Throughout your baby’s first few years of life, you’re going to experience multiple sleep disruptions. For some parents, it’s as frequent as having their baby waking up every hour throughout the night.
What’s important is that you correctly identify the reason why your baby wakes up every hour or two.
If you misidentify the reason for your baby waking every hour (or every few hours) at night and don’t address it in the appropriate way, you might accidentally cause your baby to adopt a new sleep association, which turns a short-term sleep disruption into a long-term issue that causes unnecessary stress and sleep deprivation.
In this post, you’ll learn the most common reasons for babies waking frequently throughout the night. Then you’ll learn what you can do to end frequent night waking and eventually get your baby sleeping through the night so you can all have a good night’s sleep.
When Teething is The Cause of Your Baby Waking Up Every Hour
Teething is one of the first things many parents assume is causing their baby’s frequent night wakings.
But it’s certainly not the only thing that disrupts babies sleep.
In fact, the painful part of teething only lasts for a few days, and mouthing and drooling don’t necessarily mean your baby is teething.
However, if teething is the reason why your baby wakes up every hour or two, you’re going to notice two things:
- Your baby’s wake-up times suddenly become irregular (Unless your baby is waking every 60 to 90 minutes in the second half of the night — then it’s unlikely to be teething, but might be because of a sleep association, which is when babies need certain cues or behaviors to fall asleep.)
- A change in your baby’s behavior during the day, not just during the night
In addition to this, you might also notice:
- An unusual amount of fussiness and discomfort
- Swollen or red gums, or a blue/grey cyst on their gum line
- A visible, small white tooth just below the gum line
If your baby is happy during the day and you’re not noticing these signs of teething, then it’s highly unlikely that they are teething and that teething is disrupting their sleep.
Illness Can Disrupt Your Baby’s Normal Sleep Patterns
Acute illnesses like an ear infection, a cold, the flu, or COVID can also cause your baby to wake more often throughout the night than normal.
It’s usually fairly easy to tell if your baby is experiencing an acute illness because you’ll notice symptoms.
A few common symptoms to keep an eye out for (though not an exhaustive list):
- A runny nose
- A change in appetite (Could be in response to a sore throat)
- Pulling on their ear (Potential sign of an ear infection)
If you suspect illness is the cause, always consult with your doctor for advice on the appropriate treatment. The good news is, if this is the cause, it’s very likely that your baby’s sleep will return to normal when they are well again.
Sleep Regression Can Cause Frequent Wakings
Changes in your child’s sleep patterns can also occur when they’re going through a sleep regression. Sleep regressions are a completely normal part of development, and you’ll often notice them because your baby starts to wake between sleep cycles.
Sleep regressions tend to occur between the following age ranges:
- Between 3 to 5 months of age – This is when they’re going through what’s known as the four month sleep regression
- Between 7 to 10 months of age – Known as the eight-month sleep regression
- Between 15-18 months of age
- At around 2 years of age
I know this sounds like your baby will be constantly going through a sleep regression. But not all children experience a full sleep regression when they go through these stages.
Sleep regressions generally coincide with cognitive or developmental milestones, and they can last anywhere from two to six weeks.
Generally, the length of time your baby will experience a sleep regression can depend on multiple factors, such as:
- The cause of the sleep regression
- The child’s ability to self soothe and link sleep cycles
- Our response when they’re going through a sleep regression
For example, when a baby is going through the four-month sleep regression, if they’re able to fall asleep independently and link sleep cycles, then that sleep regression is going to be significantly less, and will end much quicker than others.
But if they need your help falling and staying asleep, then that sleep regression is basically a long-term thing. That’s because your baby’s sleep pattern has changed. And they’re now waking up between sleep cycles and need your help to get back to sleep every time. Given that a baby’s sleep cycle generally lasts between 20 and 50 minutes, this can lead to very frequent night wakings.
Your Baby Might Need to Drop a Nap
Your baby’s sleep can also become disrupted if they’ve reached a stage in their development where they’re ready to drop a nap. Until they drop that nap, it will impact their night time sleep because they will reach their total sleep requirement for the day and wake up.
Babies follow a general progression where they go through nap transitions.
The general ages when nap transitions occur are:
- At 4-6 months they transition from 4 naps to 3 naps
- At 6-9 months they transition from 3 naps to 2 naps
- At 12-18 months they transition from 2 naps to 1 nap (usually around 15 months)
- At 2.5-6 years they transition from 1 nap to no daytime naps at all
If your baby wakes up every hour, or less frequently but still more than they used to, and they are within these ranges when babies typically drop a nap, that might be the cause.
In this case, try removing one of their day naps and see if their sleep at night improves.
If you’d like to learn more about nap transitions, including how many naps per day you can expect your little one to take at different ages, how long their wake windows should be, their average daily sleep total and more, click here to download your copy of the free New Parent’s Guide to Naps.
How to Get Your Baby’s Sleep Back to Normal
Here’s what you can do to help your child through these things as quickly as possible and put an end to your baby waking every hour.
Address Illness or Teething Pain
If you know your baby is sick or teething, then you obviously want to address their pain and try and relieve it for them.
This might mean you need to talk to your doctor about ways to relieve or get rid of their infection or help them with their teething pain.
Keep Their Room Cool and Dark
The second thing you want to do is keep your baby’s room cool, dark, and quiet, as this promotes optimal sleep.
This is especially important if your baby is learning a new motor skill.
A bright room means they can look around at all of the interesting things whenever they wake. That means if they wake between sleep cycles, they’re much more likely to become more alert and stay awake.
And with their new motor skill, they want to practice that whenever possible. This means they’ll try to do things like sitting up to look around their room and explore things they’ve never done before.
A dark room is extremely helpful for this. If your baby wakes up between sleep cycles and the room is dull and boring, they’re more likely to fall back asleep.
I highly recommend using blackout blinds to keep the room as dark as possible. We use these portable ones.
To reduce the impact of loud noises, street noise and other sounds on your baby’s sleep, I recommend using a white noise machine. This will help prevent outside noises from waking your baby when they enter a light sleep phase. Here’s one of my favorite white noise machines I recommend.
Avoid bringing them into your bed
If your child is older and you sleep in separate rooms, and their discomfort during these stages means that you do want to temporarily sleep in the same room with them, then I would recommend that you start to sleep in their room instead of bringing them into your bed.
It’s going to be easier for you to get their sleep back on track if you keep their sleeping environment consistent. This is so they know to sleep in their cot for all naps rather than in mom and dad’s bed.
Follow an Age-Appropriate Nap Schedule and Wake Times
You also want to make sure that your baby is following an age-appropriate nap schedule, wake times, and total expected sleep during the day.
This is important because it helps set your expectations for baby sleep based on your child’s age.
When you have unrealistic sleep expectations for a child, it can actually make their disruption significantly more stressful.
For example, if they need to drop a nap but you continue to try to get them to maintain the same nap schedule as usual, they’ll likely be difficult to put to sleep. And if they do fall asleep, it will likely disrupt their night sleep because their total sleep requirement has changed.
Or if your baby is learning a new motor skill and they’re not yet tired, then they’re going to use this time to practice that new motor skill.
This means they may be getting into a new position (like sitting up), but they can’t get out of it. So they yell out to you to lie them back down and get them comfortable again.
This can get you into the habit of constantly going back into their room to help them fall back to sleep.
If you’d like to know the age-appropriate sleep times for your baby, then make sure you download the free sleep guide. This is a really handy quick-reference guide that shows you how many naps your baby should be having, the wake windows they generally have, as well as their total amount of sleep in the 24-hour period.
Keep Their Bedtime Routine and Nap Schedule Consistent
Continue to use the same nap and bedtime routine you were using if your baby was previously falling asleep independently.
This means you would go through your usual bedtime routine of putting them down to sleep.
And if they don’t go to sleep, or if you have a bedtime false start, then you would go back through your same sleep routine, which might be getting them up and singing them a song, and then putting them back in their cot before leaving.
If they continue to stay awake, then you would come back into the room and try and help them fall asleep with a different comforting technique. Initially I like to start with shushing, then patting, and then picking them up if needed.
Also keep in mind that you’ll want to try and avoid making them reliant on you to fall asleep, because that reliance will persist even after the cause of their disrupted sleep subsides.
Keep Track of When Your Baby Wakes at Night
I also recommend keeping track of when your baby is waking up at night.
If they’re waking when it’s a usual feed time, then you would obviously feed them. But if your baby wakes when it’s not a usual feed time, what you want to do first is just wait.
Start by just waiting for five minutes and see if they go back to sleep. Many babies will drift back off to sleep during this time.
If they don’t, then you would go in to comfort them and help them fall back asleep.
If they’re sick or have a fever, then you would give them some pain relief if needed (as recommended by you doctor). Then you would help them go back to sleep by going through their usual sleep routine.
And if they don’t go back to sleep, then you would come back in and try and comfort them to go back to sleep.
Essentially, you want to use other techniques like shushing and patting before picking them up and feeding them. Because if they become reliant on that feed to get to sleep or on you holding them to get to sleep, it’s really difficult to drop a sleep association when they become well or move past a sleep regression.
Try to avoid falling into that trap because it’s going to be so much harder to return to normal sleep patterns if you do.
Help Your Baby Practice Motor Skills During the Day
If your baby has learned a new motor skill, like rolling, sitting up, standing, cruising, or walking – give them as much time as possible to practice it during waking hours.
Once your child has mastered that skill, the novelty of doing it tends to wear off, and it will only cause a few days or maybe a week of disruption rather than a long-term change in your baby’s sleep pattern.
If you’re struggling because your baby wakes up every hour or two (or you’re simply experiencing a sudden change in their sleep), the first step is to identify the cause.
Avoid jumping to conclusions. Instead, use the steps outlined in this post to figure out the cause before you do anything else. Once you’ve identified why your baby’s sleep is disrupted, you can take the appropriate steps to help your baby sleep based on the cause.
This will help you avoid possibly doing something that causes a long-term change in their sleep that will be much harder to fix.
And if you’re still unsure what to expect from your baby in terms of sleep at their specific age, make sure to download our free sleep guide to help improve your baby’s sleep.