There are many possible reasons why your child would fight sleep at three in the morning, other than the usual soiled diaper. They could be overstimulated, excessively tired, have overslept, have had too much or too little milk, have been exposed to a new environment, became used to sleep props, or might have an underlying illness. Set a routine, watch out for your child’s sleeping cues, and be consistent with your schedule.
Baby already fed? Check. Cuddled tonight? Check. Diaper changed before sleeping? Check. Already asleep? Well, not yet exactly. You’ve done your evening routine, but your 1 month old bundle of joy is still awake and hyperactive! What should you do next?
Before we delve into why your baby is fighting sleep, let’s take a look at the regular sleeping habits of infants.
How newborns typically sleep
There is no clear consensus about the amount of sleep your kiddo needs. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, 16-18 hours of sleep for every 24 hours is normal for babies aged 0-2 months old, with around 3-4 naps throughout the day.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids aged 0-3 months need 14 hours a day to have good quality of sleep.
This age group usually has morning naps lasting 1-2 hours. However, uninterrupted nighttime sleep will only take them as far as 5-6 hours straight.
Your newborn is ready to sleep if…
Children from birth to 6 weeks old are usually awake for 45-60 minutes only. You can make a sleep diary for a week or so to find out the specific awake time and sleeping pattern of your child. Once you determine your infant’s inherent body clock, watch out for sleep cues.
Your baby is ready to sleep (and not allowed further stimulation!) if you can see the following drowsy signs: yawning, fussing, thumb sucking, looking away, clingy to the caregiver, or being less engaged with activities.
If you’ve unknowingly ignored your infant’s drowsy signs, they may then exhibit “tired signs”: crying, overactivity, and more fussiness are some examples. Your child will find it more challenging to fall back to sleep, which will ruin your baby’s overall routine.
Why your newborn refuses to fall asleep
Maybe your child’s room is lit too bright, or you could hear the TV all the way from the living room. It could be loud music from your neighbor heard through the window or ongoing construction work at your other neighbor’s end.
These are just a few examples of different things that can overstimulate your baby’s senses. It is best to avoid stimulation a few hours before rocking your infant to sleep.
Did your child stay awake the whole day? Were there too many activities or any changes in schedule that made it difficult for them to sleep during nap time? Inadequate sleep during the day will lead to an overtired baby.
Stretching their waking hours signals their body to release cortisol, a hormone that may keep your child fussy and awake, which leads to shorter sleeping times and more chances of waking at night.
On the other hand, as your infant grows, they slowly decrease the number of hours needed for sleeping.
If their sleeping habits during the day do not change or lessen, they may oversleep and stay up most of the night.
Overfeeding or underfeeding
Think back through the whole morning and afternoon: did you give your infant too little milk? You might not have given them full feedings throughout the day, and this is causing them to wake up every now and then in the middle of the night, looking for milk.
Or maybe you fed your baby too much during the day, causing them to extend nap time, and is now wide awake at night.
A new environment
If your family is on a trip or has changed addresses in the last few days, your baby will definitely need some time to adjust.
You might be using a different crib or a different room setup (including the lights and maybe even the wallpaper!). A disrupted schedule and a different environment can pose as a distraction to your infant.
Is it the right temperature?
When you go into your room to check on your baby, did you feel a sudden temperature change? It might be too cold or too warm in the room. On average, 68-72ºF (20-22.2ºC) is the most conducive temperature range for a good night’s sleep.
Check how many layers and how thick your child’s clothing is as well. Observe and check if they are comfortable with the temperature by feeling for their extremities such as fingers and toes: are they too cold or too warm to touch?
What are sleep props?
Sleep props are like negative sleep associations, requiring you to actively participate in helping your child sleep up to the point that they become dependent on you to sleep. They do not learn to self-soothe.
They stay awake and become clingy and too reliant on you. This can last for years if not properly corrected! Examples include carrying or rocking them to sleep, nursing or breastfeeding to sleep, and using pacifiers and swings.
The possibility of illness
Your child may be too irritated to sleep because of an underlying illness. Infants do not usually present with the typical signs and symptoms of illnesses that are seen in older children.
There are cases where unusual behaviors such as excessive fussiness, difficulty waking up, or poor appetite are signs of an ongoing illness or infection. Examples would include flu-like symptoms or ear infections.
It can be your child’s temperament
The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics describes temperament as the overall behavioral style of a child based on 9 aspects. Some of these are distractibility, activity level, the intensity of reaction, adaptability, and regularity.
Your pediatrician can further guide you regarding the possibility of temperament as the cause for your child’s persistent awakening at night.
What can parents do?
1. Aim for the right amount of tired
Allow your child to get tired (but not too much!) during the daytime with plenty of engaging activities. Let them practice their new developmental milestones throughout the day. Be aware of their waking times and let them have their morning and afternoon naps.
Slowly they will realize that day is day, night is night, and that most activities are usually done in the morning.
2. When your baby is already overtired
Don’t worry too much if you’ve already seen the signs telling you your child is overtired. There are still ways to help soothe them.
You can swaddle them, carry them briefly, play white noise or dim the lights in the room.
3. Share your room
While your child is younger than 6 months old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends room-sharing as it allows parents to better monitor their child while making them feel safe and secure.
This means that your baby should sleep in the same room as you, ideally inside their own crib or bassinet.
4. Nighttime feeding habits
If your infant seems to be feeding more at night, observe and find out why. Try to gradually adjust nighttime feedings using cluster feeding and ensure they receive full feeds in the morning.
Some sources say to feed your child right after waking and not when they’re exhibiting drowsy signs so that they are more awake and eager to finish their meal.
5. Stick to the routine
Although babies are most likely to follow a regular bedtime routine only by the time they reach 6 months old, it’s never too early to start! This can help you adjust and tweak the routine for everyone’s comfort.
Some things you can do for your sleep routine are massaging, singing, reading aloud, and swaddling.
6. Use sleep associations, not sleep props
Take note that you should add only positive sleep associations (no to sleep props!) to your nighttime routine. You can play calm background noise (or you can use white noise), swaddle your child, and close or dim the lights in the room.
7. Swaddling and the startle reflex
Some parents are afraid to swaddle their babies because it might restrict their movement too much. But swaddling actually makes your child feel secure!
According to Stanford Children’s Health, the startle reflex, also known as the Moro reflex, happens when your baby is startled by loud sounds, including their own cry. They cry and pull back in their arms and legs towards their body in response to these triggers.
Swaddling prevents the excess movement of the extremities, allowing your child to be less stimulated and easier to fall back to sleep.
8. Let them lull themselves to sleep
At any point during nighttime sleep, some infants may suddenly wake up and cry. Don’t immediately rush to their aid! Observe for a few minutes more and allow your baby some time to self-soothe or fall asleep on their own.
If crying or whining persists, you may then approach your child and help them fall back to sleep, but avoid bringing them out of their crib unless necessary.
9. Stick to the schedule
If you’re traveling, make sure to keep changes in the routine to the minimum. Adjust your activities so that you can stick as close to the set schedule for your baby. This will also give you more time to rest in the long run.
10. Be consistent
After deciding how to go about your child’s daily routine, be patient, as they will eventually understand and adapt if you are consistent in implementing the routine.
It may be heartbreaking to hear them cry and tempting to cuddle them to sleep, but in the long run, stick to the routine — it will benefit both you and your child.
When to ask for help
There is always a possibility of infection or illness that manifests as sleeping problems.
If your child is still persistently awake despite our advice, or if your child develops any unusual behavior, it is best to seek consultation with your friendly pediatrician.
There are many reasons why your child is persistently awake at night. It’s best to observe first your child’s innate sleeping habits, find out the cause, adapt and set a new routine, and remain consistent with it.
Be mindful of your child’s drowsiness and tired signs. If you are worried and unsure, it is best to seek help from your pediatrician.