The Real Reason Your Baby Wakes at Night

As a motherhood specialist and photographer working with new mothers and infant one of the main topics of conversations I hear all the time is infant sleep. What is normal? Why does my baby wake up so frequently? Is something wrong? Will I ever sleep again?

The real reason your baby wakes at night

The first year of life is incredibly taxing on a new parent and sleep deprivation is real. Those first three months, the fourth trimester, is a blur to most parents because of this sleep deprivation. Because of this I often see many mothers advising other moms to “sleep train” their infants at a very early age, that they should “Be sleeping through the night” by three months and that its ok to let them cry, they need to self soothe.

As a mother myself, having had two daughters and still in the midst of night wakings my heart hurts at these responses. Academically, knowing about infant physiology and normal sleep patterns I’m actually very angered by these responses but realize that many of them are based on a lack of education on what is normal.

The real reason your baby wakes at night

So lets talk about normal sleep first. In order for us to breathe there must be a balance of oxygen (what we take in) and carbon dioxide (what we breathe out). This balance is maintained by small cells called Chemoreceptors that are located in the major blood vessels. While we are sleeping, these chemoreceptors measure levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide and instruct the brain to breathe.

Newborns are born biologically immature with still developing nervous systems including an underdeveloped breathing mechanism. If you have ever watched a newborn sleep you will notice that their breathing has no real set patterns and at times they actually appear to stop breathing anywhere from 10-15 seconds. This is called periodic breathing and is actually normal for an infant. The younger and more premature the baby, the more irregular the breathing pattern. Around 6 months of age breathing patterns develop and you will see periodic breathing start to diminish.
Apnea is an episode when a baby stops breathing. Sometimes, if its long enough 15-20 seconds the heart rate will drop and signal to the brain that something is happening and either automatic start mechanisms kick in or the infant wakes up and then normal breathing resumes.

Sometimes, if the apnea occurs for a prolonged period of time and if breathing does not start again oxygen levels will fall, the heart rate will become very low and if there is no one present to arouse the baby who will sometimes even need mouth to mouth resuscitation these infants will succumb to SIDS.

The peak incidence of SIDS is around 3 months when babies begin to have longer stretches of deep sleep and many people say, the baby is finally starting to sleep better. During this deep sleep babies are less responsive to the breathing-stimulating effects of low oxygen and increase carbon dioxide. Studies of near-miss death of SIDS and siblings of SIDS infants show that these babies wake fewer times at night.

The real reason your baby wakes at night

During the first few months infants go from deep sleep to light sleep and back and forth. Researchers believe that the arousal from deep sleep into light sleep is essential for babies to resume breathing in those babies who have less effective self starting mechanisms.

A baby who is difficult to wake is at a higher risk for SIDS. Infants who are a high risk for SIDS also show more episodes of apnea and periodic breathing. This apnea most frequently occur between 1:00am and 6:00am and within 10 minute of wakening.

Infants who wake frequently at night have fewer episodes of apnea. Sleep studies have shown that REM sleep stimulates breathing and heart rate. Based on these studies it is thought that REM sleep protects infants from SIDS. The peak risk period for SIDS coincides with the rapid decrease of REM sleep that occurs between 2 and three months of age. By 6 months of age cardiopulmonary compensatory mechanisms in deep sleep are more mature and the risk of death from failure of these mechanisms decreases.

So basically, infants are not designed to sleep through the night until their bodies are physically developed and matured enough to do so. This is why its important to not try and “sleep train” or attempt to alter a newborns own clock and sleep wake cycles because Mother Nature has designed it to protect them from SIDS.

Reference: NIGHTTIME PARENTING by Dr. William Sears,

Maria Fuller

I’m a former critical care paramedic with a concentration in Emergency and Disaster Management, an injury on the job led me to retire from that and manage the disaster that is my home these days, I’m lucky I had good training!

I believe in Love at first sight- I met my husband on his 18th birthday and the rest is history

I’m passionate about a women’s right to birth without fear or pressure whether that is at home or in a hospital, I’ve done it in both places.

I have two beautiful girls, Alexa and Arya, 5.5 years apart. I believe each of my daughters was sent to me to remind me of a piece of myself I have lost along the way, it has been exciting journey to rekindle those parts of “ME” again.

We live on a little River in Southbury, CT with our Rotti Beagle mix, a Crazy 1 year old German Shephard and a fat cat that won’t leave the basement, he might be to fat to climb the stairs.

I love a good margarita on the rocks with Salt but ONLY if my husband makes it with hand squeezed lemons, limes and homemade simple syrup, any other margarita sucks.

I listen to “pitbull” in the car with my daughters, they have no idea who Raffi is but Alexa knows most of the words to “Calle Ocho”

I’m the girl who will love you fiercely but is not afraid to “tell you like it is”, if I do, it means I actually care about you!

I love my girls but there are many days I don’t like them or want to be around them. Yep, I just said that, its normal for you to feel that too!

I believe that mothers a given a handbook when their baby is born, its called “intuition” and it will never lead her astray.

I am a photographer who helps women “Celebrate the Courageous journey of motherhood”

Latest posts by Maria Fuller (see all)