Why Newborns Wake at Night and 10 Things You Can Do About It

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  • October 31, 2013

newbornSome newborn babies seem to be born as night owls, with longer stretches of sleep during the day and wanting to be entertained at night. Newborns are not born with fully developed circadian rhythms, and in fact, it will take your baby between 2 and 4 months to sort herself out naturally.

To add to this, the sleep hormone melatonin isn’t fully produced by infants until at least 9 to 12 weeks (this is when the pineal gland matures). Breastfed babies receive melatonin from breastmilk, with higher levels during evening and nighttime hours, and significantly lower levels during the day (melatonin is broken down by light, which explains lower production during the day).

While there are strategies you can incorporate into your days and nights to help your baby ease into nighttime sleep cycles, many babies will grow out of this stage as their bodies mature and develop. In fact, it may be more beneficial to find coping strategies for a sleep-deprived parent in these early weeks rather than fighting against your newborn’s internal clock (or lack thereof!).

If your baby is older and seems to be switching her days and nights, this habit it may simply be a reflection of your baby’s day:

     • Was it a stressful day?

     • Were you super busy?

     • Were you out-and-about?

     • Have you just returned to work?

     • How much caffeine did you have today?

When thinking about the day you may realize that times between feedings were stretched out to accommodate a busier schedule, or that your baby was distracted and didn’t ask for milk as often. Developmental milestones which generally occur around 4 months, 6 months and 8 months can make a baby “forget” to eat during the day, which leads to her need to make up for missed meals at night.

Keep in mind, night waking isn’t always just about food. Babies have “touch” reserves that need to be filled too. If you’ve just returned to work or had a busy and distracting day your baby may be craving close contact with you and needs to fill up on snuggles.

No matter your baby’s age, there are some strategies that can help you and your baby find a balance between day and night time feedings:

Fill her up during the day

Offer your baby regular feeds during the day (every 3 hours or less), even if it means waking her up. Some babies will naturally do a 4 hour sleep stretch somewhere in a 24 hour period, just don’t let her do it during the day!

You can gently wake your baby by picking her up, unswaddling her (if she’s swaddled), or removing some of her clothing, stroking or tickling her arms and legs, or go straight to changing her diaper. She’ll still need to feed during the night but hopefully she’ll start to stretch out her feeds when it’s dark

Once she’s up, keep her up

Although you want to prevent her from becoming overtired (newborns should only be awake for 1.5 to 2 hours at a time during the day), make sure that she plays during the day. Sing to her, play with her, talk with her and show her around her new environment. Rather than forcing her to stay awake, provide stimulation so she won’t want to go to sleep.

Expose your baby to natural light during the day

Our circadian rhythms (which is just a fancy way of saying our sleep cycles) respond primarily to light and darkness. Your baby’s circadian rhythm is still developing over the first few months, and exposure to natural light will help get things sorted out. Make sure the curtains are open and you move about your regular activities during the day.

Remember, your newborn’s naps don’t always need to be in her crib. A bassinette in the living room will help reinforce her sense the daytime rhythm of your house, although as your baby gets older and have a good day and night rhythm, you’ll find that she sleeps best in a dark, quiet place for naps.

Keep it dark and quiet at night

Use dim or ambient lighting (like a soft nightlight) when tending to your baby at night, make sure that the light is just the minimum amount you need to see what you’re doing. Feed her and change her dirty diaper if needed (diapers don’t need to be changed at every feed during the night, especially if they’re only wet and she doesn’t have a diaper rash) and don’t engage in any playful interactions. Remain quiet, soothing, and calm.

Use white noise at night

White noise can help to replicate the sounds your baby heard in your womb and may help keep her calm. Your white noise machine may need to be at a fairly loud volume to work, and can also act as a sound barrier, helping to block outside sounds from your baby’s room.

White noise is often very helpful for children who are very alert and curious to help them calm their minds and fall asleep.


Carrying your baby will help you stay connected to your baby on those busy days

Use a sling or baby carrier during the day

Carrying your baby will help you stay connected to your baby on those busy days. You can hold your baby close (and breastfeed frequently!) while still getting things done.

Remember to make sure your expectations of yourself are realistic. You need downtime, and stopping for a bit to feed your baby is an excellent reminder to put your feet up and relax.

Keep your newborn close at night

This will allow you to quickly feed your baby before she’s fully awake during the night. Co-sleeping parents often get more sleep (as do their babies!) because mom and baby’s sleep cycles align with one another. If you choose to co-sleep, please follow safe co-sleeping guidelines.

Limit your intake of caffeine if you are breastfeeding

Caffeine passes through your breastmilk and will stimulate your baby just as it stimulates you, which is not what you want to do if you want our baby to sleep well.

To determine if caffeine is part of the problem,, try cutting it out of your diet for a few days. If you see an improvement in your baby’s sleep, you can gradually reintroduce caffeine, but be sure to keep an eye on timing. Morning caffeine may be fine, however after 4:00 p.m. may cause sleep issues.

If you are a working mom, feed your newborn frequently between arriving home and bedtime

Offer your baby frequent feedings, even if she’s not asking for it, from the time you get home to bedtime. By filling her up both with food and with “mommy time” she may sleep longer stretches at night.

Know that there will always be “bad” nights

Once your baby seems to have settled into a regular nighttime routine, know that there will still be nights when she seems to be up every hour. As babies hit developmental milestones and growth spurts, sleep is often disrupted while your baby’s body and mind catches up. As her brain and nervous system mature she will, over time, consistently sleep longer stretches at night.

A word of caution: Enforcing a sleep schedule on your baby before meeting daytime needs may result in a feeding issue or an unhappy baby. Over-feeding your baby or using formula as a sleep aid do not help with night-time sleeping and may lead to other problems.

Above all, keep in mind that night wakings are completely normal and necessary for babies (frustrating though they may be for mom and dad). Babies will wake at night for a variety of reasons: feeding, comfort, to feel secure, calming, developmental milestones, and will often need help falling back to sleep.

Remember, you cannot spoil a baby. Responding and attending to your child will increase her confidence and your bond with your baby. For more tips about newborn sleep and development, please review our free Gentle Baby Solutions Guide.

Andrea Strang
Andrea Strang

Andrea Strang is an Infant Consultant, Gentle Sleep Coach and a Birth Postpartum Doula. In the past 14 years Andrea has helped over 3000 families and has over 10, 000 hours providing in home support with families.

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