Why Does my Baby Wake at 3 a.m.?

If you are a parent of a baby 24 months or younger, chances are you’ve asked that exact question more than once: Why is my baby waking at 3 a.m.? Or perhaps your baby is sticking to the 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. wakeup.

You’ve probably wondered is it a developmental milestone? A regression? Is he getting too much sleep during the day, or not enough? Maybe he’s just hungry. Maybe he’s 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 factors. What that means, and what you are probably already aware of, is that baby sleep patterns are tremendously complicated. A baby’s body and brain are both rapidly changing, and by the time you'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 down the AC or put a fan in the room. If he is teething, a little Children’s Tylenol can often solve the problem, at least temporarily. But those are the simple fixes. The reason most people have such a challenging time with their baby’s sleep is because of problems that aren’t so simple, and the solutions are a little less obvious.

Imagine this scenario: An 18-month-old child gets plenty of fresh air and sunlight during the day, goes down easily for long restful naps, but when bedtime rolls around, suddenly she’s full of energy and ready to play. When you say it’s time for bed, she gets upset and bedtime becomes a battle. Once she does finally get to sleep, she 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 would have a hard time falling and staying asleep that night. But the opposite is almost always the case for babies. What your baby is demonstrating in this scenario is actually a need for more sleep, not less.

In order to understand this counterintuitive reasoning, first a little background on how this whole system of sleep works:

About three hours prior to when we are naturally prone to waking up in the morning, our bodies start secreting a hormone called cortisol, and if you’ve done some reading on your baby’s sleep prior to this, the sight of that word probably causes you to flinch a little.

Cortisol is a stimulating hormone, and is also produced in times of stress in order to elevate the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system (you know, the fight or flight response, just in case a bear attack is imminent). But, in the morning the role of cortisol is to get us started for the day. Think of it as mother nature’s morning cup of joe.

If cortisol is our morning cup of coffee, melatonin is our evening glass of wine. Once the sun starts to go down, our body recognizes the onset of night and begins to produce this lovely sleep-inducing hormone, which helps us get to sleep and stay asleep until morning. Then the whole process starts over again. Melatonin production is increased and actually starts earlier in the evening when we awaken to some nice, bright sunlight in the morning.

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 is taking great naps during the day, which is obviously wonderful, and she’s getting lots of time outdoors, so her 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, she’s a baby. She doesn’t have as much stamina as adults, so this window is fleeting. If sleep doesn’t come when the body is expecting it, the brain instinctively decides that something isn’t right; that for whatever reason, baby can’t sleep (you know, maybe there’s a bear!) And if baby has a bear to run from, adding a shot of cortisol should help increase her chances for survival, so that’s exactly what the body does.

Baby’s system starts secreting cortisol and before you know it, she’s got her second wind and is nowhere near sleep. This often shows up in the form of playfulness and an abundance of energy. In short, baby missed the window and now she’s going to have a hard time getting to sleep, but her 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... assuming your baby’s circadian rhythm is scheduling a 6 A.M. wake up, then her body starts to secrete cortisol three hours prior to that. At this point, the melatonin production has ceased for the night. You baby likely hits the end of a sleep cycle around 3:00. She gets to that “slightly awake” state, and now there’s a little bit of stimulant in her system and no natural sedative. This, combined with a lack of independent sleep skills, means that your baby is probably going to wake up fully, and have a really hard time getting back to sleep.

So now for the big question…how do I fix it?

While there’s no quick fix for adjusting baby’s hormone production schedule, you can definitely help her out by getting her outdoors during the day as much as possible. As I mentioned before, natural light during the day is a big cheerleader for melatonin production at night.

It also helps to ensure that baby’s room is as dark as you can get it at night, and start turning down the lights in the house at least an hour before you put her to bed. Simulating the sunset will help to cue melatonin production so that it’s in full swing when she goes into her crib.

Avoid any TV, iPhone, tablet, or screen time of any kind for that same hour before bedtime. (preferably even longer) as these devices emit a geyser of blue light, which will stimulate cortisol production right at the time when you are trying to avoid it.

Above all, the number one way to help your baby sleep through the night is to get her on a predictable, consistent sleep schedule and teach her the skills she 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 just have the ability to calmly assess the situation when we wake up in the dark, 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.

Although we can’t prevent baby from waking up at night, we can safely and effectively help her learn to recognize that she’s safe, in familiar territory, still tired, and capable of getting back to sleep on her own. You can find more information about how to do this by downloading my “5 Tips to Get Your Baby Sleeping Through the Night” guide.

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 set your baby’s sleep habits back immeasurably.

If you are experiencing way more than just a 3 a.m. wake up and are interested in a customized sleep plan for your baby, please book a free evaluation call to find out how Dream Factory Sleep Solutions can help you solve all your baby's sleep challenges!

#nightwakings #cortisol

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