7 reasons why your baby or toddler isn’t sleeping

Kinderling News & Features

All parents have asked this question at some point – why isn’t the baby sleeping?! And sadly, toddlers are often culprits for being troublesome sleepers too.

Fortunately, there are some really common reasons for why your cherub might not be snoozing. These can often be related to their rapid growth and development. If you understand what happens and when, it will better prepare you for when sleep disturbances arise.

Cindy Davenport is a registered midwife and Founding Director of Safe Sleep Space, so she’s seen many a family struggling to get some z’s. It’s her job to help them find sweet rest, so we picked her brain for advice in those tricky moments.

In the middle of a sleep-deprived haze, lean on these tips from Cindy, and know you WILL get some shut-eye in the not-so-distant future!

1. Circadian rhythm

Cindy says this is a good place to start. Circadian rhythm is really knowing the difference between day and night.

“For an infant up until about five or six months of age, they truly don’t know the difference between day and night. They don’t have any real circadian rhythm,” she says. “It’s all to do with their levels of melatonin.”

Babies are biologically wired to feed and feed, day and night. There not really meant to be sleeping through.

After the first five to six months they might have longer stretches of sleep at night but Cindy does emphasise that if they’re hungry, feed them. And remember all babies are different in how long they sleep, when they’re hungry and when they fall into good patterns.

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2. Separation anxiety

“Separation anxiety we generally tend to see with our little babies round that seven to nine-month mark. We also see it again with our toddlers around the 15 to 18-month mark, and a lot of parents don’t yet know that.”

“When separation anxiety comes out, it is really because of a bit of development in the infant’s brain, and it’s called object permanence.”

Up until seven months of age, give or take, there’s no norm for any baby, a baby doesn’t know that you’ve left the room. But round about seven to nine months, they absolutely know that you have gone.

“So object permanence is when that separation anxiety can come into play. Because if a parent doesn’t keep going back in, and responding, which is what we so want them to do using a cued-in infant mental health approach to sleep. We need to listen to their cries, we need to respond, we need to stay in tune with our babies and to go back in and speak to them.”

3. Growth spurts

Infants go through growth spurts at three weeks, six weeks then three months and six months. “They’re going to be awake a bit more and they’re going to need to feed more” Cindy says.

4. Dummies

Babies like to suck and as long as feeding is established properly, it’s okay to use a dummy if you want to.

If they cry during sleep time because their dummy has fallen out, Cindy recommends that instead of you putting it back in their mouth, put it in their hand, “They’ve got good hand to mouth coordination, so they’re more likely to be able to put it back in their mouth themselves.”

5. Dependent sleep association

Feeding to sleep, driving in the car or being held to sleep are all associations that well-meaning parents do when they’re trying everything to put baby to sleep!

“What happens with an infant though is when they go to sleep in your arms like that, and when they wake at the light sleep phase,” Cindy explains. “Generally, for a little baby that’s around 35-40 minutes, or a toddler about 60 minutes in, and they need that same thing that helps them go to seep. And unless they have that, they’ll find it really difficult to drop back off into that next sleep phase themselves.”

We need to help them break that dependent sleep association. If it’s your touch they crave, gradually move away as they’re drifting off. If they cry, go back and help them but slowly move away from the behaviour.

6. Developmental stages

“Another reason why parents find that their child won’t sleep is that they’re going through what we call a developmental milestone,” Cindy notes.

If parents anticipate this, or know that their child is going through one of these milestones, remember how exciting it is that their brain is growing and shifting.

“We’ll often see a sleep shift when the child is doing this, for example, rolling, crawling, sitting up, walking or starting to talk.” Keeping these in mind helps you to understand and work with your little one to nod off again.

7. Illness

“One of the key thing for parents is that if their child is unwell, they’re never going to sleep as well,” Cindy explains. That’s just like an adult, really!

In these situations, be mindful, go with your gut, and seek medical help if you’re worried. Don’t be too hard on bub, or yourself and go with flow. Cindy says it’s important for everyone to sleep however they can, but safely. Know that it won’t last long and kids do bounce back well.