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6 months and older - Helping your child get back to sleep when they wake

6 months and older

Waking up during the night is sometimes called ‘night wakening’. It mostly happens to babies and toddlers. This is a common issue.

Babies sleep more at night than during the day from 6 months of age. Brief awakenings during the night are normal.

Having a good daytime and bedtime routine can help. There are some techniques you can try like 'gradual retreat' to help your child get used to falling asleep on their own. Every child is different, so only do what you feel comfortable with and what you think will suit your child.

If your child wakes up crying

Wait a minute before checking on your child if they wake and cry, as they may fall back to sleep.

If they do not go back to sleep:

  1. Re-settle and soothe them by holding them in your arms and talking softly.
  2. Put your child back to sleep in their own bed.
  3. When you have resettled your child, do not stay in their bedroom if your child is in their own room.
  4. If they wake and cry again, repeat the steps above

Children are usually fully established eating solid foods between 6 to 9 months of age. They will then get all the food they need during the day. Once fully established, they won't need to be fed during the night. You can then start to phase out night feeds.

However, 30% of babies aged 9 months will wake up during the night after being fully established onto solids. For example, because of a sleep association like rocking to sleep. Avoiding sleep associations and having a regular bedtime routine at roughly the same time each evening can help.

Try not to play with them or let them get into your bed. In this way, you are helping them learn that night time is for sleeping.

Helping your child to fall back asleep themselves

There are ways to help your child learn to fall back asleep by themselves.

Try to:

  • place your child to sleep in their own cot
  • avoid physical “props” in or near the cot – these include musical or light-up toys and ceiling-hung toys
  • avoid sleep associations – for example rubbing their back or rocking
  • consider the 'gradual retreat' approach

'Gradual retreat' approach

The 'gradual retreat' approach may help your child get used to falling asleep without you in the room. This way of changing your child’s sleep pattern is gradual. It may take a few weeks to work.

The aim is to let your child know that you are there but support them as they learn to self-soothe to sleep.

How to leave the room

Gradually move away from your child's cot or bed and out of the room when putting your child to sleep or after re-settling them. The goal is for your child to fall asleep without you in the room.

Some parents feel that not being present when a young child falls asleep is too difficult for them and their child. Try the gradual retreat technique if your child is 6 months or older.

Gradual retreat

This gently teaches your child to fall asleep on their own while you are in the room.

  1. Put your child into the cot or bed while they are awake and sit on a chair next to them.
  2. Place your hand on your child's back if they are used to physical contact while they fall asleep. Leave your hand on their back for the first few nights until you gradually remove it before they fall asleep.
  3. Stay sitting there until your child falls asleep.
  4. Once your child can consistently fall asleep this way, sit farther and farther away every 3 to 4 nights.
  5. Eventually you will be out of sight in the hallway.

Some parents find it easier to pretend that they are asleep in a chair rather than just sitting there. You can also make an excuse to leave the room. For example, say you are going to the toilet.

Be consistent

A consistent bedtime routine is good for your child. Be consistent too in how you respond when your child wakes during the night. This is important.

The first few nights are likely to be very challenging. Often the second or fourth night is worse than the first night. But within a week or so, you will begin to see improvement.

Praise them the next day

Praise your child in the morning for having stayed in their own bed during the night. Be specific, for example, “you are such a good boy for staying in your bed.”

Why children aged 6 months and older wake during the night

Children aged 6 months and older may wake during the night when they are in-between sleep cycles.

The first two sleep cycles last about 3 to 4 hours and are mostly deep sleep.

Your child may wake up briefly between sleep cycles. They may open their eyes. This is normal.

They will usually fall back asleep quickly if:

  • they wake up in the same place where they fell asleep
  • everything in the room is the same. For example, the night light is still on

If something is missing

But if something is missing, like a parent rocking them to sleep, they will need you to do this again to fall back asleep.

For some parents, this might not be a problem. It may be difficult for other parents because it disturbs their sleep.

Physical contact with a parent as a child is falling asleep creates a sleep association.

Sleep associations usually develop when your baby is between 6 and 12 months of age.

The 'gradual retreat' approach can help to phase out a sleep association.

If your child is sick or in pain

Your child may wake up during the night because they are ill or teething. Do not work on getting your child to sleep on their own when they are unwell. Start again when they are better.

Page last reviewed: 22 April 2021
Next review due: 22 April 2024

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.