Why babies wake at night – a sleep expert’s guide

Posted in Sleeping.

It’s the sound that haunts parents’ sleep. The cry of a baby in the middle of the night. It means they’re awake and so are you and at three in the morning, it can be maddening trying to figure out exactly why your little one is up this time.

Enter Chris Minogue. She’s a mothercraft nurse, resident expert on Helpline and the author of Bringing Baby Home. With over 30 years’ experience in the baby business, she knows what keeps baby up at night.

Don’t stress – waking up is normal 

While parents hope/pray/dream their little ones will sleep through, most won’t – and according to Chris, that’s perfectly normal. She stresses that this behaviour is often just “age-appropriate” – that is, it’s natural for them to wake at this age and stage of development.

For example, she’d expect a six-week-old baby to naturally wake two to three times a night while a six-month-old might do it once.

Of course, while you can’t change their age, understanding the range of other reasons a baby might wake can help a lot when it comes to getting bub back to sleep.

Here’s Chris’s quick cheat-sheet of things to check when your baby brings the noise late at night: 

1. They’re hungry!

The obvious starting point. We all know babies love a midnight snack (and a 2am snack, and a 4am one too) and how often babies will want to feed will depend on their age.

“For the first three months, it’s common for babies to have two to three feeds a night,” says Chris. “After that, it may drop down to one. So if they’re waking more than this at this age, it’s often for other reasons.”

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2. They’ve moved and startled themselves

“As babies get older, they do get more active and may wake themselves up by moving or changing positions,” advises Chris.

If they do this toward the end of their sleep cycle, they may find it hard to get back to sleep on their own – cue the crying call to mum or dad!

3. They’re too hot or too cold

According to Chris, the temperature can be another catalyst for a rude awakening.

“Are they getting cold? Are they getting warm? Do you need to change their layers of clothes or their blanket or wrap? These are all the things I ask,” she says.

To check the baby’s temperature, she advises feeling the back of baby’s neck to see if they’re overly cold or warm.

It could also be the room temperature that needs changing, especially in the early hours of the morning. As a guide, Chris says she aims to keep the room around 20 degrees to keep baby comfortable.

4. They’re ill

“A baby can also wake if they’re in pain or discomfort,” says Chris. “They might have wind pain, colic or reflux. If this persists, it’s wise to see your doctor or early childhood nurse.”

Wet nappies – a waking factor or not?

Not as much as you’d think, says Chris. She says it’s a lot rarer for a baby to wake because they’ve turned on the waterworks.

“Generally they don’t wake for a wet nappy, because they’re wearing disposable nappies that draw away the wetness,” she explains. “They might need their nappy changed, but that’s not why they’re waking.”

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