called, can be caused by a wide number of things ranging from forceful letdown/oversupply in breastfeeding mothers, to sensitivities to the mother’s diet (dairy is a common allergen), to formula sensitivities, or simply overeating.
Not only does this cause the stomach contents to come up into the esophagus, but in babies it can actually cause fluid to build up in the nose, resulting in a chronically congested baby.
If you suspect your baby could be suffering from GERD, see your pediatrician to confirm, and then discuss a course of action to rule out the cause of the upset so that you can get your baby sleeping peacefully and comfortably.
In the meantime, it sometimes helps to elevate baby’s head while they sleep (put a towel under one end of their mattress), feed further away from sleep times, or for mothers with an oversupply of breastmilk, to nurse with baby on your belly, while lying flat on your back.
#9 – Hunger
If your baby acts hungry throughout the night and you’re breastfeeding, don’t gauge what you can pump by what you’re producing (the numbers are startling different).
Instead, keep an eye on your baby’s weight, and make sure he’s producing enough dirty diapers throughout the day. If his weight is consistently going up, he’s developing normally, and wetting at least 5 diapers a day after your milk comes in, then it’s likely he’s getting enough to eat. Don’t be tempted to use formula to get them to sleep through the night – it just doesn’t work.
With formula fed babies, look for the same indicators of being well nourished with their growth and development, but don’t reach for the rice cereal if you feel they’re not getting enough. Talk to your doctor instead about your concerns to determine if your baby isn’t getting enough to eat, and they might suggest a higher calorie formula.
Remember – rice cereal should only be given if recommended by a pediatrician – not to help baby sleep through the night.
#10 – Chiropractic
Believe it or not, sometimes challenges with sleeping habits can be solved with a visit to a pediatric chiropractor. Parents around the world are reporting miracle cures in everything from chronic congestion to troubling sleeping patterns, and the positive feedback just keeps pouring in.
Find a reputable pediatric chiropractor in your area to learn more about whether this kind of therapy is right for your baby.
#11 – Sleep Environment
Just like adults, children are often very particular about the kind of place they’ll sleep in. During the first few months of an infant’s life, it’s not uncommon for them to sleep only when right next to their mother (read about the fourth trimester).
With children that sleep in their own beds or rooms, it could be a simple matter of a temperature adjustment or using some white noise. Here are a few things you can try to adjust:
- Room temperature. Many people, children included, prefer a cool room for sleep.
- Air circulation. A fan helps to freshen the air, cool things down, and adds some white noise to the mix.
- Darkness. Invest in some blackout drapes if you haven’t already – they’re worth every penny.
- White noise. There are plenty of apps out there you can use, or you can run a fan or humidifier like we do (my toddler can’t be trusted around a smartphone).
Say It With Me Now
This too shall pass.
Raising tiny humans is hard work, and those endless hours spent trying to get them to just go the off to sleep drag by, but I promise, it ends. Hang in there, and hold onto your patience like a life raft during these endless evenings. When you have a positive attitude towards bedtime and naptime, your child will learn that way of thinking as well, and it will be less of a battle for all involved.
In the meantime, nap. Nap like a toddler after a day at the bounce palace, and follow Wonder Weeks like it’s the evening news.
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