You probably know this already, but sleep is a crucial factor for your baby’s healthy development and growth. As well as giving their bodies a chance to rest and re-energize, having a good sleeping habit sets a strong foundation for the future, improving cognitive function, learning abilities, emotional well-being and memory, among other things.
There are numerous best practices and research-backed guides written by experts about how to promote good sleeping habits. However, it’s hard not to get the feeling that many of these researchers and experts have never personally experienced a baby waking up regularly for no apparent reason.
In fact, for new parents or those who are not familiar with this issue, it can be a bit of a surprise when it happens. So, to help relieve you of any anxieties you might have and fill in any of the gaps those experts might have left, we’ve outlined the 10 most common reasons why babies wake up at night, with some practical solutions for addressing these problems.
1. Overstimulating Environments
It shouldn't be surprising that the room your baby sleeps in is a huge factor in their ability to sleep well. Sounds, smells, movements, changes in temperature or lighting conditions that are barely noticeable to adults can have a huge impact on a baby when they’re trying to get to sleep or already sleeping, potentially startling them and causing them to wake up in the middle of the night — seemingly at random through the eyes of an adult who is less attuned to these environmental factors.
On top of that, multiple studies have proven that exposing your little one (or yourself) to sources of blue light in the evening can result in sleep problems. According to Harvard Medical School, screen light in the evening can suppress melatonin and disrupt circadian rhythms for about twice as long as any other light source.
Therefore, it’s important to create a cool, dark and quiet space with no distractions or external stimulation to disrupt your baby at night, either when they’re sleeping or before you put them to bed. This means leaving any electronics or technology outside and avoiding any TV or screen time during the evening. Instead, try to eliminate any sounds from the room and reduce lights to a minimum. This will minimize the potential triggers for your little one waking up suddenly at night.
2. Moro Reflex
Sometimes, even if you make sure your baby’s room is perfectly optimized for a good night’s sleep, your little one will still wake up because of their Moro reflex. The Moro reflex is characterized by an immediate spreading of the baby’s arms and legs, followed by a retraction of their limbs inwards towards their body.
When this is happening, the baby will experience a feeling similar to free-falling, causing their bodies to react in such a physical way. However, there’s no need to be concerned about the Moro reflex as it is actually a sign that your baby’s nervous system is developing.
Reviewing the potential causes of the Moro reflex we’ve listed below can be useful in preventing your baby from waking up at night.
- A change in the intensity of light in the room
- A loud noise
- A sudden touch
- Movement of the cradle
- Removal of the parent holding position as they’re lowered into their crib
- A change in the position of the baby’s body
Some of these triggers may be hard to notice for an adult. Babies are much more sensitive to slight changes in the environment, which can evoke the Moro reflex while your baby sleeps. If they regularly experience such a reaction at night, there are some common practices that can be used to reduce its frequency, like soothing and swaddling techniques, which we discuss in great detail in our recent blog: Moro Reflex: How to Stop It so That Your Baby Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep
3. Room Temperature
Many parents wonder what the ideal temperature for their baby’s room is, and rightly so. As well as other environmental factors previously touched upon, it is an important part of the sleeping environment that can lead to overheating or shivering if the temperature is too extreme in any particular way, causing your little one to wake up at night.
Most experts, including the American Academy of Paediatrics, recommend that the temperature in the room where a baby sleeps should be between 68–72°F (20–22.2°C). The rule of thumb is pretty simple: keep the room at a temperature that is comfortable for a lightly clothed adult. If the room is too cold for you, it is also too cold for your baby.
Our best tip for making sure your baby’s room temperature is perfect for a good night’s sleep is:
Touch the back of your baby’s neck — damp hair will indicate overheating while a cool neck means that they are too cold.
On top of that, avoid over-bundling with too many sheets or garments. Not only can this lead to overheating, but it is also known to increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Also, for an even better sleeping environment, consider using a fan to circulate air more effectively in the room, distributing heat more evenly. Just make sure the fan is at least a couple of feet from the crib and isn’t too loud for them to sleep.
4. Baby Bedtime Routine
Even the simplest routine is better than no routine at all when it comes to your little one’s ability to sleep.
Lack of a bedtime ritual that is consistent and predictable during your baby’s very first few months at home can be one of the biggest reasons why your baby keeps waking up at night. If nothing else, you should set a specific bedtime for your little one, and stick to it rigorously. Experts also recommended settling down rituals that involve gradually decreasing levels of stimulation.
Other good ideas include dimming lights and turning off technology around the baby at least one hour before sleep, as well as running a warm bath and giving them a gentle massage in the evening.
For more on this topic, we cover some useful insights and tips on baby sleeping in our article: Is Newborn Sleep Even a Thing?
5. Napping During the Day
Adjusting the amount of sleep your baby gets in the daytime is a good way to improve their bedtime sleeping routine and ability to stay sound asleep at night. Despite what some parents believe, keeping your child awake for as long as possible during the day won’t make them sleep better at night. In fact, when they’re overtired, babies usually find it much harder to nod off.
Equally, too much sleep or inconsistent nap times can disrupt their natural sleep cycles. The best thing to do is regulate the amount of sleep your baby gets in the day with relatively equal periods of napping between feedings. Naps that are more than 3 hours long in the day can confuse your child’s biological clock and make it much harder for them to sleep at night.
Remember, it’s important to understand that all babies are unique and need varying amounts of sleep. According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, infants aged 4 to 12 months should get between 12 and 16 hours of sleep per 24 hours, which combines both naps and night time sleeping.
6. Physical Discomfort at Night
If your little one is sleeping well but suddenly wakes up at night and starts crying, this can be an indication of physical or mental pain or discomfort.
There are many factors that can cause this, such as:
- Acid reflux
- Sore throat
- Ear infection
In most cases, baby reflux is the problem, causing pain in the baby’s tummy, throat, and mouth. This pain not only makes it harder for a baby to fall asleep but also makes it easier for them to wake up at night. The most common way to prevent a reflux is to make sure you feed your baby slowly.
Make sure to watch your baby’s reactions at night to spot any medical conditions like infections or sickness and consult the doctor if you’re concerned about any worrying symptoms. Some clues to look out for might include longer, higher-pitched crying, grimacing, eyes tightly squeezed shut, a tense body, fussiness or stretching and pulling movements in their arms and legs.
7. Your Baby is Hungry
Another reason why your baby wakes up in the middle of the night is that it is looking for food. An easy way to tell if this is the reason is to pick your baby up after it wakes and see if it turns its head towards your breast.
The most efficient way to prevent babies from getting hungry at night is by introducing a dream feed.
Dream feeding is when you rouse your baby ever so slightly in the night so that you can help them satisfy any hunger they might have developed by offering them a small feed, before you let them drop back off to sleep. It is suggested that this additional feeding session between 10pm and midnight can significantly reduce the likeliness of your baby waking up in the middle of the night, staying asleep for longer.
8. Baby Growth Spurts
It’s normal for babies to experience sudden periods of growth when they quickly gain size, weight and maybe even achieve their next developmental milestone.
Some studies indicate that because growth hormones are produced during sleep, your little one might sleep for a couple of hours more than usual for a period of 2 or 3 days. This is because some babies will feel more tired than usual, causing them to take more naps during the day or wake up less at night.
Other babies seem to need less sleep during growth spurts, making them wake up more frequently at night, take shorter naps and generally be fussier when it comes to settling down to sleep for their usual routine.
The best advice would be to brace yourself for about 5 growth spurts before the age of one, which should only last for a couple of days at a time and will indicate that your baby is developing properly.
9. Improper Baby Sleepwear
What your baby wears to sleep has a tremendous impact on the length and quality of the rest you and your little one will get at night. Parents and experts alike agree that swaddling from a young age is the best solution for night time baby clothing as it provides a warm, enclosed, womb-like environment that soothes babies and helps them sleep longer.
However, some babies do not like the swaddle experience and will try to wriggle their way out as soon as they have developed the strength to do so. In these situations, there are a number of effective transitioning products to help your baby be as comfortable as possible while they’re sleeping.
These are designed with varying levels of mobility while still retaining the warm and enclosed feeling of the swaddle. If you’re looking for help choosing from the many sleepwear options appropriate for your child’s age, discover some of our popular transitional solutions in our Zipadee-Zips or Zippy-OneZ collections.
10. Baby Teething Pains
The discomfort of new teeth cutting into your baby’s gums is a common cause of your baby waking up at night. During this period, they will experience a lot of pain and will be unhappy during the day, as well as at night. Signs that your baby is teething include more drooling and biting, a loss of appetite and increased sucking and chewing.
To soothe the pain of teething, ask your pediatrician or dentist whether or not you can give your child a small dose of painkillers. Alternatively, teething rings and gels can be used to soothe the discomfort and limit pain during the day and before sleep. To eliminate pain even further, place the teether in the fridge to make it slightly cool.
Always make sure that every toy you give to your baby is safe. Teething rings should be made with BPA-free non-toxic materials. For some inspiration, take a look at our collection of teethers that are made from 100% food-grade silicone for an effective way to make the teething process easier.