What to do when your baby wakes up every hour of the night?

Latest fact-check and update: October 30, 2021

Author Name: Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Question: Why does my baby wake up every hour at night? Answer: we know that frequent waking and sleep regression in babies can often be due to a combination of 2-3 reasons. Their age may also be a factor. For newborns & babies up to about 4-8 months old, waking up every few hours can still be necessary for their development and health. Parents can help their baby sleep for longer with gentle sleep techniques and within a very reasonable time. We keep in mind that baby’s age, health and personality play a big role so effective techniques will always include attention to baby’s unique needs.

The steps below will help parents reduce frequent waking by remedying the underlying cause(s) of any sleep issues. It's not uncommon for a baby to wake up every hour at night or during a nap.

--- Exclusive: have a look at my award-winning Overcome Frequent Waking sleep program and book. It includes my proven no-tears sleep techniques for weaning your baby from nursing or bottle feeding to sleep, how to help your baby self-soothe, reducing the need to feed at night, creating the right conditions for baby to stay asleep for several hours, and onto sleeping through the night.
My techniques help babies sleep for longer (many hours at a time!) and are made doable and effective for parents with an easy action plan tailored to your unique baby and your own specific needs (no forcing yourself into nap schedules that just aren't practical or that require your baby to cry it out!). It also contains the most comprehensive baby well-being assessment you’ll find online (an important part of solving the causes for waking at night, often for hours) and gives you access to my private sleep help support group, which gives you direct Q&A access to me for questions, 24/7. ---

Awake baby wondering

For now, in this article, the first two things you can do to help your baby sleep for longer are:

  • Discover the cause of frequent waking. We can almost always identify a specific cause for why your baby is waking up that frequently, and often a combination of several reasons. We'll start tracking down the "why" for any sleep issues with the checklist below.

  • Keep up - or set up - of the must-have sleep basics: a typical waking phase will pass quickly if we can avoid panicked changes to the sleep schedule and routines, and instead focus on addressing the cause(s) of waking.

Many if not most babies will go through phases of (very) frequently waking up during the night at some point in the first year. In the very first months, it’s normal for a baby to wake frequently and even every hour. In fact it can be absolutely necessary to protect your baby's health: refer to the newborn and under 6 months of age sections for more info.

Use the checklist below to find out why your baby wakes up so often (after 45 minutes, each hour, every two hours, ...), and then remedy accordingly to help your little one sleep through the night (again).

Get started tackling waking up hourly

What causes babies to wake up hourly?

Sleep comes in cycles. Each sleep cycle lasts about 50-60 minutes for a young baby, consists of a set of lighter and deeper sleep phases and is repeated several times a night.

In-between sleep cycles babies have a half-awake moment. Sleeping through they can go right back to sleep through this moment and straight into the next cycle.

However, if at this delicate partially awake moment, there is any discomfort, external disturbance or a physical habit of waking up ... your baby will wake up.

And this can happen at the end of each sleep cycle, i.e. every 50-60 minutes ... leading to a baby that will wake hourly or every couple of hours.

Please take the time to read all the possibilities below. The reasons that you least suspect are often where the answer is.

1. Restless onset of the night

If the start of the night is not peaceful, sleep becomes restless ... with overly frequent waking as a logical result. These wakings are often with crying but can also be without, your baby will just lie awake, wanting to play, ... not able to settle back to sleep.

A restless bedtime can be due to several reasons: your baby has difficulty settling, problems with feeding right before bed, stress from crying it out techniques or simply lots of energy and activity going on at home in the evening may keep the baby awake for longer.

For the best quality sleep, ensure your baby has at least 1 hour of winding-down time before starting the actual bedtime routine. In that hour, stick to quiet activities (but avoid screens and electronics), dim lights, soft voices, quiet music, ... Then have a simple recognizable bedtime routine to help your baby ease into the night and sleep well. This is so basic that we often forget its importance, especially in today's busy and fast paced times ... but a quiet evening is indispensable for a good night.

2. Hunger

Even at an age and health condition when night feeds would no longer be necessary, your baby may still wake up due to a very real hunger feeling - whether that got established from habit or e.g. during a growth spurt. Sometimes a sleep regression can be attributed to this feeling of hunger.

And when hungry at night, you may get her to settle anyway - with or without your help - but then she'll lightly wake up and cry in between sleep cycles, due to the hunger feeling.

Two possible reasons for why this problem typically starts:

#1. You may have tried to wean from one or more night feeds "cold turkey": even if you know your baby does not need the nightly feeds anymore, she may still be hungry - due to the true hunger feeling from the habit of feeding at that time.

Solution: wean babies progressively, using the gentle techniques as detailed in my sleeping through program.

#2. Not feeding enough during the day: during teething or illness feeding may be disrupted during the day, or she may simply be too distracted to feed properly during the day, leaving her hungry at night and unable to sleep.

Solution: carefully (!) top up nutrient intake during the day

Caution
! To avoid issues with under- or over-feeding babies and disrupting sleep patterns, you need to balance nutrient and sleep needs very precisely. In this case as well, gentle risk-free techniques such as those discussed in Overcome Frequent Waking are your best approach.

Remember that if your baby is newborn or under 6 months old, (frequent) night feeds can still be necessary for optimal health & development (hydration, growth spurts, illness, ....). Ask me if you’re unsure!

To help your child sleep well and avoid unnecessary waking due to hunger, you will need to wean from the night feeds progressively and/or top up nutrients cautiously (!) during the day.

3. Reflux

Acid reflux (GERD) can be very painful, especially when babies are lying down for a longer time to nap or sleep at night. Consult with your doctor for medical advice but whether taking medication or not, always use all possible reflux sleep tips.

In particular, it will help to burp frequently and hold your child upright for at least 30 minutes before putting them down to sleep. I do not recommend putting them to sleep on an incline as it is not safe for your baby.

4. Not burped (enough)

When feeding before going down to sleep, it is important to give enough time and opportunity to burp even if the baby has fallen asleep. A simple swift movement to place your baby (facing behind you) high over your shoulder, some tapping on the back, ... are all good and will help.

Not all babies burp easily, if yours doesn't then simply make sure you hold her upright long enough after a feed (30 minutes minimum). Even - and especially - if she falls asleep during the feed and does not wake up when put down, do hold her upright long enough after the feed, and give plenty of opportunity for burping. Babies who have been properly burped will be able to sleep for longer without waking.

5. Poor nap quality

Babies with irregular or ill-suited nap schedules not only have poor naps, but they may also struggle with unsettled sleep patterns. This is a very typical cause of frequent and unnecessary waking. Again the wakings can but don’t necessarily involve crying, sometimes it’s just being awake and not easily settling again.

Better suited nap times do not have to be at fixed times, and also do not necessarily mean more or less frequent naps ... just arranged differently is usually what it takes to improve night time sleep quality.

Observing and learning to recognize true sleepy signs and behavior in your baby is key. That allows you to arrange a well adapted nap routine/schedule which ensures good naps and therefore allows your baby to sleep for longer at night. Review my award-winning 3-step nap program to set-up naps well. You can take this program separately or as part of Overcome Frequent Waking (recommended) which will give you a more complete overall solution.

More advice on how to help your baby keep from waking up every hour and sleep for longer at night is continued on the next page...