Thursday, October 7, 2010

Night Waking in Older Babies

One of our faithful readers, Bec, asked us about our experiences with frequent night waking in older babies. And let me tell you friends, I have experience with this. My oldest son, Andrew was a terrible sleeper. Not only was it hard to get him to sleep, but it was hard to get him to stay asleep. He would wake up every 2 - 2 1/2 hours to nurse. All night long. For months and months and months.

The thing about this is that it is not really hard on the baby. They only partially wake up, wheras Mom usually wakes up fully in order to deal with the baby. This means months of sleep deprivation. Did you know that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture? Serious sleep deprivation means loss of short term memory and generally living in what I used to call "the fog". This is the state where you can carry on automatic tasks, like washing dishes and changing diapers, but you can not hold an intelligent conversation without spacing out. So first things first, here are some tips for taking care of yourself, tired mama:
  • catch a nap sometime during the day when your husband or someone else can watch the baby
  • cut your "to do" list in half - lower your expectations of how much you'll be able to do in a day
  • drink water and eat healthy and take care of yourself. This stage is an endurance challenge so your body needs good fuel
  • try not to take it personally -- your baby really isn't trying to control or manipulate you, he's just being a baby
  • remember that this too shall end -- not as soon as you would like, but you will get more sleep eventually
Second, there are a few gentle, non leave-your-baby-to-cry-it-out things you can try to help your baby sleep longer, or help their wakings bother you less. Most of these are tips I've gleaned from The Baby Book by Dr William and Martha Sears, and The No Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley.

  • make sure your baby is getting lots of nursing in during the day -- sometimes when babies start crawling and cruising and walking, they are so excited that they forget to eat. At night time when there are no distractions they realize their little tummies are really empty and so they wake up to eat a lot
  • make sure your baby is getting lots of touch during the day -- crawling and cruising babies still need lots of touch. If your baby has been down a lot during the day, but has been used to lots of time being held and cuddled at a younger age, they may wake up needing reassurance and reconnection. Some extra time in a sling or in someone's arms right before bed time can help.
  • try to let baby fall asleep in the same place and position they will wake up in. Elizabeth Pantley compares falling asleep nursing and waking up without Mom there to falling asleep in your bed and waking up on a tile floor. It can be disorienting to wake up somewhere other than where you fell asleep. So try to let baby do that last little bit of falling asleep on their mattress or in their crib. If you are breastfeeding, try to pop your nipple out right before they fall asleep so they don't expect it to still be there when they wake up.
  • a baby who is waking about every 2 1/2 hours is basically waking up each time they hit a new sleep cycle. We as adults also wake up every 4 hours or so, but we usually fall back to sleep without noticing. Babies who are used to only being soothed or falling asleep in one or two ways will often be unable to fall asleep without their usual sleep prop. If you help baby to fall asleep in different ways -- in the stroller, in a car seat, in a rocking chair, in Dad's arms, or in a sling, to list a few -- it can help him to learn different ways of being soothed. This might lead to more ability to self soothe and sleep longer stretches
  • try to think of any practical things that might be bothering your baby -- is he teething? cold? hot? wet? constipated? having tummy troubles? hidden allergies? stuffy nose? -- any of these might lead to frequent wakings due to simple discomfort
  • if none of these seems to be getting anywhere, and you breastfeeding, just take your baby to bed with you. Work out how to nurse him laying down, and nurse him back to sleep when he wakes up. You will be much less sleep deprived if you just have to roll over and offer some quick comfort, than you will if you get up, feed or rock the baby, then lay him back down every 2 1/2 hours.

Lastly, it might just be that your son has a very sensitive or intense temperment. Intense kids often become fully alert very quickly. This means that when they have that short waking between sleep cycles, they have trouble falling back to sleep because they come fully awake. The only cure for this one is time. My most intense child didn't sleep for 8 hours straight until he was 3. At six, he still often wakes up once and night, and never sleeps more than 9 hours. Some kids are just wired that way. It makes for tired mamas, yes. But one day, he will sleep for longer. Just wait it out, and do what you can to help him learn to sleep sounder.

Now, Bec, get off the computer and go take a nap!


  1. If someone had just told me that it was normal, I would have felt a lot calmer with the whole frequent night wakings. Instead I felt like it was abnormal, which it's not, and that I was doing something right and must correct this baby!
    Our boy woke every 2-3 hours for the first year. He started going longer stretches around 14 months old and one day, all on his own, he started sleeping through the night. This was his normal!

  2. Lochlan at 15 months is one of those children who wakes every 2 hours and I mostly let him co-sleep and nurse so I get a half decent night of sleep (I work full time now so I need my brain to at least function a little at work). I have repetedly tried various sleep training methods with him with little success. At one point I was having a miserable time and feeling like a total failure so Andrew made me leave the house to have some time to myself and I went to the library (across the street from our house-so nice). There I started reading the No Cry Sleep solution (Pantly), I was SO relieved, I thought "wow I have not been doing it all wrong, I actually have been doing a lot right"- it was a great moment for me.

  3. Thank you so much for this post. You've offered me some great tips and made me realize that some of the things I've been doing already. :) I am so happy that there are other 2 1/2 hour babies out there and that I'm not in this alone. :) And yes I think I shall go take a nap now that I've food in my tummy.

  4. Thank you! We are in a similar boat with our son. He is 2 now and can get a pretty good night's sleep but we are still co-sleeping/nursing so that does mean we end up trying to sleep whenever he does to keep him asleep. Most of the time he does pretty well but wakes up in the middle of the night around 1am to 3am sometimes. It can be so so rough. Thanks for the tips and it is so good to know other people are going through the same thing.




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