When your baby wakes EVERY 2 HOURS. All night long.
Written by:Olivia Dona
Who this article is for:
-You have a 4-6 month old baby waking every 2 hours
-You have a 7-9 month old baby waking every 2 hours
-You have any kind of baby waking every few hours and need to know when it will stop!
-You need a sleep training program for your baby
2 hours seems to be the magic (and dreaded) number of hours many babies will sleep before waking again. All. Night. Long.
You might have noticed (we certainly have) that this is worse beyond the 4-month mark, but it can certainly be happening for younger babies too. In this article, we look at the key factors behind why your baby might have started (or continued) waking every 2 hours overnight, especially past midnight.
Please note, we are not referring to newborn babies waking for feeds every couple of hours, which is very normal and to be expected. We are referring to those babies who had maybe started sleeping longer stretches at night, between 4-6 hours in a go, and then suddenly started waking every 2 hours. Or who were sleeping well between bedtime and midnight and then waking 2-hourly after that, or babies who have continued to wake 2-hourly beyond the newborn stage.
We also have to say that the purpose of this article isn't to discourage night feeding or advise you to force your baby to sleep through the night if they (and you) aren't ready. We simply want to share our knowledge of what causes this overnight change in your baby's sleep cycles and some possible ways around it, if you're interested.
Let's start by looking at your 6-12 week old baby:
At this age, your baby's sleep and sleep cycles are still relatively immature and they will more easily drift between sleep cycles in the day, meaning you can often achieve nice long naps (although some babies can actually oversleep!). By around 6 weeks your baby will hopefully have started consolidating their sleep into more noticeable awake and nap periods in the day and might well have begun sleeping in longer stretches overnight. Their night-time sleep cycles are 4-6 hours long and this is why, at about this age, your baby might start doing these longer stints at night, waking only once or twice for a feed. You'll start to feel like a new person again after coming through the tricky and exhausting newborn phase! We often see parents whose babies have been sleeping like champs, sometimes through the whole night, by around 12 weeks. Until...
Somewhere around 4 months (aka the sleep regression):
Beyond 12 weeks and around 4 months, your baby's sleep neurology matures. This is commonly called the 4 month sleep regression as it certainly appears to be a regression in their daytime napping and their night-time sleep, especially if you'd gotten used to the longer sleep stretches at night. What happens at this point is your baby's sleep has dramatically changed to be more organised into defined sleep cycles. The daytime cycles change first - your baby's level of arousal between their daytime cycles is increased, meaning they can start to fully wake at the end of each sleep cycle, which is around 45 minutes. Sound familiar? This is known as catnapping: sleeping for one sleep cycle at a time, all day long. Read THIS article for more info around catnapping and some ways around it. At this point, your baby, although catnapping in the day, might still be doing good long chunks of sleep overnight. Many people are happy to tolerate the shorter day sleeps because the nights are still manageable. Until that changes too...
Between 4-6 months:
Eventually, your baby's night-time sleep cycles mature and shorten to be just 2 hours in length. Much like the daytime sleep cycles, this change is accompanied by a full wake between each one. This is when you will experience your baby do a noisy resettle more regularly in the night, or, they will wake up completely if something is bothering them or if they need help to go back to sleep. Every 2 hours. This diagram explains how your baby's night-time sleep cycles work:
Once your baby has reached the sleep milestone of their daytime and night-time cycles maturing, their sleep habits and sleep associations really come in to play. This means that if your baby has learnt to go to sleep by being actively settled, ie by you feeding or rocking them to sleep or by using a pacifier (that they cannot yet replace themselves), they will start to need that method replicated every time they wake between sleep cycles in the day (45 minutes) and at night (2 hours); it is the only way they know how to go to sleep and go back to sleep.
Many babies this age are able to learn sleep cues and associations to help them fall asleep without the need to be actively settled; things such as white noise, having a nice dark room, a bedtime/nap routine, being properly ready for sleep by following a good nap pattern are great ways to encourage your baby to find their sleep. This is called "self-settling" and it basically means that your baby can happily drift off to sleep on their own, when all the conditions for sleep are lined up right. They will also be able to resettle themselves back to sleep when they naturally wake between sleep cycles in the day and overnight, resulting in less need for your input to actively settle them back to sleep.
Baby waking after midnight:
A lot of misunderstanding surrounds night waking after midnight. Many babies will sleep soundly from bedtime until midnight, when we all have our deepest most restorative sleep, then begin to wake 2-hourly after that. Parents can assume that it isn't a settling issue seeing as their baby can "self-settle" in the earlier part of the night... Unfortunately, it's more to do with the huge physiological drive to sleep that occurs in the first part of the night. Between bedtime and midnight, your baby is being pumped full of the sleep hormone melatonin and their body is pushing them strongly towards sleep. They begin their night well, sleeping deeply until around midnight, which is when the melatonin starts to drop out of their system. It continues to diminish between midnight and 7 AM and its total disappearance in the morning (as well as a rise in cortisol) is the thing that cues us to wake up. Researchers at The University of the Balearic Islands in Spain have even found that babies fed a special ‘night-time’ formula that contained tiny amounts of melatonin slept better in the hours after midnight.
After midnight, your baby is far more prone to waking fully after each sleep cycle simply because they're in a lighter sleep. So if they cannot settle themselves back to sleep or if anything is bothering them such as hunger, being too hot or cold, sickness, too much light in their room or they are over or under tired, they will be very unsettled each time they naturally rouse and need you to put them back to sleep. Every 2 hours. All night long.
What can you do?
Under or Over Tiredness
The first (and easiest) thing you can do to improve the 2-hour waking is to ensure your baby isn't waking for reasons that are quite easy to control - such as having too much or too little day sleep. Both these factors will result in an unsettled baby between sleep cycles. Using our Sleep Programs will steer you in the right direction for the best times/lengths for your baby's naps, to lead to much-improved night-time sleep.
Hunger is also an obvious cause of night waking in a baby, however beyond 4 months your baby won't need to be feeding 2-hourly overnight, especially if they are able to go longer than this between feeds in the day. If you find your baby is waking and having a few sucks then falling back asleep, it is more likely that they are wanting to suck themselves back to sleep rather than needing the milk for nutrition purposes and our Sleep Programs have several very gradual, responsive methods to help your baby learn to go back to sleep without needing you to feed them every 2 hours. This is what Dr Barton D. Schmitt, paediatrician at Children's Hospital Colorado describes as “a trained night feeder”.
You can also try making tweaks in your little one's sleep environment as a quick and easy fix. We would recommend having a very dark room with no nightlight (until your little one is over 2 years old), using continuous white noise all night long and keeping their nursery the ideal temperature for sleep - around 18 degrees Celcius / 65 degrees Farenheit. Make sure babies under 5 months are still swaddled, as this is proven to help them sleep better, and use a baby sleeping bag for older babies so they can't kick their blankets off and get cold. We have some excellent swaddles, sleeping bags and blackout blinds on our product recommendations page.
Above all else, your best line of defence against the 2 hour wake is to encourage your baby to self-settle at the start of naps and at bedtime - then resettles during the night should naturally follow suit. Our Sleep Programs have helped over 100,000 mothers and babies in your very situation gently and effectively resolve 2-hourly night waking. Helping your baby towards the best sleep possible for them is something you can certainly achieve; all the information you need is in our Baby Sleep Secret Programs.