When your baby or toddler is waking frequently at night, the first question you probably ask yourself is, “Why?!?” Countless parents contact the Baby Sleep Site and ask that very question: “Why is my baby (or toddler) waking up all the time?!” Dear readers, we wish SO MUCH that we had an easy answer to that one. Unfortunately, as with so many things related to your baby or toddler, nighttime waking isn’t exactly straightforward.
Sleep Associations and Hunger: Two Common Causes of Nighttime Waking
Lots of babies and toddlers wake at night due to sleep associations; for those children, the solution is usually to sleep train. Newborns and young infants can often wake at night from hunger; in that case, the solution is to offer a feeding.
But what about nighttime waking that isn’t so straightforward? This article will highlight 6 possible reasons (aside from sleep associations and hunger) your baby or toddler is waking at night.
Other Causes of Nighttime Waking
A Scheduling Problem
If nighttime sleep is becoming an issue, take a good, hard look at your baby or toddler’s daytime schedule. Is your baby getting enough sleep during the day? If not, she may be overtired; that can lead to lots of nighttime waking. Naps aren’t optional, remember; babies need naps!
On the other hand, your toddler may be getting too much sleep during the day, or he might be going to bed too early; if that’s the case, it can cause him to wake frequently at night. For help in determining if your baby or toddler is getting the right amount of sleep, check out our “How Many Naps” post. If you’re hoping to improve your baby or toddler’s current schedule, take a look at our “Recommended Schedules” page for help.
A Developmental Leap
Your baby or toddler is growing and learning at a phenomenal rate. And guess what? Each one of those developmental milestones (learning to crawl, learning to walk, learning to talk, etc.) affects your baby’s sleep. Most parents find that right around the time their baby or toddler is learning a major skill, a sleep regression happens. During those sleep regressions, your baby or toddler suddenly begins waking at night out of the blue, for no apparent reason. We generally recommend that parents wait out these regressions, since they normally pass in a few weeks, and avoid developing new habits that can become long-term. Once they’re over, your baby or toddler’s sleep should return to normal.
A Sleep Disorder or Medical Issue
Sometimes, your baby or toddler’s nighttime waking is a sign of something more serious. Nighttime waking can be a sign of illness or ear infections. Check your baby or toddler for symptoms (fever, runny nose, coughing, ear-pulling); if you suspect that she might be waking due to illness, consult your healthcare provider.
Nighttime waking can also point to a sleep disorder (although these are less common than other causes listed in this article). Sleep disorders include issues like sleep apnea, RLS (Restless Leg Syndrome), and SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder). Again, if you suspect that your baby or toddler might have a sleep disorder, contact your healthcare provider for further testing.
A Bout of Teething
It can seem like your baby or toddler is teething constantly. And that’s not far from the truth, actually — babies and toddlers start cutting teeth around 6 months of age, and it doesn’t stop until age 2. 18 months worth of teething can definitely feel like an eternity!
When your baby or toddler is teething, the pressure and swelling on her gums can make her uncomfortable, causing her to wake more often at night. Review how to handle teething and sleep, here, for tips on what to do about your baby or toddler’s teething.
A Food Allergy or Intolerance
Food allergies and intolerances can cause a host of physical problems, and disrupted sleep is one of them. Food allergies and intolerances often trigger digestive issues (like gas and bloating) as well as rashes and swelling; all those symptoms make for a bad night of sleep!
Food allergies and intolerances can develop at any age, but this may be an especially big problem as you start to introduce your baby to solid foods. For more information on how food allergies and intolerances affect your baby, and how to be mindful of allergy-causing foods as you start your baby on solids, review How to Introduce Solid Foods to Your Baby.
A Late-Night Snack
This one doesn’t apply to babies so much; if your baby is hungry, you should feed her. With toddlers, however, it’s a different story. Keep in mind that food provides calories and that calories = energy. So what’s going to happen when you give your two-year-old a bedtime snack or middle-of-the-night feeding? He’s going to get a nice, big boost of energy, right at the moment when you want him to start winding down or in the middle of the night. Not good. Instead, make an effort to give your toddler plenty of (healthy!) food during daylight hours, and make sure that he eats an adequate dinner and a snack at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime. That should ward off any late-night hunger.
“We have a lot of clients ask us why their baby or toddler is waking and while, most of the time, it seems obvious (to us anyway), it isn’t always so obvious. I had one co-sleeping mama (with no interest in changing that) whose toddler was staying awake for 1-2 hours at night, even in bed with her. It turned out to be dairy intolerance. She was ever so grateful that we figured it out, because no one, not even her daughter’s doctor, put it together. We can’t typically stop ALL night-waking, since it is somewhat normal, but chronic waking or waking for long periods isn’t good for anyone.”