Updated: Aug 30, 2022
Night wakes are a common cause of concern for many parents. And although you may be
experiencing sleep challenges like THOUSANDS of other parents, it doesn't make it any less tiring and exhausting, all the while having NO IDEA what is causing your babes to wake in the first place!
Luckily, there are some pretty simple things you can check to see if your child's night wakes is a simple issue that has a quick fix. But let's explore what is possibly causing your child to wake at night? Below is a list of areas and causes you can explore to start your identification journey:
> Imbalanced day sleep - not enough/too much?
> Sleep expectations - replicating habits?
> Room temperature - too hot/cold?
> Hunger - are they genuinely hungry?
> Emotional connection - do they need you?
> Sleep environment - is their room dark enough?
> Biologically normal - it's age appropriate!
> Underlying Issue - what's really going on?
So, what does all this mean? Well, let me delve a little deeper for you...
Imbalanced Day Sleep
If your child has too little or too much day sleep, this will create a negative impact on their ability to fall asleep and even stay asleep. Too little day sleep and their hormones will be erratic. When a child is over tired, this causes a rise in cortisol levels which then triggers the adrenal glands to release adrenalin into their system. And we all know what it's like to try and sleep when we are pumped full of adrenalin...it leads to irritability, excitement and an inability to switch off and calm down. So if your child is lacking day sleep, there is a GOOD chance that their hormones are imbalanced and this is what is preventing them from smoothly and restfully linking sleep cycles.
On the flip side of this, if your child is having too much day sleep, then their sleep pressure (or drive for sleep) is also compromised. There is only so much sleep one person can achieve for their biological needs in a 24 hour period (or an accumulation over time). Allowing your child to oversleep during the day will lead to a decrease in their drive for sleep over night. Make sure that your child's day sleep is adequately balanced to support their sleep pressure at night.
Want to know how much sleep your child needs in a 24 hour period? Read more on a blog I wrote: Age Appropriate Sleep Requirements or download a copy of my Nap Schedules:
Sleep expectations are commonly known as sleep associations but the issue with this terminology, is that sleep associations are often thought of as 'negative'. In my opinion, there is no such things as a negative sleep associations; the current sleep expectations are either working for you or they're not.
The main concern with sleep expectations, or associations, is that your child can rely on their preferred method of settling each time they wish to settle or resettle. If your child is falling asleep with any non-parental assisted or parent-assisted approach, then it is highly likely that they will wake at the end of a sleep cycle and need that same expectation to go back to sleep.
Red Nose Safe Sleep Guidelines state that "it is not necessary to monitor the room temperature or to leave the heating or cooling on all night, as long as the baby is dressed appropriately for the room temperature" - (3). However, a loose guide is that the room should be over 16 degrees but below 24 degrees to ensure comfortable sleeping. A room that is outside of this range can trigger disrupted sleep no matter how well the child is dressed.
Make sure your child's room is an appropriate room temperature and that they are dressed appropriately to rule out the possibility that they are too hot or too cold.
Babies and children's metabolic rates change daily so do keep in mind that just because they can sleep long periods one night, it doesn't mean that they will do that the next night too. The variation in how much milk children need through the night differs from one child to the next and trying to use a baseline as to whether your child is hungry or not proves extremely difficult. With this in mind, I always suggest you base the possibility of your child being genuinely hungry by using your mama instincts.
However, if your child is trying to feed more frequently than 3 hourly through the night, I urge you to consider the possibility that genuine hunger isn't the trigger to night wakes. If you're unsure exactly whether hunger is at play here, if it's been more than 3-4 hours since the last feed and your child is under 6 months of age, or if it's been more than 6 hours since the last feed if your child is between 6-12 months of age, try feeding them to see if they resettle easier.
Emotion connection. That's it! It's a pretty simple concept - your baby may just be waking looking for reassurance that you're still around and seeking that level of comfort from their much loved parent. And honestly, is there anything really wrong with this? Well, not really except it can cause an impact on both yours and your child's sleep quality if they are waking excessively.
Try to build on your connection with your baby through their awake periods. Lots of one on one time, skin-to-skin and bonding will help to provide your baby with the emotional connection they are seeking.
Let's face it, if you're a parent of a baby or toddler, you already have a sleep supportive environment. It's one of the most harped on aspects of establishing healthy sleep. Dark room, white noise and a great room temperature. BUT, there are some unintentional disruptions to a child's sleep environment which can trigger unwanted night wakes.
Whilst a dark room is necessary, many parents use night lights or even have appliances in the room which omit an incorrect hue. Check any standby lights in your child's room which are green, blue, purple or white in tone. These colours affect melatonin production (which is our sleep hormone) and our circadian rhythm pattern. If you do have any lights in the room of this colour, consider switching them off or covering them. This simple trick might just make a big change to your child's night wakes.
Biologically normal - it's age appropriate!
It is biologically normal for your child to be waking through the night. We cannot reasonably expect a child under the age of 2 years to consistently sleep through the night. In fact, 50% of children over the age of 1 are still waking through the night seeking parental support. So although you can feel alone in the troubled sleep world, your child's night wakes may be perfectly normal.
Society and a poor understanding of normal biological sleep needs of a baby has led many parents to have unrealistic expectations of a baby's sleep pattern. But this clearly isn't fair on a baby, right?! Right! BUT....we also can't expect parents to function on sleep deprivation or a lack of sleep quality. Research shows that a lack of sleep quality from consistent interruptions to the sleep patterns causes short and long term health consequences (1). One study even showed that sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication (2). You can read more about normal sleep in my blog: Normalising Infant and Child Sleep So whilst night wakes are biologically normal, what ISN'T normal is when those night wakes are excessive. The excessive range is considered when your child is waking 4 or more times a night. And this leads me to my next point....
This is THE MOST missed concept by nearly all sleep consultants and most health care professionals.
The unknown world of underlying factors which will prevent your child from establishing health sleep habits NO MATTER WHAT YOU TRY is significant.
If you have tried 'absolutely everything' with temporary, limited or no positive changes, then there is still one missing piece of the puzzle. This means that you need to look a little deeper, and this takes a trained eye to really determine what is going on. Lucky for you, I am extensively experienced in this area!
Underlying issues will significantly impact your child's sleep, no matter what you do, UNTIL you identify, address and manage it. I explore this area with every single one of my one on one clients. And I can do it with you too, through my Online Coaching Session.
If you need some further support and knowledge to pinpoint exactly why your child is waking so you can make a positively impactful change, then reach out to me and we can have a free chat to discuss your options.
Forever bringing sleep to families,
My name is Shereen Nielsen and I am a certified infant and child sleep consult, working with children aged birth to 12 years. I am also a lecturer and mentor for students on their journey towards becoming a Sleep Consultant, through my on-line internationally recognised sleep consultants course.
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