Kids Health Info

Night waking (6-18 months)

  • What is night waking?

    Waking up many times through the night (recurrent night waking) is very common in infants and toddlers but can be very distressing for their parents. In this age group, sleep is made up of cycles which last about an hour.  A sleep cycle is made up of both light and deep sleep. It is normal for children to wake at night when a sleep cycle comes to an end. Many children can easily resettle themselves, while other children will call out to their parents as they need help settling back to sleep.

    What are sleep associations?

    Sleep associations are habits that develop in an attempt to soothe children to sleep. Some examples are needing to feed a child to sleep or techniques such as patting, rocking or holding the child until they fall asleep in the parent's arms. Specific attachment to one parent, usually the mother, can also be a sleep association. Sleep associations are not a problem for all children, but those who don't settle easily and wake frequently at night are more likely to become dependent on sleep associations.

    Ways to promote better sleep routines include:

    • Try to keep a consistent and predictable routine each evening so your child learns what to expect and when.
    • High energy play in the hour or two before bedtime can make it harder for your child to fall asleep.  Instead, try to have some quiet time before your child is put to bed.
    • Feeding your child immediately before bedtime can become a sleep association. Instead, try to time the last feed for at least half an hour before bed.
    • If dummies have become a sleep association, attempt to help your child to give them up. Letting your child hold a doll or small blanket for a short while after stopping the dummy can be helpful.  
    • Techniques such as patting or rocking your child to sleep are fine before the age of five to six months. Older children can form a sleep association with these actions.  Try to cut down on their use if this is the case.
    • Try to put your child into the cot awake at bedtime as this can assist them to learn to settle themselves to sleep.
    • Try to leave the room and go back for brief but regular checking until they are asleep. If this is too distressing, sit quietly on a chair in the bedroom until your child falls asleep. You can gradually move out of the room in time.
    • Be consistent in your behaviour, and set your own limits. Each family is different.
    • Try to share your child's bedtime routine with your partner.
    • If you are having trouble, contact your doctor or Maternal and Child Health Nurse for extra help.

    Follow-up

    Once your child has learnt to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night, be wary of times of change. Coughs and colds or holidays away can be enough to upset your child's routine and may lead to a recurrence of night waking. Be aware of this, and try to be consistent during those times of change. If holidays away cause disruption, try to return to the sleep routine once you are home again.

    Key points to remember

    • Night waking happens when children cannot settle themselves back to sleep when they wake up during the night.
    • Children and parents can get exhausted if it continues.
    • Sleep associations can encourage night waking. These sleep associations should be reduced or stopped if they seem to be causing the problem.
    • Good routines, consistency and reassurance can help resolve the night waking.

    For more information

    Produced in consultation with the Melbourne Children's Sleep Unit, Royal Children's Hospital (RCH). Many thanks to the parents who helped with this fact sheet. First published  2005. Updated November 2010.

    Sleep Unit RCH

     

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Disclaimer
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.