Marcia Cunningham says her 13-month-old daughter, Ellie, was a great sleeper from the day she was born. “She was sleeping six hours at night from very early on.”
But around five months, all that changed. “Suddenly, she started waking up repeatedly,” Cunningham recalls. “She nursed all night long every night for a week — and then her first tooth appeared.”
This switching of sleep patterns is common, says Wendy Hall, associate professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia. “Research shows that about 43 percent of babies who were sleeping through the night begin waking up again later.” Actually, she adds, it’s more complicated than that. All babies wake up in the night — averaging between two to seven times each night. Some put themselves back to sleep, while others need their parents’ help. Ellie’s need for extra comfort was caused by teething and, once that was past, she started sleeping for longer stretches. But that only lasted until a cold began waking her up at night.
John Marshall, now 18 months old, is another child who has sometimes slept all night and other times woken frequently. At two or three months, says his mother, Merete, “he would go to sleep around eight or nine and sleep for a nice five-hour stretch, then wake up for a quick nurse and cuddle, and back to sleep again.”
Then at eight months, he started crawling. “He was very excited by this development,” recalls Marshall. “He behaved like someone who had drunk too much coffee — nervous and jumpy at bedtime, and he would jolt awake all night,” Marshall recalls.
Hall notes that research has shown definite links between becoming mobile — either crawling or walking — and increased night waking. Other causes may be separation anxiety and a greater awareness of their environment. At this age, Hall says, some experts think babies begin to “figure it out” and resist being put down to sleep in a crib or room separate from mom and dad.
So how can parents handle this resurgence of night waking?
• Make sure your baby is getting enough daytime rest. It may seem counterintuitive, Hall says, but babies don’t sleep as well at night if they’ve become overtired. So when these other issues are going on, try to keep your daytimes calm and make sure the baby gets good naps.
• Get back to normal routines. It’s natural to comfort your baby when he wakes up crying because his gums are sore, but it can be frustrating when he’s no longer in pain every night and still wakes up to be held or nursed. “It’s never too late to reintroduce some sleep routines,” Hall says.
• Be patient. “I just resign myself to the fact that I’m going to be extra-tired for a while,” says Marshall. “It’s a temporary problem.” Why do they wake up?
Some reasons for night waking in babies under a year: • teething, especially those eye teeth and molars • mastering a new stage of development such as crawling or walking • ear infections • food sensitivities, especially when they are starting solid foods • colds • overstimulation • separation anxiety or missing mom or dad • hunger or thirst (especially if they’ve been very active during the day and didn’t eat or drink much)