Why does baby wake at 3:00am?

by | Oct 15, 2018 | Sleep Consultant

Why does baby wake at 3:00am?

Why does your baby wake at 3am? Have you been asking yourself that question lately? Because that question, right there, might be the single most common question new (and not so new) parents’ ask.

Could it be a regression? A developmental milestone? Are they getting too much sleep during the day, or maybe not enough sleep? Maybe they are hungry. Maybe they’re too hot, or perhaps too cold.

Well, the truth is that it could be any of those things, and it could be a combination of several of them.

Truth is, it’s complicated

The truth is, and you’re probably already aware of this, your baby’s sleep can be tremendously complicated.

When talking about babies and development, it’s important to realise that their little bodies and their brains are rapidly going through significant changes. And by the time they’ve got one issue under control, a new one pops up to take its place. Just when you think you’ve got it sorted. Boom! Along comes another developmental complication. Welcome to the world of parenting!

Now, there are factors you can control, obviously. If your baby is too hot, you can turn up the air conditioning or put a fan in their room. If they’re teething, a little paracetamol or teething gel can often solve the problem; at least temporarily.

But those are the simple sleep fixes. The reason most people have such a challenging time with their babies’ sleep is because of the problems that aren’t so simple. The ones that don’t have such obvious solutions.

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 they’re full of energy and want to play. When they’re told it’s time for bed, they get upset and bedtime becomes a battle. Once they do finally get to sleep, they wake up several times at night and never sleep past 5:30am in the morning.

So what’s going on in the above scenario? Is baby getting too much sleep during the day?

Is it too much day sleep?

That would be the reasonable assumption, for sure. And sometimes it’s the truth, at least for an older preschooler who may still be napping. After all, if us grown-ups were to take a 2/3-hour nap in the afternoon, there is a good chance we’d have a hard time falling and staying asleep that night.

But the opposite is almost always the case, at least for younger ones. What your baby is likely demonstrating in this scenario is actually a need for more sleep, not less. Yes, I said it. Most of the time, a child needs MORE sleep to sleep well.

In order to understand this counter-intuitive reasoning, first a little background on how this whole system of sleep works.

The wake hormone…

Let’s look at the basic wake system first. About three hours prior to when we’re naturally prone to waking up, 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 it is produced in times of stress in order to elevate the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system (in case, you need to run away, from bears or the like). But it’s also a very natural hormone. In the morning, it’s just trying to get us started. Think of it as mother nature’s caffeine.

… and the sleep-inducing hormone

And if cortisol is our morning cup of coffee, melatonin is kind of like our evening glass of wine. Once the sun starts to go down, our bodies recognise the onset of night and begin to produce this lovely sleep-inducing hormone. This hormone, melatonin, helps us get to sleep and stay asleep until morning, when the whole process starts over again. Melatonin production is increased and starts earlier in the evening when we 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…

Here’s what’s happening

Baby’s 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?

So 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. Because really, she’s a baby. There’s not a lot to stay awake for (assuming she doesn’t watch “Married at First Sight” and hasn’t discovered the Internet yet).

If she misses that window, then the brain instinctively decides that something isn’t right. That for whatever reason, baby can’t sleep, (probably because, y’know, there might be bears around.) And if baby has got a bear to run from, adding a shot of cortisol should help increase his or her chances of survival.

So that’s exactly what it does.

Baby’s system starts secreting cortisol and, before you know it, she’s a little bit cranky. This often shows up in the form of playfulness and an abundance of energy. That second wind. In short, baby has missed the optimal window and now she’s going to have a hard time getting to sleep. Yet her behavior indicates anything but sleepiness.

So what does all of this have to do with the dreaded 3 A.M. wake ups?

What does this have to do with a 3AM wake up?

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. And at this point, the melatonin production has ceased for the night. So baby hits the end of a sleep cycle around 3:00am. She gets to that “slightly awake” state, and now there’s a little bit of stimulant and no natural sedative. This, combined with a lack of independent sleep skills and a higher baseline cortisol level from bedtime, 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 you’ve probably been hoping I might have an answer for. How do I fix it?

How do you fix it?

While there’s no quick fix for adjusting a 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 the 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 that melatonin production so that it’s in full swing when she goes into her cot.

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’re trying to avoid it.

But 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.

The truth of the matter…

Because the truth of the matter 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. We realise where we are, see that it’s still nighttime, and go right back to sleep. Most of the time we don’t even remember the wake the next morning.

So 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, she’s in familiar territory, still tired, and capable of getting back to sleep on her own. You can find more information about how to start this process by downloading my “5 Tips to Get Your Baby Sleeping Through the Night” guide. 

Or if you’d like more help with a step-by-step plan to help your child learn independent sleep skills, please book in a free initial call. I’d love the opportunity to help you.

And although I know I made light of it earlier on in the piece, you should always check and make sure that baby’s room is absolutely, positively, 100% free of scary bears. Waking up to a snarling grizzly will set your baby’s sleep habits back immeasurably.