Why Baby Keeps Waking Up

why baby keeps waking up

Original Image Credit: mcguirk on Flickr

Few things are more frustrating than when your baby keeps waking up at night. There have been a few times in our parenting career that this seems to happen with one of our kids. Maybe it’s one wake-up a night, maybe it’s five. Either way, we don’t wait patiently for the issue to work itself out. We take action.

We find the problem, we do something to fix it, then we evaluate to see if it worked. You can, too, if you’re here because your baby keeps waking up. Let’s get started.

What Wakes Babies Up?

There are countless reasons that your baby might be waking up at night, but if it becomes a habit, you’re probably looking for a common cause. We can usually narrow it down based on your baby’s age.


If your baby is waking up every 2-4 hours, that’s normal — they need to do that just to eat, not much you can do about it. If your newborn’s waking up every 30 minutes, though, and you’re sleepless and zombie-like because of it, we have a problem. With infants I usually look for the big three:

  • Hunger. Newborns are driven to eat almost as much as they’re driven to sleep. The urge to fill their bellies is near-constant, and it grows faster than you’d think possible. It might be that your newborn just isn’t getting enough to eat at feedings. There are a few ways to figure this out; to get started, see my article on feeding babies for sleep. Otherwise, go to the next one.
  • Digestive discomfort. Gas, bubbles in the tummy, and other forms of digestive discomfort are the next place to look. Especially if you witness your baby grimacing or twisting in the crib, suggesting a bellyache. It’s not surprising that your baby can wake up from this. See my article on gassy babies for some help.
  • Lack of routine. It’s also possible that your newborn’s routine is all screwed up. This happens sometimes; they confuse night for day and don’t realize they’re supposed to be sleeping instead of playing at 2 a.m. Establishing a bedtime routine is critical for teaching your baby when it’s time to sleep for the long stretch.

Older Babies

Babies older than 6 months usually have the ability to sleep through the night. When they don’t, there’s usually a reason for it — some stimulus that has them waking up in the wee hours of the morning.

  • Wake-up habits. If your older baby is waking up once in the middle of the night and needs a bottle to get back to sleep, this is common. The downside is that, even when your baby is capable of sleeping all night, his or her little body thinks it needs to wake up to eat. That’s reinforced when you give a bottle at that middle-of-the-night wake-up. Eventually, you’ll have to bite the bullet and wean the both of you from it. 
  • Teething. Babies usually cut their first teeth between 3 and 6 months, and they come in (with agonizing slowness) over the next year and a half. This ends up being a major reason that older babies keep waking up, because teeth grow at night. See How to Help a Teething Baby for more on this topic.
  • Wet Diapers. If your baby’s drinking 6-8 ounces of warm milk at bedtime, all that liquid has to go somewhere. Ordinary diapers aren’t enough to hold it all, leaving you with a wet and unhappy baby. Fortunately there are heavy-duty diapers designed to meet the demands of these overnights; for more see my article on the importance of diapers for sleeping.

Other Reasons Babies Wake Up

These are the common things to watch for, based on my conversations with other parents and experience teaching my own little ones to sleep through the night. There are other, less common causes, which merit listing here in case you’ve exhausted other explanations:

  • Temperature. Being too hot or too cold can wake babies up; this seems more problematic in the heat of summer or the frigid cold of winter. Of course you should make sure your baby’s crib isn’t in the direct line of a heating or cooling duct or element.
  • Random noises. Barking dogs, garbage trucks, and inconsiderate neighbors are often causes of unexpected baby wake-ups. We’ve also found toys and watches that seem to go off in the middle of the night, too. The best you can do is offer some white noise from a crib soother or sound machine and hope it covers the cacaphony.
  • Nightmares. There are times when one of my little ones woke up, not just crying but scared and/or upset. It was obvious they’d had a bad dream, because a few minutes of comforting and reassurance had them back asleep again. If you know how to prevent bad dreams, I’d sure like to know it. But fortunately they’re pretty rare.

What other things have woken your babies up in the middle of the night? Please leave us a comment!