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Why is my baby awake in the middle of the night?

As sleep experts, we get asked all the time whether we think a baby is waking out of hunger or habit, especially with frequent middle of the night wake ups.

The truth is… Babies need as much help and guidance when it comes to sleep as they do with anything else. Our babies need extensive care and help in their development, and their sleep cycles can be unbelievably erratic if left unregulated. This can result in LOTS of night wakings (often 45 minutes or so, at the end of each sleep cycle), especially after the sleep cycle changes that happen around 4 months.

4 month sleep regression

The biological sleep changes that happen just before 4 months old are a big deal. In fact, so big that we’ve written a separate blog topic on it which you can find here. The basic premise is that sleep changes between 12 and 16 weeks when sleep cycles biologically re-sort as babies mature from newborn sleepers to sleeping like the rest of us. This change can disrupt a once snoozy newborn and make parents think they’ve gone crazy!

After the 4 month changes, it is definitely worth determine if your babe is waking every hour or two because they are hungry (unlikely) or because they have become used to feeding as a way to get comfortable and fall asleep.

Mom feeding baby in the middle of the nighr

Hunger or habit?

We typically recommend keeping a night feed until your baby is about 15 pounds and/or about 6 months. Before then, their tummies aren’t always big enough to sustain through a full night without a feed. But after that point, fasting at night is biologically reasonable (and beneficial).

If your babe is under 15 pounds or younger than 6 months, it is likely that they are waking at night because they are hungry and needing the calories! Of course, if they have the skill of sleeping independently, they may drop their night feeds on their own (YAHOOOOOO) which means that you can let them sleep as long as they need, as long as pediatrician has given you the green light!

Now, if your little one is bigger than 15 pounds or older than 6 months, it is unlikely that they need the caloric intake from their middle of the night feeds. Of course, we always like to get pediatrician’s approval before we cut night feeds, but it is pretty common for feeding to sleep (or back to sleep) to become habitual once passing these age and size milestones.  

As much as we wish babies could just fall asleep when they’re tired and stay asleep all night long as long as they are full, it simply doesn’t work that way most of the time because they get easily reliant on sleep props. Until little ones learn how to fall asleep on their own (without props such as feeding, rocking, patting, pacifier, etc), it is unfair for us to expect that they will get through the connection of sleep cycles without these same props!

So, if you are feeding your babe to sleep at bedtime, it is most likely that they are waking up between sleep cycles (which is totally normal, by the way) and looking for that same method of falling back to sleep. They are looking for the breast or bottle to help them out because that is the only way they know how to fall asleep. This is when waking in the middle of the night becomes out of habit rather than out of hunger.

Let’s teach that babe how to sleep!

The good news is that independent sleep is no different than all the other things you have been teaching your little one. YUP – Sleep is a learned skill and teaching sleep is what the Sleeper Teachers™ do best. Sleep is most definitely a basic need, and oftentimes it one that is needed to be coached into. So go fourth and teach that baby how to sleep, mama. And if you need help knowing what to do, we’ve gotcha covered.

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