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Hey, hey!

I'm Michele DiSpirito

I've been where you are.

Tired. No. Exhausted! Frustrated and confused as to what to do with an adorable little one that just. won't. sleep.

I'm a mom to three boys ages 6 and under, wife to Kyle for 17 years, and all about getting some good sleep for us all! While struggling to make sleep consistent and a reality with my oldest, I scoured the internet for answers and was left more frustrated and confused than when I started. I wanted a clear path; someone I trusted to just tell me what to do, how to do it, and when. What I wanted was what I'm here to be for you today - a Pediatric Sleep Consultant.

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Troubleshooting Night-Wakings

Night-wakings are likely the most common sleep struggles parents face! To use a sleep training technique during those wakings isn’t bad, but it may not be enough to get to the root of the wakings! That’s what we’re going to talk about today - the common causes of night-wakings and how to correct them.

Before we jump into this, I want you to understand two things:

1. Night-wakings are completely normal.

We all actually wake multiple times throughout the night as we're transitioning from one sleep cycle to the next and it's the same for our little ones. Since we know how to sleep independently, typically what happens is we readjust our pillow, pull our blanket back over, get back into our most comfortable position, and fall right back to sleep.

These wakings are called partial arousals.

When little ones (and even some adults) don't know how to sleep independently, these are the times that they end up fully waking and calling out for that thing that helped them get to sleep initially.

For little ones that are independent sleepers, a lot of times they end up finding their thumb, finding their favorite position, wiggling around, sometimes even fussing. Sometimes during partial arousals, little ones will pull up or sit up and it seems like they're fully awake, but they may not be!

But, more on that later!

2. Little babies, newborns especially, need to be waking up at night to eat.

That is an understandable and necessary night-waking and not the night-waking we're talking about today.

But, for reference, when it comes to eating at night,

  • Newborns often wake to eat as often as every two hours and the very early days.

  • Towards the end of the newborn days, it can be down to three to four times a night.

  • Once they hit that four-month mark or so, feedings can be down to one to two times a night. Then the last night-feeding can potentially hang around until nine months old - and there's nothing wrong with that!

If you have any concerns about night feedings, definitely consult your pediatrician.

But, even if you still need to feed at night, you can still have an independent sleeper!

So when it comes to those night wakings that are not for eating, (or they're waking at night saying that they need to eat but they don't really need to eat, they’re just waking because they want to nurse or feed back to sleep) these are some of the most common root causes of those wakings.

1. Do you have a bedtime routine?

If not create a bedtime routine.

It doesn't have to be anything too extravagant. The bedtime routine should only take about 30-45 minutes, depending on whether or not you're needing to do a feeding before bed. Babies will definitely need to eat at bedtime, but do it at the very beginning of the routine.

An example of a bedtime routine is

Feeding -> Bath -> Jammies -> Snuggles -> Read a book -> Into bed awake

The routine can be anything that is predictable and consistent.

In 2015 there was a study (linked here) that found that a consistent bedtime routine was associated with better sleep outcomes, including earlier bedtimes, shorter sleep onset latency (the time it takes to get to sleep once you go to bed), reduced night wakings, and increased sleep duration.

2. What does their sleep environment look like?

  • Is their sleep space/bedroom completely pitch-black dark?

  • Is there a sound machine that runs throughout their sleep time?

  • Is it a comfortable temperature for them?

  • Are they wearing comfortable pajamas and (an optional) sleep sack?

All these things really factor into how well your little one is sleeping.

Think about it for us. If we're not in a comfortable bed, in a cool enough room, with too much light, it makes it really hard to sleep. It's the same for our children.

3. How are they falling asleep at bedtime, independently or with help?

If they're falling asleep with help, even to just get drowsy, there's a good chance that when they wake at night as we all do, they're looking for that thing that helped them get to sleep initially.

There is a difference between helpful and unhelpful sleep props. (You can read more about those here.) But essentially, helpful sleep props are ones that require no help from somebody else. For example, thumb sucking, their favorite sleep position, rubbing the sheets, there are all kinds of really funny/interesting things babies do to help settle themselves.

Unhelpful sleep props are the ones that require someone else. For example, nursing or feeding, rocking, swaying, etc. And it's only considered unhelpful because you have to wake up to do it. So when that becomes an issue (and there’s no necessity to feed at night), then it isn't helpful.

To solve that would be to implement a sleep training technique along with an optimal sleep environment and an age-appropriate schedule. This will set them up for great sleep and give them the opportunity to learn the helpful sleep props that work for them.

4. Do you have a schedule that is appropriate for their age?

The amount of daytime sleep needed for babies rapidly decreases in the early days until it starts to slow down around six to eight months old when they get onto the 2-nap schedule.

Keeping track of that is really going to be helpful in ensuring that you are getting your baby down for naps when their body is ready to sleep.

For babies with three or more naps, use wake windows.

For children on two or fewer naps, use a set clock schedule. You're going to use wake windows to figure out when the appropriate nap time is going to be, but once you figure that out based on the time of day you're going to wake them every day, you’ll have your set schedule.

Not sure when nap time needs to be? Take this free, quick quiz to find out!

5. Are they getting enough sleep day and night?

Sometimes babies are sleeping too much during the day and therefore don’t have enough sleep pressure to sleep through the night.

Babies and young children need a good bit of sleep during a 24-hour period and when they don't get what they need, or too much of what they need at a certain time, the over or under-tiredness cycle kicks in, making it harder for them to sleep.

Overtiredness is when they're not getting enough sleep and they're just beyond tired. When we stay awake longer than what our body is calling for, our bodies think we’re trying to stay awake so it begins to release cortisol to keep us going. Now, cortisol gets such a bad rap, but it is a necessary hormone within our body. It helps us wake up in the morning. It helps us get moving and keeps us moving if we're in danger; it's very beneficial! But it is not helpful when it’s released at a time when we should be sleeping.

6. What are their naps like?

Are they sleeping independently in their crib? In a carrier? Are they being held? In the stroller?

For really itty bitty babies that are on like three or more naps, not every single nap needs to be in the crib or completely independent. But once they're on two naps or fewer, having that independence and in their crib is going to be the most beneficial sleep for them. So similar to bedtime, if there are any unhelpful sleep props used for naps consistently, it can make nap time shorter and encourage over tiredness.

7. When they are waking at night, how are you responding?

Remember earlier when I talked about the partial arousals? Well, partial arousals can last up to 10 minutes! The partial arousal can include pulling up in bed, crying, fussing, sitting up, moving all around, and even having their eyes open.

It’s that half-awake, half-asleep state.

Since these partial arousals can last up to 10 minutes, it's good to wait at least 10 minutes before you do any sort of response. (Unless of course you know for certain that there's something wrong you do not need to wait when there's sickness or something like that.)

If after those 10 minutes if they're still awake, that’s when you can either implement a sleep training technique or do what you feel is best for them.

If you are using a sleep training technique at bedtime, use the same technique after that 10-minute wait.

Not sure which sleep training method is best for you? Listen to this podcast or read it here.

8. How long has this been going on?

Are you noticing anything new they're learning or doing that could be too exciting for them to sleep?

If your child was once an independent sleeper and now they're waking consistently in the night, dig into that a little bit - they did not forget how to sleep independently.

  • Are they going through a developmental milestone, wanting to crawl, walk, and talk (that seems to be a really big disturbance)?

  • Are they not feeling well?

  • Are there any big changes that have been going on lately and they're just craving for connection with you?

Whatever needs you identify, meet those during their wake time so that they can rest well at night.

When it comes to learning to crawl, pull up, and walk, giving them tons of time to practice during their wake times is super beneficial.

When it comes to needing connection, the bedtime routine is going to be really helpful for that as well along with any other quality time that you can have with them throughout the day, of course.

9. Are you noticing any pattern of when they're waking in the night?

Is it at the same time? In the same way? Or is it completely random?

If you're noticing a pattern it might be a habit.

A lot of times, once babies no longer need to be eating at night, they still wake at that time out of habit - even if they don’t need that feeding.

If that is the case, you would implement the sleep training technique that you're comfortable with during the waking.

If it’s not a former feeding time and they’re waking at the same time most nights, check around their environment for anything that might be startling them awake.

If it's earlier in the morning is the garage door opening? Is the AC or the heat kicking on? Is it really loud? If it’s an environmental thing, do what you can to correct it.

But again, use a sleep training technique you’re comfortable with once you’ve done all you can to improve their sleep space.

If it's totally random, it could be the sleep cycle transition and you can implement your sleep training technique.

In Conclusion

It's likely that not all of these issues are issues that you face. But, find the ones that really resonate with you and dig into those and make adjustments.

Also, keep in mind that it takes time for change to happen. Night wakings, thankfully, tend to shape up much faster than naps. Especially when you stay consistent. Find the plan that works well for you and stick to it 100% for at least two weeks and you will see a major change. (It won’t take 2 weeks for you to see improvement, but having those 2 weeks will help create longer-lasting change.)

But, of course, if this sounds overwhelming and you just want somebody to tell you what to do, I would be glad to tell you what to do! We will work together to find the best sleep training technique and the answers to these questions for your family. Then I will be there to support you and guide you through every step of the way.

If that's something that you are interested in, you can schedule a free call here to learn more!


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