Your little one is finally asleep. It’s time to put your feet up. But for many parents you know that your child is going to be up multiple times in the night, so you sacrifice your evening and get to bed as early as you can.

An early night doesn’t stop the night wakings being utterly exhausting though – for both you and your little one.

But what’s causing them?

Before I answer that question, let’s take a look at common types of night wakings.

  • Multiple wakes throughout the night where your child needs you to settle them back. This may be quick each time, but you are fully needed and your little one is upset each time they wake up.
  • Multiple wakes throughout the night, but it’s really hard to settle your little one back and they (and you) might be up for a while each time.
  • One wake but it lasts for ages – sometimes even two or three hours! They seem wide awake and nothing you do can get your little one back to sleep.
  • A wake in the first half of the night where your little one is seriously distressed. They may be screaming, crying, thrashing around or shouting words like ‘no’ or ‘go away’ etc.
  • A wake in the second half of the night where your little one is crying and seems very unsettled. They may struggle to get back to sleep.

These are some of the more common night wakings. And there are usually four key explanations for them.

  • Your little one is unable to self-settle
  • Bedtime is too early or too late
  • There’s an imbalance of day sleep
  • Anxieties or fears

Let me explain…

Your little one is unable to self-settle

Children and adults both go through sleep cycles throughout the night. This involves going in and out of periods of light and deep sleep and also REM sleep (which many of you may know as ‘dream sleep’).

At intervals during the night, especially the second part of the night, we have micro-awakenings. These are completely normal and happen to all of us. They happen when we come to the end of a sleep cycle and briefly wake before we go back into another cycle. For most adults (and children) who sleep well, these awakenings are so brief we won’t even remember them the next morning. We have seamlessly gone from one sleep cycle to another and automatically settled ourselves back to sleep after the micro-awakening (hence the micro part)!

Children have micro-awakenings too. But if a baby or child isn’t able to self-settle, then this is the point at which they may fully wake up and call out for mum or dad to come and help them. You may be able to settle them quickly but may find it’s harder for them to get back to sleep the more the night draws on, especially around the earlier hours of the morning. This is because their melatonin levels (the sleepy hormone) are much lower at this point.

If your child needed you to get them to sleep in the first place, they’re likely to need you to get them back to sleep each time they wake up in the night. We call this a sleep onset association. It could be rocking, cuddling, stroking, feeding or anything else. But basically, your little one can’t fall asleep without it.

Bedtime is too late and/or not enough day sleep

If bedtime is too late, overtiredness could build up which could then cause the night wakings. I know I talk about overtiredness a lot, but it is such a huge cause of so many sleep issues in children. If children are overtired when they go to sleep, that overtiredness pushes through again when they go into a light sleep, waking them up. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? As counterintuitive as it may sound, the less overtired your child is, the better they will sleep.

So if you find your child seriously distressed in the first half of the night, screaming, shouting, crying and thrashing around, almost in a strange place between sleep and wakefulness, this is most likely a confusional arousal or night terror. These are predominantly caused by overtiredness in children.

Or if your little one wakes and is upset and you find it’s hard to get them back to sleep (whether they can self-settle or not), this could also be a sign of overtiredness.

If your little one wakes up a lot in the night and seems upset, again overtiredness could be at play – possibly caused by bedtime being too late on a regular basis. Or caused by your little one not getting enough sleep in the day, which then has an onward effect on night sleep.

Bedtime is too early and/or too much day sleep

Does your little one fall asleep for a few hours and then wake up? When they wake, do they seem happy, chatty and wide awake? Are they then awake for hours? We call this a split night and it is often down to bedtime being too early or a child sleeping too much in the day.

Essentially, a small amount of sleep pressure has built up before they’ve fallen asleep but not enough to keep them asleep for the night.

If you’re unsure how much day sleep your child needs (on average), then download my free sleep needs chart.

Anxieties or fears

For toddlers or older children, anxieties or fears could contribute to disturbed sleep at night. If you notice your little one seems very unsettled during the second half of the night, they could be experiencing nightmares.

Children experience the highest amount of REM sleep during the second half of the night, so this is when they’re most likely to be dreaming and may experience nightmares if they’re particularly anxious about something.

Unlike night terrors, children are far more likely to remember a nightmare when they wake up, so they may still be unsettled by it for a few days. They may then appear fearful of going to sleep or separation anxiety at bedtime may increase.

If your little one is also experiencing bedtime resistance, my post on why children don’t want to go to sleep might help.

So there you have it. Night wakings in a nutshell. Does your little one wake regularly in the night? Are you all exhausted and at a loss for what to do? Please do get in touch. There are gentle, responsive ways we can get your little one sleeping well.

If you would like to find out more about the solutions to these issues, why not purchase my Night Wakings Guide?