Why does my baby wake up every hour?
by Raquel - Answer by Heidi Holvoet, PhD
Heidi's Tip: If your baby wakes every hour too, see the overview article on how to remedy hourly wakings. It will give you more complete pointers that will help in YOUR specific situation, not just Rachel's one below.
Question: My 5 1/2 month old daughter wakes up every hour. Even during her day naps. If I time it just right during her day naps and pick her up right when she opens her eyes, I can get her to fall asleep within 5 minutes.
When she goes down at night at 7-7:30 she will usually sleep for 2+ hours and then it's every hour to 1 1/2 hours for the entire night.
She doesn't know how to fall asleep on her own.
Why does she wake up every hour though? Is there something I can do to change it or will she outgrow this?
She's been doing this since she was 3 1/2-4 months old.
I appreciate your help.
There is most probably a simple, physical cause for your daughter’s hourly waking. Until about at least 6 months old, babies sleep very lightly. They sleep in cycles of about 50-60 minutes. In each of those, baby will sleep lightly the first part, and then a bit deeper (but not very) after that.
At the end of each cycle, she will wake up, drowsily. Some will go back to sleep as if nothing happened, others will go from drowsy to completely awake. And this is very probably what happens to your daughter. It 'fits well' with her - as you mention - not knowing how to fall asleep on her own.
Growing up, sleep becomes deeper and the cycles become longer (about 90 minutes for bigger children, and adults). There are always a number of stages of sleep and this half waking up between two cycles. The ability to remain soothed and continue sleeping is what allows us to sleep through.
So yes, she will outgrow it eventually (she’s nearing the magical 6 months when sleep very often quiets down as it becomes deeper), but luckily you can also help her make longer stretches sooner.
Here are the action points I would like to suggest:
1. Starting during the naps, but definitely also at night when you can. Timing very carefully, go into her room a little while before she wakes up. Without picking her up, gently stroke her belly, or just place your hand on it. Softly talk to her or make a shush sound, whichever feels right.
The idea is to help her through the drowsy-wake-up stage without actually waking up. It will probably not work from the first time, you may need to do it tens of times before it does. If she wakes up anyway, do as usual to help her back to sleep. Then try again next time.
A top tip to help you at naps is to have her nap while you walk her in a baby sling or in a stroller. While moving, she will more easily go to the next cycle without waking fully. Doing this for a while will help her get used to taking longer naps. Once that works you can gently transition back towards her crib.
For the next week, do only this. If nothing changes, then continue with the next points below, but keep doing this one.
2. Change her schedule. If at all possible in your own daily routine, shift her bedtime to 6.30pm (alternatively move to 8-8.30pm). You don’t mention when and how often she naps, but change those too, keeping your and her needs in mind of course. These changes are a very simple way to help shuffle her sleep patterns. (For detailed help with arranging a well-fitting nap schedule you may find my No-Tears Naps e-book helpful).
3. Guide her towards self soothing. This is so much easier said than done, the classic advice of 'put her down awake' simply does not work for most babies. But you can help her.
I suppose you put her down asleep now. You probably know how long you need to rock or hold her before you can 'safely' put her down. Keep doing this, but put her down a minute or so earlier for a few days. Then two minutes, five, … until she goes down drowsy rather than fully asleep. Don’t rush it, spread it over several weeks. Read on for further self soothing tips.
Besides these, also check for hidden disturbers like too much or too little light, too much noises or too silent. If there are loud noises she can hear from her room, see if you can avoid those noises. To hide them, but also if there is absolute silence, have a fan on or similar to have some background sounds (white noise).
Consult my No-Tears Sleeping Through the Night guide for a thorough step-by-step approach.
Do not hesitate to let me know how you get on – just post a comment below – so we can follow up from there.
*** Update: see how this baby girl is doing now:
My 13 month old has been waking up at 4AM for the day - HELP!