Why do Babies Wake at Night?

Written By Therese DeChristopher, RN, IBCLC and LiseAnne Dietz McGalliard

Our baby has finally arrived, and it seems the first question everyone asks is, “Does your baby sleep through the night?” You know your baby is keeping you up but you are afraid to say so. Everyone seems to think sleeping through the night is a desirable goal for infancy, as well as a measure of your parenting skills.  Should sleeping through the night be such an important issue, and is it what your baby needs?

Most babies wake several times throughout the night. For a baby, sleeping through the night is not really a desirable goal. It may not even be possible. The fact is that babies are designed to not sleep through the night. Babies are not adults and their sleep patterns are not the same as adult sleep patterns. Babies have shorter and lighter sleep cycles that prevent them from falling asleep as deeply as adults do. If babies slept as deeply as adults, they might not be able to wake themselves.
There are important reasons why infants wake during the night. They might be hungry, hot, cold,ill, or having trouble breathing.

Some research indicates that one of the possible causes of SIDS is a baby who is sleeping so deeply that is she unable to wake herself. Babies who wake frequently are actually well adapted. Babies who sleep longer and more deeply may be at greater risk. Formula-fed babies may sleep for longer periods at night because formula is not as easily digested as breastmilk. Artificial baby milk forms large tough curds in the baby’s stomach and may make the baby “feel” full longer and stay in deep sleep longer. One of the benefits of breastfeeding is that breastfed babies sleep the way nature intended. They wake more easily in response to their physical needs.

Not only does night waking provide important survival benefits, it is normal behavior for babies. It is natural for babies to awaken two or three times a night from birth to six months, once or twice from six months to a year, and once a night after one year. Keep this in mind: The medical definition of “sleeping through the night” is only a five-hour stretch.

As parents, what should we do? The more we push the issue, the more difficult it is likely to be for everyone. A baby’s sleep habits are determined more by individual temperament than by her parents’ nighttime parenting abilities. It is not your fault that your baby wakes at night. If there is less stress surrounding the issue, sleeping through the night may actually occur sooner than later because everyone, including baby, benefits from a more relaxed environment.

At some point, all children learn to “sleep through the night.” Until this happens for your child, remember that frequent waking is normal and beneficial for your baby.

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