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Why does my baby keep waking at 3AM?!

If I had a dollar for every time I was asked this question …. well, let’s just say winning the lottery would be a brush off.

Parents are often seeking that ONE explanation! Is it a developmental leap, a sleep regression, are they napping too long in the day – or not enough? Maybe they need more food, or maybe they’re too hot – or too cold!

One root cause would make it much easier to solve the problem, wouldn’t it?

Honestly …. It could be any one of these things. Even more daunting – it could be a COMBINATION of any one of these things.

So I suppose what I’m trying to tell you – and what you may have already figured out yourself – is that a baby’s sleep is incredibly complicated. A baby’s brain is constantly going through rapid and significant changes... by the time they catch up and adapt to one big change, another one comes along to rock the boat once again.

Obviously there are some potential impacting factors that you can definitely control, like adjusting the aircon or turning the fan on. Perhaps if they’re teething you can apply some teething gel or give some Panadol. These are the simple fixes.

If you’re struggling with your child’s night wakings you’ve probably already tried these – and they haven’t worked. Consider this:

An 18 month old who is happy and healthy goes down well for long naps during the day, however when bedtime comes around they suddenly seem full of energy and ready to play. They stomp and cry when they’re told it’s bedtime and it takes a million bedtime stories, trips to the bathroom, and sips of water before they finally settle down to sleep. Then after all that, they wake several times throughout the night and won’t sleep past 5:30am.

So what’s the problem here? They’re probably getting too much sleep throughout the day, right? It’s a reasonable thought but the case is more often than not, the opposite. This sort of pattern is indicative of a child who needs more sleep, not less.

I can almost see your head spinning from here, so let me give you a little background on how sleep works.

In general, around 3 hours before we are naturally prone to waking up our bodies start releasing a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a stimulating hormone which is also released in times of stress. It causes our heart rate to increase and stimulates the nervous system, which in moments of danger will kick us into fight or flight. In the mornings however, it’s just trying to get us ready for the day. Consider it Mother Nature’s caffeine!

Even more to that, if cortisol is our morning coffee then melatonin is an evening glass of wine. When the sun starts to go down our bodies take this as a cue to start releasing melatonin, which in turn induces sleep. Then morning comes around and the process begins all over again with cortisol being released.

As beautifully crafted as this system sounds, it’s not foolproof and it can easily fall out of sync.

When a child’s body begins releasing melatonin there is a narrow window of time following where the body is expecting to then settle into sleep. If this doesn’t happen, the brain starts to process ongoing stimulus as a sign that something isn't right and responds by releasing cortisol. Before you know it, you’ve got a playful child with an abundance of energy on your hands!

In short, you missed the window and now your child is having a hard time getting to sleep – although his behaviour looks like anything but fatigue.

… So what does all of this have to do with 3am wake ups?

The circadian rhythm. Let’s assume your baby’s natural wake up is around 6:00am; then the body will start releasing cortisol around 3:00am and melatonin production will stop. This means he’s now slightly roused with no more access to the sleepy hormone. This, along with likely a lack of independent sleep skills... means that he is probably going to wake fully and have a really hard time getting back to sleep.

Now for the BIG question – How do I fix it?

While there’s no quick fix to establish a nice balance of fluctuating hormones, there are certainly a few little things you can put in place to give it a little push in the right direction:

  • Spend time outside in natural light throughout the day. This primes your child’s body for melatonin release in the evening.

  • Make sure that your child’s bedroom is as dark as possible during the night, and start dimming the lights house about an hour before bedtime. This simulates sunset and helps to cue the release of melatonin, meaning it should be in full swing by the time bedtime comes around.

  • Avoid any ‘screen time’ at least an hour before bedtime. These devices stimulate the release of cortisol – which is exactly what we don’t want around bedtime.

Above all, the number one key to helping your baby sleep through the night is to get them into a predictable and consistent routine for naps and bedtime, and teach him the skills he needs to fall asleep independently. Because the truth is you’re never going to be able to 100% avoid night time wakings. We all wake throughout the night, no matter how old we are. As adults, we have just become accustomed to checking in with our surroundings briefly before falling right back to sleep (think adjusting your blanket, rolling over, or reaching for an extra pillow). Most of the time we don’t even remember this the next morning.

So, while you can’t prevent your child from waking during the night, you can help him to learn how to self-settle. You can find more information about how to go about this by checking out the other resources on the website and our social media.

Better yet - send me a message, I'd love to help out!

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