Why is my baby awake for hours at night

Awake at night

In this week’s blog we continue our series on night wakings, looking specifically at long periods where your baby is awake for hours at night, what causes it and how can we prevent it.

What do we mean when we talk about long, wakeful periods in the night?

Some little ones will go to sleep, they’ll sleep really well for a number of hours, and then they wake up. But they don’t just wake up for a bit, they wake up for perhaps three hours, and it has us as parents scratching our heads. Wondering, why? What’s going on? Why are they awake? What do they need for that length of time? And quite often, they’re not actually upset, they’re not seeking anything in particular, and there’s no obvious reason for the waking. They don’t seem hungry. They don’t seem like they’re looking for their parents or looking for any help.

Sometimes, this can be that they just wake up and they’re quite content. They’re quite content and happy. They’re just lying there, sometimes babbling or cooing if they’re a baby, or maybe even sort of chatting or singing if they’re a bit older. They’re just awake, for no real reason.

And sometimes if they’re awake for long enough, possibly heading into hours awake, they might start to get a bit fussy, because they can get fed up. They want to be back asleep. They don’t really know why they’re awake.

Sound familiar? Have you experienced this with your little one? If so, let’s see if we can overcome this once and for all.

Why does it happen? There are a number of possible reasons for this, and there are even some medical reasons, which I’m not going to go into here today, because that’s not my job. If you think or suspect there could be a medical reason, or you’ve exhausted all the possible behavioral reasons that I’m going to talk about, then definitely go and seek some help from the relevant medical service that can explore that a bit further for you. But when it’s not medical, if it is behavioral, what could be causing it?

What might be going on? One of the possible reasons, weirdly enough, can be over-tiredness. So it would be really easy to look at a little one who’s just wide awake and doesn’t seem sleepy and think they’re not tired. They’re just not tired. Maybe they’ve had too much sleep during the day. Let’s cut that nap out, or, oh, maybe we should put them to bed later. That’s almost like the obvious and easy answer. But be careful with that idea, because quite often, this wakefulness in the night is the complete opposite. It’s because they are overtired. So why would they be awake if they’re overtired? Surely, if they’re overtired, they should be zonked out, but that often is not the case. They wake up because of the amount of stimulation they may be having.

If they’re having extra stimulation because they’re awake too much, perhaps they’re not getting enough daytime sleep or nap time, or they’re awake too late and not going to bed till too late, for whatever reason it may be it means they are consuming more daylight, activity, engagement, possibly screen time, all kinds of stimulants that could be causing this. So they get tired, they fall asleep, but then, they suddenly are like, “Oh, I’m awake again now.” Which then means they don’t feel sleepy. This has probably happened to you. You’ve probably experienced this yourself, it happens to all of us at times. You’re bound to have had one of those nights where you wake up and then for no apparent reason you can’t get back to sleep. As adults we know full well that it’s not because we are under-tired. We know we’re tired. Generally it happens because you’re over stimulated and that can also come from dietary reasons, things like too much sugar or caffeine.

Caffeine and sugar in particular, while they may allow us to fall asleep remain there in your system, when we wake up they can kick back in and still have the same effect as when you were awake, providing stimulants. So consider dietary elements as well. Are there caffeine, sugar, or other stimulants that are going into that diet more than maybe necessary? Or it could be that the circadian rhythm is a little off whack. What’s your circadian rhythm? That’s your body clock. It’s your internal body clock. So if your baby or child, or even yourself, if you are not quite on track with when it’s day and when it’s night and when we should be sleeping, that could be a reason why you’re awake in the night.

Both babies and young children will experience this. They go to sleep, they sleep for a patch of time, and then they’re awake. Almost like the sleep, at the beginning of the night, was a nap to them and now they’re awake thinking, “Yep, I’ve done that sleep. Now I’m awake again. I’m going to be awake for a while.” And then they’re awake for ages, and then they go back off to sleep. It’s exactly like during the day, that was a nap, this was an awake bit and now I’m going for a nap again. So their circadian rhythm is off. Why is their circadian rhythm off and what can you do about that? Start to look at their patterns in the day. Are they in a good pattern? Do they have a good pattern of wake up, play, sleep, wake up, play, sleep, and so on.

Are they in a good rhythm? Are they getting their daytime sleep at the optimal intervals for their age and developmental stage? Or are they not? Are they just awake all day long or not getting enough sleep or vice versa? Are they asleep all day long, like it’s nighttime, and therefore they’re napping in the night. So it could be a body clock thing, and it’s worth looking at that and just gauging where they ought to be for their age. Not every child is going to be exactly the same, but there are ballparks to work to that will really help to guide you.

Those are all really good reasons why it could be happening, and reasons worth exploring. But what should you do in terms of responding to it when it happens? Because if we address those reasons why we might be able to overcome them, in the meantime, when your child is waking up and they’re awake for two or three hours in the night, what do you do? Do you try to get them to go to sleep or do you leave them to it?

Well, the truth is, it depends, because if they’re content, if they are awake, but content and happy, and they are not seeking your assistance, so there’s no kind of, “I need you,” kind of cry coming from a baby, just cooing, maybe a bit fussing mildly, but they seem okay, or a child that’s a bit older that could call out, but they’re not. They’re just lying there and they’re just awake, and you are aware of it for whatever reason. If they are content and they don’t need something from you and they’re not looking for your help, then don’t intervene, because your attempts to go, “Oh no, come on now. You should be asleep. Back to sleep now. Back to sleep,” you’re just going to create more stimulation.

They’re not going to just go, “Okay, we’ll go back to sleep then.” They’re obviously trying. So holding back and not interfering is more helpful. Of course, if they are of an age where they’ve perhaps turned lights on and got up or created an environment that’s no longer conducive to sleep, absolutely, you need to pop in, reset, nighttime lights off, lie down, well done, and give them all the signals that it is time to be asleep and it is time to still settle back down.

A great aid in this can be a sleep/wake clock. By having one of these clocks that show some night and day, that really can help, because you can just point to it and remind them and make sure they’re aware, when the clock says this, we go to sleep. That can help them and act as a good trigger and reminder as well. So if they don’t need you to respond, hold back. If they do need you to respond, respond quickly and calmly and quietly, and in ways that I described in my previous blogs. But ultimately, just be consistent with that response. Don’t have a response where one night you ignore the thing, the whole situation you ignore, and the next night you go, “Oh, come on. Why don’t you come sleep in my bed with me?” And the next night you go, “You’re not sleepy? Oh, no, why don’t we read a story then?” Just a whole mixed bag of responses. That will prolong the problem. They won’t know whether they are coming or going.

If you do that they won’t know whether they’re meant to go back to sleep, whether it’s okay not to, whether, “Ooh, can I change beds tonight?” Just keep it really clear. This is the time of night. This is where we sleep. This is how we go back to sleep. And this is what you’re going to get from me. Nothing more, nothing less. Just keep it simple and keep it consistent.

So I hope that gives you some tools to understand why your little one might be waking up for a long time in the night, how you can deal with it, and hopefully, how you can also overcome it.

Take care and sleep well.

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