Few things are as satisfying as when your baby sleep training efforts pay off. Your little one hits a rhythm: regular naps, falling to sleep on his own, and sleeping through the night. It’s a wondrous time. The first hints of a normal life for you start to emerge. Housework and personal hygiene are possible again. Then, disaster strikes. Your little one suddenly has trouble falling asleep, napping, or resumes waking up in the middle of the night. How could this happen? What should you do?
Handling baby sleep setbacks is probably easier than baby sleep training. Your infant has already shown the ability to sleep through the night. That doesn’t make it less frustrating, though. You’ve had a glimpse of paradise, only to have it ripped away. We’re here to help you get it back. Here’s how.
Start Handling It Soon
You shouldn’t freak out if it happens once. Sometimes babies wake up randomly, but quickly resume their sleep routines. Two or three nights in a row, however, begin to suggest a real problem. You don’t want to wait too long to address it, or suddenly waking up in the middle of the night could become the new normal.
Identify the Problem
This may be the most difficult part of addressing baby sleep setbacks, but it’s an essential one. First things first, try to determine if your baby is waking up on his own (internal cause) or in response to something (external cause), such as a noise, light, or temperature change. If you use a video baby sleep monitor, you can watch and listen when your baby wakes up. Even if the cause isn’t obvious, make note of the time and manner of your baby waking up.
External Causes of Baby Wake-ups
As I discuss in my article 7 Reasons Your Baby Woke Up Last Night, there are several external things that can wake a baby up unexpectedly, but these are three of the big ones:
- Noises. Loud or irregular noises are sometimes enough to wake a baby – maybe it was you or someone else in the house singing, stomping down the hall, slamming a door, or dropping something. Maybe the TV or radio was too loud. It could be outside the house, too — dogs barking, neighbors with loud cars, and lawnmowers have all woken my little ones in the past.
- Light. Our boys are especially light-sensitive, such that even a hairline crack in the room-darkening shade lets in enough sunlight to wake them. One sure sign of this is if your baby’s unexpected wake-ups occur at around sunrise, but even bright lights from the hallway under a closed door are enough to wake them.
- Temperature. Being too warm or too cold can wake up a baby, so be sure to monitor the temperature in the nursery (especially overnight) and keep it steady. Many baby monitors have temperature readouts to help with this.
Internal Causes of Baby Wake-ups
Often disruptions in a baby’s sleep behavior have a cause that you can’t see. Babies are growing and changing constantly, so what worked last week might not work tonight. Some of the common causes:
- Hunger. Your baby’s dietary intake is constantly on the rise. Sometimes the amount of food they need makes a sudden, dramatic increase (probably due to a growth spurt).
- Teething. Next to hunger, teething is my #1 suspect for unexpected wake-ups. Babies’ teeth grow at night, so if your little one is cutting a new tooth, that’s when he’ll suffer the most. See our article on teething babies and sleep for some help on this topic.
- Illness or infection. Nothing disrupts a baby’s sleep patterns quite like sickness. From common colds to ear infections, illnesses make babies miserable and can easily explain the setback. Getting a sick baby to sleep can be tough, but there are things you can do to help. And soon, hopefully, it will be back to normal.
Why Else is Baby Waking Up?
Sometimes your baby’s newfound sleep problems might not have a clear diagnosis. It could also be a combination of factors (a baby that’s sick and teething is not uncommon). This is okay; it just means you need to revisit your sleep training basics one more time. Be patient, but don’t settle for inaction. Try an extra bowl of baby cereal at bedtime, a perfect warm bath, or a comfy sleep sack. Every little bit helps!
Address the Problem
Maybe you’ve tracked down the problem, or at least have an idea of what could be causing your baby sleep setback. It’s time to take action! Here are some solutions to deploy the next time you put your child to bed.
- White noise. A good crib soother or sound machine provides the soothing hum of cover noise to help drown out any barking dogs, screaming kids, lawnmowers, or other causes of baby wake-ups.
- Block out light. Invest in heavy curtains and a room-darkening shade for every window in the nursery. Make sure all the cracks are covered (we use kids’ books or Scotch tape when necessary). Keep the room as dark as possible, and you’ll help your baby sleep longer.
- Monitor the temperature in the nursery, and dress your baby appropriately for sleep. Use long-sleeve pajamas and a swaddler or sleep sack to provide safe, comfortable warmth overnight.
- Fill your baby’s tummy before bed. We offer a small bowl of rice baby cereal with the nighttime bottle, and it often helps. See our article on nighttime feeding and sleep for some more advice on this topic.