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A Few Big Secrets About Frequent Nighttime Waking in Babies and Toddlers

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(Original post was written in July, 2013, but I heavily revised it since)

How much night waking is ‘normal’
Many women, especially the cosleeping/breastfeeding kind, at some point, become exhausted by constant night waking and get burned out (especially by the time your baby turns into a 2 or 3 year old and is still waking up all night long for boob). I’m all about on demand feeding, don’t get me wrong. And, I’m a strong advocate for cosleeping (actually, my kids don’t even have their own room, we all share one). My babies were chubby and fed as much as they pleased…  BUT.. when my older daughter was about five months old, she was waking up almost every hour or more.  I knew that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t just a few nights, it was way too frequent and way too many nights/weeks in a row. She seemed very restless and irritated. So, I started looking for gentle answers, not for my sake, but for hers, to see if constant night waking was really considered natural…  I’m not talking the usual once or twice a night.  I’m talking about excessive waking.  Did cave babies used to wake up every hour?  I had to find out.

BABIES WAKE TO PEE!
A little known secret in first world countries, where nearly all babies wear nappies (even mine), is that they can actually  be taken to the toilet, day and night. Yes, it’s true! The ‘sleep experts‘ don’t mention this one much.

In the first world, we refer to responding to a baby’s toileting needs as elimination communication (EC).  

Babies will not eliminate in a deep sleep.
First, they stir. So baby wakes, then, mom or dad have some routine of getting baby back to sleep. If you’re cosleeping and your baby is in your bed, often your first reaction is usually to stick the boob into the mouth or use whatever settling technique you use. Plug up the noise hole and pray that they go back to sleep. Sometimes they go back to sleep and you can ‘milk it‘ (haha, get it) for another hour or two, but then the stirring happens again… then the pee… then they’re wet.

No animal in the wild lets its baby poop and pee where it sleeps without cleaning it up. Human babies are not designed to sleep through the night anyway, especially because they to need eliminate several times a night or feed if they’re little (the frequency depends on the age of the baby).  Even though it seems like practicing EC (elimination communication) with a baby at night is a huge pain in the arse, I often feel like it’s a matter of short term effort, long term benefit (ehm, longer stretches of sleep). Now, I know that not everyone is going to be jumping up and down with their hand up to take their baby to pee in the middle of the night. BUT, if you at least know that elimination is a reason for night waking, then you’re a step closer to understanding what’s going on.  If you want to know more about EC, you can read a post I wrote here. Which brings us to the next secret…

Is Your Baby an All Night Boober?  The Cycle of B00b –> Pee
It was a natural instinct for me to correlate frequent night feeds with frequent trips to the potty. So, I started lessening the amount of time I allowed on the boob per night feed. I would allow a nibble, not a huge meal, and then pull away. Or, sometimes not offer at all.  Unless… my baby was going through a day time feeding strike, in which case, I allow for a little extra boob at night.  But, constant night feeding, to me, just means that I have to wake up and take them to the potty more (yawn.. who wants to do that five times a night?).  ‘What goes in, some must come out.‘ When I thought of it this way, it felt natural for me to shorten the night feeds. (This refers to older babies.  I would never shorten the night feeds of a young baby) I didn’t read it from a book or anything.  I think even the cave woman might have thought like that. They wouldn’t have wanted to get out from under their wooly mammoth skin rug at night, if their baby had to pee… I’m sure they would have encouraged smaller feeds at night for that reason!

Babies need to release stress during the day through crying (in arms only)!
In my research, I stumbled across Aletha Solter’s parenting movement called ‘Aware Parenting‘.  She mentioned something called ‘cry in arms‘ and that really struck a chord in me. You see, I had been practicing and teaching yoga and meditation for years before I had kids.  Some of the processes and techniques that I had practiced myself, meant that we sometimes released stress, from built up anger and frustration, in the form tears. We all know how emotionally beneficial and healing it is to have a ‘good cry‘. But, up until my daughter was five months old, I had done everything in my power to keep her from crying. I gave her boob even if she had already been fed.  I rocked her. Distracted her.  Bounced from side to side. I never tried a dummy (pacifier) but, I did almost EVERYTHING to stop the crying.

But, Aletha is saying to allow the crying (in arms and of course, after all needs have been met).  Toss away the dummy, don’t jiggle, don’t rock, or anything that  is a control pattern for them. Just hold your baby lovingly and let their emotions pour out. Most of the time, I was doing exactly the opposite!

Some parents go to the other extreme and put their baby in the other room to cry alone.  But, Aware Parenting is saying to do something different. It’s not easy being born, and it’s not easy adjusting to life outside the womb. Babies get stressed just like adults, it’s just that they have little other ways to express their stress than through crying.  Imagine if you were having a huge sob… would you want someone to make you stop crying by distracting you or by shoving something in your mouth? Or, would you rather just have a soft shoulder to cry on until you ‘got it all out‘?  It’s the same for babies.

Again, going back to my meditation background.  I know that if I don’t meditate sometime before going to bed, I have crazy dreams and have disturbed sleep. I need that stress release before bed.  Similarly, babies and young children need some sort of stress release too. That release comes out in the form of a cry.

Once I started allowing my baby to cry, lovingly in my arms, when she needed it, she started sleeping so much better at night. We found a really good rhythm at night and her waking every hour for boob at night dropped almost immediately back to waking maybe two or three times a night (which is pretty reasonable, in my mind, for a baby of that age). I’ve done cry in arms with both of my girls. Keep in mind, the aim of doing cry in arms is actually not to get a baby to sleep better at night, it just happens to be one of the positive by-products!

To learn more about Aware Parenting and ‘cry in arms‘, I highly recommend reading Aletha Solter’s book, “Tears and Tantrums“.  She explains in detail and with studies based research everything that I mentioned.

Re-Thinking Night Waking
Night waking in babies and ALL people, is totally normal (how do you think I write all my blogs at 1 in the morning.. I wake up and do them!)  But, how frequent is another story. Obviously, if a child is sick, teething or going through developmental phases, they will certainly be more restless at night. There also other things to make the night waking less taxing on your system. Like, you going to bed earlier, cosleeping, diet, etc. But, if you look at the overall trend in you baby’s night waking, and it seems excessive, it might pay to consider a few things that many people overlook.  Liquid in=liquid out. Boob addiction. And, allowing a baby to release stress and tension that accumulates during the day.

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About katesurfs

Kate is an American living in Australia with her husband and two young children. She holds a Masters of Educational Practice and is a high school science teacher by profession, but mostly she stays at home with her children. She is a yoga and meditation teacher, trained through the Art of Living Foundation, a surfer, a vegetarian, and healthy conscious. She is an Aware Parenting Instructor, as well as a Know Your Child Teacher.

16 Responses »

  1. Love this Kate. Totally agree about letting the little ones get out their stress by crying in arms. I know I use a good cry as a stress release sometimes and sleep much better for it and actually recommend it to stressed out mums I see in my work – for themselves as well as their kiddies.

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  2. Great post Kate. One question though regarding co sleeping. We cosleep and I breastfeed my baby to sleep for naps and night. But she wants me to lie down next to her all the time for the sleep and will know as soon as I get up ( most of the times or wud get up herself after 15 min max). So I can’t get up and go for a walk etc in morning. Is it ok. Even I am ok to sleep very close but feeling that am setting a wrong routine. Not sure. can you advise plz. We sleep just the way you guys are in the pic. Lovely picture bytheway

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    • It’s very normal for a baby to want a ‘warm body’ right next to them when they are sleeping… It’s certainly a tough one. I often don’t really leave the room much when my girls are asleep and they will sleep for a while that way (2 hours or so). If I get up and do something, it’s likely that they wake up within a sleep cycle (20 minutes). I use it as a good excuse to get some rest myself! I either sleep, meditate, read a book, etc. when they’re asleep. They will grow out of it. My nearly 4 year old will sleep without me snuggled right up against her for much longer than the little one. If she needs to take a nap and you need to walk around, can you wear her, if you know it’s only going to be a short snooze? That sometimes saves the trouble of being stuck in bed for a while!

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  3. Thanks so much for this post! I really needed to read this yesterday, as I was having a very stressful baby evening and I think the crying in arms is something I need to try. I have never been able to stomach the ‘cry it out’ thing, but there are definitely evenings when my 4-month-old just doesn’t seem to want anything I have to offer in terms of comfort (after the basics are taken care of, of course), so maybe it is just the pent up stress. You also reminded me I seriously need to get back to even a small bit of meditation, or I’m likely to go completely mental with two little people to take care of 🙂
    I’m so glad I found your blog… it’s great to find a mama with lots of similar ideas, or if not similar, very thought provoking ones! Also, mega jealous you get to surf! I’ve done it a few times and am completely crap, but it’s probably the most addictive and fun thing I’ve ever done and I’d love to do it every day if I could! Anyway, keep up the great writing 🙂

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    • So glad that you enjoyed! I have to say, sometimes the crying in arms can be a bit confrontational, especially when we’re constantly told that we need to stop a baby from crying. If I hadn’t had years of meditation and breathing experience up my sleeve, I would probably be skeptical about how beneficial it would be to let a baby cry (in arms, of course). Keep meditating! It’s the best, I couldn’t live without it! Here’s a few online meditations that are from the art of living foundation, the organisation that I teach through http://www.artofliving.org/online-guided-meditation

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      • Thanks for the link. I’ll definitely give those a try! 🙂 And I completely understand what you’re saying about it being ‘confrontational’. I was just re-reading one of my favourite Thich Nhat Hanh books, talking about creating true peace, and how deep, non-defensive listening is so important in that process… might not be exactly the same with a baby, but I find it does take a lot of mindfulness and inner calm not to feel defensive with an upset baby sometimes! Sounds silly to take it personally, but it can feel personal when you’re in the middle of it all! Anyway, thanks again for the link 🙂

  4. Hi Kate! This is such a new idea to me… look forward to reading more about it! I think my little one may fall into the category of “boob addict”! She’s 8 months and has been waking up AT LEAST hourly for 5 months now… we cosleep, she wakes for a bit of boob and then back to sleep! When I try to withhold the boob she cries. Would it be gentle to let her cry in arms (and not give her access to the boobs!) when she is pulling at my shirt and rooting, so obviously telling me it’s the boobs that she wants? When I’ve tried this I Feel like I am breaking the trust and communication that we’ve established in which she knows that I know what she wants/needs and provide it for her. I tried this the other night and became warm and unzipped my jumper and she stopped crying when she thought she was finally getting her boo – at that point I let her have it because I felt like I’d tricked her otherwise!! She closes her eyes as soon as her lips touch! Please let me know what you think! Thank you!

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    • Hi Rebecca! Yes… waking up every hour for five months would definitely fall into the boob addict category. I mean, if it’s a few nights here and there, that’s different… What you can do, rather than start denying the boob at night is try doing the crying in arms during the day first. Probably the best time is right before bed or before or after a nap. Of course, make sure she’s been fed. If she can get enough stress release during the day, she might start sleeping better at night, particularly, if she has a big release before bed. I highly recommend reading “Tears and Tantrums” by Aletha Solter, she goes over it in much more detail. Although, I only read about cry in arms on the internet and it was enough to make sense for me. I started by letting my daughter have a big release in the afternoon and worked from there. Depending on her situation, there can be a lot of backlogged tears to release, sometimes it’s like cleaning too… it always seems to get messier before it gets better.

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  7. Hi Kate! Someone recommended this post after I told them my 5 month old son is waking up almost every hour at night. I loved the way you look back at cavemen as this is what me and my husband usually do. Either that or other animals… I will definitely try this, it does sound logical, however, if cavemen did this, wouldn’t there be predators hearing the baby and go: here’s an easy prey…? Do you have any thoughts on this? Love your blog though! I try not to read too much and do what feels right, but I feel it’s hard to reconnect with instinct and intuition after generations of separation from nature. This should all be taught to us by our mothers, really, but all these ‘experts’ think they know better than nature and mothers and have broken the line of our ancestors knowledge, so now we need to try and pick it back up again! You seem to do a great job =)

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    • Yes, I know what you mean, and I’ve thought about it a lot. I think the cavemen thing is interesting in this situation. Cave mothers would have mostly been more concerned with physical survival rather than emotional well-being. I’m sure they also smacked their kids too if something they were doing was putting the tribe into danger. So, the supported crying thing, feels to me, like an evolvement. We are not worried now about being eaten by lions and tigers, so we can attend to some more deeper emotional needs. Women in their world counties today, need to smack their kids today, just to keep them safe sometimes. Here, we don’t have to do that. There are many practices of the cave people that we do not adopt. For example, if a baby was born with some sort of disability, that baby would have had no chance and the tribe would most likely gotten rid of the baby. Of course, today, we can care for all sorts of children born with disabilities. So, while I do always think about the cave babies, I still remember that we live in a very different world. I hope that helps 🙂

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  8. I agree, Kate. But I also did discuss this with another mum the other day and she was saying she’d been letting her baby cry in her arms for a while, but it usually only happened if they’d been out and the baby wouldn’t start crying until they were back home and he was lying in her arms, so that tells me they instinctively know it’s ok to cry once home and safe in their mothers arms, which probably would be ok back in the caveman days too =) After I let my boy cry in my arms 3 days ago, he only woke up twice for 3 nights in a row and even had a 2 hour nap during the day (never happened before) but last night he had a restless sleep again… but I will keep doing it, it definitely works! Also Kate, what do you do to get your kids to have a nap during the day? My boy just doesn’t seem to want to stop moving even though he is clearly very tired.

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  9. I love your views on co-sleeping and breastfeeding. Im having trouble with my little man now waking loads so its nice understand possible reasons behind his stiring. Im hoping to be able to recognise his cues alittle better and let him cry in arms a bit more (as boob is usually always my first call!).

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