Biologically Normal Night Waking

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

I want to clear something up for the confused mamas out there.

A lot of the time I see frequent night waking being chalked up to “biologically normal infant behaviour”, and therefore there’s nothing you can do about it. 

In a sense this is true, but there is something you can do about it!

Newborns can wake several times a night to feed. They only have very small stomachs so need more frequent feeding. Their sleep patterns are also irregular and largely unpredictable.

As your baby gets older their physiological need for calories overnight lessens and they can get by on one or two feeds overnight - given they are healthy and thriving.

So what’s happening when they are waking more than once or twice overnight?

Let’s go back to biology. Overnight your baby sleeps in cycles. You might already know that their daytime sleep cycles are around 45 minutes long. Overnight, these sleep cycles are about 4 hours long. 

Around 4 months old the structure of these sleep cycles becomes more complex and adult like. Depending on the time of night, they will transition through up to five different stages of sleep ranging from light to deep sleep and also REM sleep.

They are constantly moving through these different stages of sleep, up and down, like riding waves.

So, if your baby is waking 4 hourly, this could simply be because they reached the end of a sleep cycle. They may be hungry, so need a feed before going back to sleep. If their dummy has fallen out it may just need to be replaced. They may be learning a new skill and feel the urge to practice, or if they simply don’t know how to fall asleep independently they may just need to be assisted back to sleep. This is biologically normal.

If your baby is waking as often as every 2 hours, this is a partial sleep cycle where they are in a light stage of sleep or may have a brief arousal. During a light stage of sleep your little one is more easily roused by external factors. So, they could be woken by a soiled nappy, if they’re too hot or cold, if there was a noise or a light in the room, discomfort from teething, if they were resettled at a previous wake when they were hungry and now they’re REALLY hungry, or if they’re overtired and the increase in cortisol levels is impacting quality of sleep. In some cases, if frequent wakes have been occurring for an extended period of time, they can also become a bit of a habit long after the original cause for waking has passed.

Some brief arousals during the light stage of a sleep cycle is normal. During a natural arousal your baby will subconsciously check their surroundings and if all is ok they will continue sleeping. If there has been a shift in their conditions of sleep (ie. they were rocked to sleep and now the rocking has stopped) they will wake looking for the same conditions to go back to sleep.

Persistent 2 hourly wakes, although very common, is not necessarily normal and can usually be addressed by eliminating external and environmental factors and establishing an age appropriate feed, play and sleep routine.

If your baby is waking more frequently than 2 hourly then we can assume something more may be at play. They could be unwell, or in a fair amount of pain or discomfort (from eczema, gut issues from allergies or intolerances etc), have breathing difficulties (OSA), or be chronically over tired. This is also not biologically normal and can be addressed by consulting your GP or specialist.

So, in short, frequent night waking in newborns can be biologically normal.

From about 4 months plus, 1-2 night wakes is biologically normal. Anything beyond that can probably be helped with a few small changes.

Some babies are genetically better sleepers than others and will naturally start sleeping through the night at an early age on their own.

For others, this may take several years.

Teaching independent sleep skills will help your baby sleep better. It does not stop them from waking, as we now know this is biologically normal. However, it will give them the skills to go back to sleep if they wake after a sleep cycle and all their basic needs have been met. Trust me, if there is something wrong or they need something, they will let you know.

If you don’t want to sleep train, that is absolutely ok. If they are simply waking after a sleep cycle you can continue to respond and assist them back to sleep as usual.

One on one consultations and downloadable sleep guides are all available online x

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