Newborns and sleep…everyone knows these two words don’t exactly go together.
So, you read every book on baby sleep training, divided night shifts between you and your husband, and prepared for the worst.
But that was 6 months ago.
Now your baby still hasn’t slept through the night, you have no idea what you’re doing wrong, and you can’t even enjoy this new, exciting time of your life because all you want to do is sleep.
When a your baby is waking up every two hours, a bone-tired exhaustion sets in. I don’t know what your exact situation is, Mama, but I understand your desperation for a solution.
In this point, we’re going to review the factors that could be interrupting your baby’s sleep and, most importantly, the easy solutions you can try to solve them.
Why is My Baby Waking Up Every Two Hours? 10 Effective Solutions to Solve Your Baby’s Sleep Problems
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While you read this list, keep in mind that your baby’s sleep issues could be caused by one or several of these issues. You might also find that once you solve one of these problems, a new one will arise the next week.
Try not to let this behavior discourage you.
Sleep is a very complex skill your baby needs to learn (a skill that most adults still haven’t mastered!). It will like you take one step forward only to take two steps back the very next week, but if you’re consistent, I promise healthy sleep will just get easier and easier as time progresses.
I created an easy quick-reference sheet and sleep troubleshooting worksheet to make this process a little simpler. I hope it’ll get you through this tricky phase!
(Note: Once you’re finished with this post, you might want to check out my post Why Your Baby Won’t Sleep: 7 Shocking Things That are Killing Your Baby’s Sleep. There is a little information overflow in that post, but we also cover less common situations like environmental preferences.)
1 – Is He a Breastfed Baby?
First of all, let me premise this question by saying that I do not believe your baby won’t sleep because he is breastfed.
Early in his life, your baby metabolized breastmilk much faster than formula, leading to more frequent feedings. While breastfeeding can cause newborns to wake more frequently throughout the night, even breastfed babies can sleep through the night by 4 months.
So, what gives?
Breastfeeding may not be the direct cause for your baby’s current night wakings, but there are several factors that attached to breastfed babies that might cause them to wake up long after that 4 month mark.
The Solution: Read How to Get a Breastfed Baby to Sleep Through the Night
Okay, maybe it’s a cheap-shot pointing you to another article I wrote, but seriously I wrote this article for YOU!
If your breastfed baby is waking up every two hours, there are so many techniques (too many to list here, unfortunately) to combat this totally common problem. In my post, How to Get a Breastfed Baby to Sleep Through the Night, I go over the challenges specific to getting a breastfed baby to sleep through the night and what strategies you can implement to make it happen.
Related post: How to Get a Breastfed Baby to Sleep Through the Night
2. Snack Feeding (“Trained Night Feeder”)
Snack feeders, also known as trained night feeders, will wake you up several times a night, just for a snack, whenever the slight inclination hits him. If your baby demands to be fed every two hours during the day, frequently falls asleep during nursing, or is rarely without his bottle, there’s pretty good chance you have a snack feeder on your hands.
As parents, we create snack feeders and because of a baby’s natural instincts, he very willingly becomes one.
Snack feeding usually begins as a newborn. As newborn your baby will be sleepy all the time. He might struggle to take a full feedings (at that age, full feedings are usually defined as 20 minutes per breast, or about 3 ounces of formula). If you let him fall back asleep without a full feeding, he will simply wake up sooner, because his little tummy was never full, and demand another feeding. He falls asleep again, and the cycle continues until he expects frequent, small snacks.
There are several other scenarios that create a snack feeder:
- Leaving a bottle in the crib
- Allowing your baby to suckle randomly
- Allowing your baby to carry sippy cup or bottle with him throughout the day
- Mistaking hunger cues for another issue (E.g. when your baby wakes at the 45 minute mark, feeding him may be reinforcing a deeper sleep issue)
- Nursing for comfort (this is ESPECIALLY the case during teething when nursing can be such a great relief to your baby)
If you think your baby is a snack feeder, please don’t feel bad. These scenarios are everyday, easy instances that any mom faces.
The Solution: Ensure Full Feedings
Breaking your baby of snack feeding is tough. It will make you and your baby uncomfortable. The bare minimum I would do is get your baby on an eat-play-sleep routine. Even if you’re not into schedules, using this routine can help this issue tremendously. When you implement this routine, you KNOW when your baby’s hungry and you KNOW when it must be something else. It will eliminate mistaking your baby’s cues.
Once you have your baby on a set daily routine that he can depend on, you need to tackle the duration between feedings. Some moms go full-force cold turkey. Once again, The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems is by far the best resource I can think of. Page 157, includes a 3 day plan to transform your baby from a snacker to a great eater (her method is gentle, no-cry sleep training). She also wrote a case study for a baby boy that had this exact same issue and the exact steps she and his parents took to break him of it.
If going cold turkey doesn’t feel right for you, you can begin by gradually extending the length between his feeding times. It’s important to start this step during the day, when you can distract your baby. For example, if your baby is nursing every two hours, the next time he wakes up expecting his nap, try to distract him for ten minutes before giving in. Then, maybe the next day, maybe two days depending on his response, try 15 minutes. Over time, his tummy will get used to larger meals and will be able to hold out longer.
Just remember, ideally you will want to feed your baby first and then have play time. Distraction is a temporary solution until your baby adjusts to longer feedings.
Related Post: How to Get Your Crazy Baby on a Sleep Routine that Works
3. He’s not Getting Enough Sleep During the Day
Sleep deprivation is a vicious cycle. The less your baby sleeps during the day, the less he will sleep at night. If he’s exhausted, his little body will be completely wired and unable to jump into the deep, restorative sleep that he needs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen other moms turn to sleep deprivation as a solution for sleep deprivation!
It just doesn’t work.
If your baby is tired, he will fight sleep. His mind will be wired and uncomfortable, causing him to wake at every transition period during the night.
If your baby is 4-6 months, he should have a minimum of 3 1.5-2 hour naps a day and should sleep about 8 hours a night (this number will move up to 10-12 hours soon!)
If your baby is taking 45 minute catnaps during the day, he will be tired and have more nighttime disruptions.
The Solution: Implement a Consistent Nap Schedule
For now, focus on making sure your baby is getting plenty of sleep during the day. If you fix your baby’s daytime issues, the night will follow. Try not to let your baby sleep for more than two hours at a time though, that might translate to too much sleep and cause all new night time wakings!
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4. He’s Getting Too Much Sleep during the Day
On that note, watch out for letting your baby sleep too much.
You’ll know if your baby is getting too much sleep during the day if he prefers to sleep 3,4, maybe 5 hours at a time during the day but still wakes up during the night every two hours or so. A couple things can cause this behavior:
In the beginning, they have no concept of night and day. It’ll be a long time before his circadian rhythm (or biological clock), kicks in and helps him differentiate when it’s time to sleep or time to party. It’s our job to help that circadian rhythm develop as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, some babies are resistant. Maybe they naturally fell into this rhythm in the womb, or perhaps their circadian rhythm development was a little delayed. In any case, he naturally falls into night owl habits if we don’t provide enough intervention.
This type of behavior can also stem from a chaotic nap routine. Some mothers find it difficult to wake their baby from a sound nap (if this is you, I don’t blame you. If you’re exhausted then it goes to follow that you should let your baby sleep!). So, baby can sleep until he wakes and the result is too much daytime sleep.
The Solution: Implement a Consistent 1.5-2 Hour Sleep Schedule
A good rule of thumb for babies 4 months and older is to follow a 2:2 hour wake time/sleep schedule (I include a sample schedule for this in my baby sleep packet). This ensures that your baby has an appropriate play time and nap time.
5. Sleep Regression
Even the best sleepers can develop crazy night habits during sleep regressions. Sleep regressions are a phase where your baby’s sleep becomes disrupted. Many times, sleep regressions are tied to a developmental leap or some kind of physiological change.
The most common sleep regressions happen around 4 months (the dreaded 4 month sleep regression), 8-9 months, 12 months, 18 months, and 2 years. If your baby is about to hit any of these milestones, there’s a good chance that a sleep regression could be the culprit.
The Solution: Help Your Baby Transition with Varying Techniques
Well, that depends on which sleep regression you’re caught up in. The 4 month sleep regression technically isn’t even a “regression.” In fact, his sleep habits are actually maturing. Your baby is trading his coma-like sleep patterns for a standard 45 minute cycle. Every 45 minutes, your baby moves into a new sleep cycle. For this short amount of time, he will either wake up or move into a deeper sleep cycle.
If your baby is still adjusting to this new 45-minute cycle he might wake up frequently-even at night.
There are several ways to help your baby transition through a sleep regression, but it can take a few weeks. Just ensure that you are instilling great sleep habits on your baby, and he will get through this!
6. Growth Spurt
Once again, if your baby has been sleeping great until now and is suddenly waking up for a snack, there’s a good chance it can be attributed to a growth spurt. In the early days, you’ll probably notice that your baby goes through a growth spurt every month or so. Some major growth spurts include 4 weeks, 6-8 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, and 12 months.
The dead giveaway to a growth spurt is hunger. If your baby is suddenly waking up every 45 minutes and famished, (and your milk supply is fine), he’s probably going through a growth spurting. And you won’t have to wait very long for your suspicions to be confirmed: your baby will grow–fast. I remember my daughter gained almost a pound in a week.
The Solution: Let the Baby Eat!
Sometimes, lost sleep due to a growth spurt is unavoidable, but there are steps you can take to minimize these disruptions. The solution is simple: make sure your baby eats a ton during the day. Really focus on getting your baby those full feedings. I am all about following a baby sleep schedule (if you don’t believe me, I have an entire series dedicated to setting your baby up on one), but if your baby is hungry, that takes precedence.
If your baby is waking up every 45 minutes during the day, make sure you give him a full feeding. You can minimize these unscheduled wakings by temporarily adjusting his schedule to a shorter one (for example, if your baby is on a 3 hour schedule, shorten it to a 2.5 hour). If you simply aren’t producing enough milk to cover his daily caloric needs, supplement with frozen milk. Then, for his last “scheduled” feeding, use pumped morning milk. This milk is high in fat content and may give him the extra push to sleep through a few more hours.
Night wakings may be unavoidable during a growth spurt, but the point is to try to minimize them so bad habits don’t develop that you’ll have to deal with later.
7. Habitual Night Wakings
If your baby is waking up at the same time every night (almost to the minute!) then it’s probably due to habit rather than hunger. Habitual night wakings can be caused from your baby’s natural biological clock becoming stuck, getting used to waking because of genuine hunger, a lack of an established bedtime routine, and the simple need to cuddle.
Sometimes your baby will be hungry at this time and sometimes he’ll just snack. In any case, if your baby is older than 4 months, you should feel reasonably confident that your baby does not need this nighttime feeding.
The Solution: Break the Habit!
I know, easier said than done right? If a baby enjoys waking up at the same time every night, he may not be too happy when you try to switch things up.
There are a few effective methods you can use to break him of his night wakings habit. If you believe in the cry-it-out methods, this can be extremely effective and quick. Alternatively, you can also use the Pick Up/Put Down gentle method the Baby Whisperer teaches. I used this method until my daughter was six months with a ton of success.
Otherwise, you can try gradual elimination (extending feedings and interact by 5 minute increments) or the wake-to-sleep method.
8. Sleep Props
A sleep prop is any object, person, or thing a baby needs in order to fall asleep. This could be a pacifier, a person, your breast or bottle, a white noise maker, rocking, music….almost anything! On the surface, a sleep prop isn’t so bad. I mean, it gets your baby to sleep, right?
The trouble surfaces after your baby’s 4 month sleep regression, when his sleep patterns shift to 45 minute cycles. If your baby requires a certain object to fall asleep, he’ll naturally rouse at the 45 minute mark, realize that he doesn’t have his sleep prop and will scream out his discomfort. The most common sleep props babies become addicted to are:
- Nursing to sleep
- Your breast or bottle
- Noise makers (music, white noise machines, the washer or dryer)
- The car
Sleep props are one of the most common reasons for a baby waking up every two hours, but that doesn’t mean that these objects are inherently bad for your baby. Pacifiers especially get the brunt of the blame, but honestly, they can be so beneficial. They satisfy your baby’s instinctive need to suckle and prevent your baby from nursing to sleep. The issue arises when a pacifier becomes a requirement for sleep.
So, how can you tell if your baby has a sleep prop? The dead giveaway is this: put your baby down for a nap without it. If your baby sleeps fine, you’re good to go. If he cries and won’t sleep without it, you know you’ve got a problem.
The Solution: Get Rid of the Sleep Prop
Sleep props suck, especially after 4 months.
If your baby is younger than 4 months, it should be relatively easy to break the habit by going cold turkey. He might fuss for a little bit for a couple of naps (usually a day or so tops), but it’s relatively a painless process.
If your baby is older than 4 months, you’ll need to use an age-appropriate solution that works for you and your baby. Some moms like to use gradual elimination, which can take a couple weeks. Other moms like to go cold turkey with cry-it-out (this is the most efficient method and will take about 2 days for babies under 12 months).
I used a combination of these two methods to eliminate my daughter’s binkie. This approach took about a week. I took away the pacifier at night first and then I eliminated it during her naps.
9. Developmental Leap
When your baby is learning a new skill, there is no better time to practice than in his crib. At 2AM. Every Night.
If you’re new to “Developmental Leaps”, this concept was heralded by the book, Wonder Weeks. This is another staple baby book that should always been on your bookshelf (or in my case, by my bed). The book suggests that your baby will have biologically timed “leaps” at set points in his life. During this period, your baby might be fussy, losing sleep, or just a grump in general. This fussy period will be followed by a “leap” forward, a point where he explores his new skills and practices them at every opportunity he gets.
I love this book because if my daughter was suddenly cranky for a couple days at a time, I would look in that book and see that, lo and behold, she was in a Wonder Week. It helped me cope with her new, strange behavior, and then encourage her skills to develop as her new ailities emerged a couple weeks later.
So, back to why your baby is waking up every two hours… he might be going through either the fussy phase of a developmental leap OR the learning phase, where he wants to check out his new skills.
I’ve found that rolling over and standing up are the worst sleep disruptors. Often your baby will figure out how to roll one way, but can’t figure out how to roll back. The same goes for standing up. He might be too excited that he’s standing to actually sleep!
The Solution: Help Her Practice These Skills during the Day.
Once she masters her new abilities, it’s old news. So, during play time, help her practice as much as she can. If she continues to practice at night it’s just a dance of either encouraging her to go back to sleep or waiting for her to fall back asleep on her own.
Note: I’ve downloaded the common Wonder Weeks app as well and honestly, I’d recommend them both. The Wonder Weeks book will give you much, much more detail on the phases your baby will go through, plus creative activities you can try to help her through it (that in itself makes this book valuable to me), but the mobile app makes it so easy to keep track of your baby’s progress! It will even give you alerts when your baby is entering into the fussy period.
10. Check for GERD or Infant Reflux
Most of the time, we think of GERD as an ailment that affects only newborns. In reality, severe cases can get worse around 4 months and can last until your baby is a toddler. GERD can be a very painful affliction that can destroy your baby’s sleep if left untreated.
Look out for the symptoms of GERD:
- Wet burps
- Frequent hiccups
- Arching like he’s in pain (can also be attributed to gas)
- Hunger strike
Most babies experience these symptoms at some point, but the key here is frequency and intensity. If your baby is spitting up after every meal or won’t even touch solids, get him checked out.
Solution: See a Pediatrician for Treatment and Practice an Eat-Wake-Sleep Cycle
My daughter suffered from mild reflux (it did NOT feel like mild at the time). Several articles and books I read said that the only solution for reflux was to give your baby small, frequent meals (snack feeding).
I tend to stay away from this solution. Snack feeding can exhaust you and foster unhealthy sleep habits later (as you might be experiences already). I’ve found that an eat-play-sleep routine helped minimize her symptoms.
If you feed your baby at the beginning of his wake cycle, instead of nursing him to sleep, he will have time to digest the food before being laid down again.
That’s it, Mama. 10 possible solutions for your baby that is still waking up every two hours. I know this situation is frustrating and I know that you must be absolutely exhausted. Just hang in there. It may not feel like it right now, but I promise that this is a temporary situation (even if it feels like an eternity right now). Don’t lose hope. Your baby is capable of getting a good night of sleep, it’s just that sometimes she needs a little extra help.
My charge to you is this: look at your daily routine. Are feedings erratic? Do you have a consistent eat-play-sleep routine? If not, I would try my hardest to implement that first.
Then, look through this list again and figure out what resonates. Do you think your baby might be a snack feeder? Has his binkie become a sleep prop? If you go through this list systematically, narrowing your answers down one by one.
Don’t be afraid to snag my quick reference sheet and my sleep troubleshooting sheet. I designed these tools based on my own experiences. I hope they help you figure out what’s going on so you (and baby) can get a good night’s sleep.
Finally, please don’t be afraid to share your experiences below. We need to support each other through this crazy time!
Good luck, Mama!