Babies, sleep and night waking

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

'Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it's gone?'


At held. we spend a lot of time talking to families about sleep and night waking: what's normal and what's not...

Babies can be night owls

Babies wake up overnight. Sometimes newborn babies are night owls and wake up frequently overnight. The circadian clock is the part of our brain that tells us the difference between night and day. The circadian clock has a powerful effect on all the systems in the body. It’s the circadian clock that gets confused when we go travelling overseas and our bodies suffer jet-lag. It's the circadian clock that gets out of sync when our bodies undertake shift work. Many parents will tell me how their newborn is wide awake in the middle of the night, not upset or distressed, just awake and looking for someone to play with! It can take newborn babies 6 weeks or more to develop and mature their circadian clock and work out their day/night rhythms. However, the good news is that there are are some simple things that parents can do to help mature their baby's circadian clock faster. We cover this information in our 'Newborn Preparation' antenatal education session and also in our sleep consultations. (Click here to book an online antenatal education session or online sleep consultation with held.)

Night waking – what’s normal?

There’s a large range of normal when it comes to sleep. Some babies can wake up to 2 hours per night in the first year of life, signalling for help from their parents. It doesn’t mean that your baby will wake up this often though. In fact, many babies don’t wake up this often, but it’s still within a range of normal if your baby does, as long as everyone is getting back to sleep quickly. The good news is that the frequency of night waking continues to decrease up to 12 months of age and then continues to decrease even more as children approach age 2 years.


‘Sleeping through the night’

The developmental milestone of 'sleeping through’ has a large range of normal. And even when your baby achieves this milestone, just like learning to walk or learning to toilet train, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to access this skill regularly, night after night. It’s the minority of babies who ‘sleep through’ the night and don’t signal to their parents for help overnight. But these are often the babies that families hear about in their parent groups and forums. Sometimes when parents hear about someone else’s child ‘sleeping through’, they start to compare and question their own methods. They start to wonder if their success as parents is directly related to their child’s ability to sleep through the night.


Children’s sleep needs shrink over the first months and years of life and some families notice big drops or changes in patterns at different times. Some people might call these drops or changes in patterns a ‘sleep regression’ but I don’t think this term is all that helpful for families, as it’s almost like the opposite is occurring. Our babies are spending more time awake seeking out rich sensory experience and what families notice is that they’re sleeping less!

Help! This broken sleep is tough. What should my family be trying?

For those families whose babies are waking up frequently overnight, we try and make the days and nights as easy as possible. That means using your village as best you can and trying to layer up days with self-care moments and doing things that meet your needs. In this way, your self-care needs get met regardless of your baby's daytime sleep patterns and your baby gets to enjoy the adventure of a rich sensory experience. I would recommend that parents also use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) strategies to help manage difficult thoughts and feelings about being tired or exhausted. Our comprehensive consultations put your mental health right on the top of the priority list and we can help you integrate ACT strategies into your day. (To book an online sleep consultation with held. please click here).

Excessive night waking

Every child might have a bad night every now and then, but a family who have fallen into a pattern where their child is waking up frequently overnight (say every 30, 45 or 60 minutes overnight), night after night. That’s what we would define as excessive night waking. For some families, it can seem as though their child is highly aware of changes going on around them. They happily fall asleep being fed or in their parents' arms but wake up when they're put down in the cot. This kind of excessive night waking can be related to low sleep pressure, or a problem with one of the hormonal regulators of sleep. Sleep inducing hormones build up ‘sleep pressure’ until it reaches a point where we can fall asleep easily. When a child has a higher sleep pressure, they are less likely to notice changes going on around them. This kind of disrupted pattern can be targeted using the Possums approach or Neuroprotective Developmental Care (NDC) baby toddler sleep program that held. provide to families.


Help! My child is wide awake in the middle of the night

Some families find their baby or toddler is consistently awake for large periods overnight: 1 or 2 hour or even 3 hour blocks, night after night. This is also a form of night waking that's not normal. In fact, beyond both of the described sleep patterns being abnormal, they're also exhausting and frequently affect the mental health of parents. This kind of disrupted pattern needs a resetting of the circadian clock and this can also be done using the Possums approach or NDC sleep program that held. provide to families.


About our sleep program

held. proudly support families using the Possums Approach and the Neuroprotective Developmental Care (NDC) baby toddler sleep program. It's a revolutionary sleep program that turns mainstream sleep advice on its head and offers a much-needed alternative to infant sleep training, providing sleep help without letting your baby cry. NDC is based on cued care: responding to your child in the way you think they are asking. The sleep program utilises your child’s biological hormones, their biological sleep regulators (sleep pressure and circadian clock) to make sleep easy and stress-free. Click here to book an online sleep consultation now


About the author:

Dr Clementine David is an Australian trained paediatrics doctor, the CEO and Founder of held. and a mum of two young kids who have unique personalities and sleep needs.


held. are proudly the first accredited Neuroprotective Developmental Care Practitioner in Asia providing holistic evidence-based care in: antenatal education, sleep, settling, breastfeeding support and newborn care. held. is based in Hong Kong but provides online consultations to families all around the world. Click here to read more about our services


Tags: sleep, baby sleep, night waking, baby waking overnight, excessive night waking, sleeping through, circadian clock, sleep help, sleep consultant, Possums sleep program, NDC baby and toddler sleep, sleep regression

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