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Baby waking and settling problems: causes

6-18 months

Problems getting baby to sleep and settle? Or having trouble with baby waking up? All babies wake at night, but many haven’t learned how to go back to sleep on their own. This is the biggest cause of baby sleep problems and persistent night waking.

Problems getting baby to sleep and settle: how they start

The most common problem with getting babies to sleep and settle is that many babies have never learned to put themselves to sleep. This is because they’re settled to sleep by their parents at the start of the night or nap, and again whenever they wake up.

A diagram showing the cycle of infant waking

It’s normal for babies to wake during the night. In fact, we all move through repeating cycles of quiet and active sleep every night, even if we don’t realise it. And like grown-ups and older children, babies usually wake briefly at the end of each sleep cycle. In babies, cycles of quiet and active sleep last 30-50 minutes.

Some babies wake after a sleep cycle and then go back to sleep. But other babies wake after a sleep cycle and can’t put themselves back to sleep. They cry out. These babies keep crying until someone comes to help them back to sleep – maybe by feeding them, giving them a dummy, or patting and rocking them.

This becomes a habit that the baby depends on to get to sleep.

For some parents, this is fine, and night waking doesn’t harm the baby’s health or development. After six months, though, it can cause problems for a mother’s wellbeing and her relationship with her baby.


Baby sleep


In this short video, parents talk about encouraging baby sleep. It includes tips on identifying sleep cues, finding out what helps babies to sleep, and being consistent with sleep and settling techniques. Every baby is different. You might need to experiment to find out what works for your baby.

Other causes of sleep problems

Rare medical conditions or sleep disorders can cause settling or night waking problems in babies. If you’re concerned, it’s best to speak with your GP.

Your child’s temperament can also be a factor. For example, babies with an easygoing temperament have fewer sleep problems than babies who are a bit less flexible and need more time to adapt to new situations.

Contact a child health professional if you’re anxious or distressed about your baby’s sleep problems or you don’t know what to do next. You can also call a parenting helpline in your state or territory for help.

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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