Why does my baby wake up at 3am?!
That right there might be the single most common question new parents ask.
Is it a developmental milestone? A regression? Are they getting too much sleep during the day, or not enough? Maybe they’re just hungry. Maybe they’re too hot, or too cold.
Well, the truth is that it could be any of those things, and it could be a combination of several of them.
You probably already know this: your baby’s sleep is tremendously complicated.
Their bodies and brains are rapidly going through significant changes. By the time they’ve got one issue under control, a new one pops up to take its place.
There are factors you can control, obviously. If baby’s too hot, you can turn up the AC or put a fan in the room. You can help teething with a little Children’s Tylenol or a homeopathic remedy.
But those are the simple fixes. There's a reason most people have such a challenging time with their babies’ sleep. And it's because of problems that aren’t so simple, and don’t have obvious solutions.
Imagine this scenario:
An 18 month old child gets plenty of fresh air and sunlight during the day. He goes down easily for long, restful naps. But when bedtime rolls around, suddenly he's full of energy and wants to play. When he's told it’s time for bed, he gets upset and bedtime becomes a battle.
Once he does finally get to sleep, he wakes up several times at night and never sleeps past 5:30 in the morning.
So what’s going on? Is baby getting too much sleep during the day?
That would be the reasonable assumption, for sure. After all, if us grown-ups were to take a 3 hour nap in the afternoon, there’s a good chance we’d have a hard time falling and staying asleep that night.
But the opposite is almost always the case. What baby’s demonstrating in this scenario is actually a need for more sleep, not less.
Let me explain this counter-intuitive reasoning with a little background on how this whole system of sleep works.
About three hours before we’re naturally prone to waking up, our bodies start secreting a hormone called cortisol. Maybe you’ve done some reading on your baby’s sleep prior to this. If so, the sight of that word probably causes you to flinch a little.
Cortisol is a stimulating hormone. Cortisol is also produced in times of stress to elevate the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system (in case, y’know, bears). But in the morning, it’s just trying to get us started. Think of it as mother nature’s caffeine.
And if cortisol is our morning cup of coffee, melatonin is our evening glass of wine. Once the sun starts to go down, our bodies recognize the onset of night and begin to produce this lovely sleep- inducing hormone. Melatonin helps us get to sleep and stay asleep until morning. The best way to increase melatonin is to awaken to some nice, bright sunlight.
But as beautifully crafted as this system is, it’s not perfect and it’s easily confused. So in the situation we examined above, here’s what’s happening...
Baby’s taking great naps during the day, which is obviously wonderful. And he’s getting lots of time outdoors. So his body’s ready to crank out some melatonin when nighttime rolls around. So what’s with that burst of energy right before bedtime?
When baby’s body has begun producing melatonin, there’s a narrow window of time when the body expects baby to be going to sleep. After all, he’s a baby. What’s he got to stay awake for? She doesn’t watch The Bachelor and she hasn’t discovered the Internet yet.
The brain instinctively decides that something isn’t right; that for whatever reason, baby can’t sleep, (probably because, y’know, bears.) And if baby’s got a bear to run from, adding a shot of cortisol should help increase his chances for survival.
So that’s exactly what it does.
Baby's system starts secreting cortisol and, before you know it, he’s a little bit cranked. This often shows up in the form of playfulness and an abundance of energy. In short, baby's missed his sleep window. And now he’s going to have a hard time getting to sleep. Even though his behavior indicates anything but sleepiness.
So what does all of this have to do with the dreaded 3 A.M. wake ups?
Here’s what happens... Let's assume that your baby’s circadian rhythm is scheduling a 6 A.M. wake up. So his body starts to secrete cortisol three hours prior to that. And at this point, the melatonin production has ceased for the night. So baby hits the end of a sleep cycle around 3:00. He gets to that “slightly awake” state, and now there’s a little bit of stimulant and no natural sedative. The problem happens if he doesn't have independent sleep skills. Then he'll fully wake up and have a hard time getting back to sleep.
So now for the big question you’ve probably been hoping I might have an answer for. How do I fix it?
1. There’s no quick fix for adjusting baby’s hormone production schedule. But you can definitely help him out by getting him outdoors during the day as much as possible. Again,natural light during the day is the big cheerleader for melatonin production at night.
2. It also helps to ensure that baby’s room is as dark as you can get it at night. So start turning down the lights in the house at least an hour before you put him to bed.Simulating the sunset will help to cue that melatonin production so that it’s in full swing when he goes into his crib.
3. Avoid any TV, iPhone, tablet, or screen time of any kind for an hour or more before bedtime. These devices emit a geyser of blue light. And blue light stimulates cortisol production right at the time when you’re trying to avoid it.
4. The number one way to help your baby sleep through the night is to get him on a predictable, consistent sleep schedule. And teach him the skills he needs to fall asleep independently.
Because the truth is that you’re never going to prevent nighttime wake ups. We all wake up in the night, regardless of our age. As adults, we have the ability to calmly assess the situation when we wake up in the dark. We realize where we are, see that it’s still nighttime, and go right back to sleep. Most of the time we don’t even remember it the next morning.
So we can’t prevent baby from waking up at night. But we can help him learn to recognize that he’s safe, in familiar territory, still tired, and capable of getting back to sleep on his own.
You can find more information about how to do this by downloading my “Guide to Get Your Baby Sleeping Through the Night.” It's part of my FREE Back to Sleep Bundle on my website.
And although I know I made light of it earlier, you should always check and make sure that baby’s room is absolutely, positively, 100% free of bears. Waking up to a snarling grizzly will surely keep your baby from sleeping! :)