This is the second most common question new parents ask, right behind: ‘When will my baby sleep through the night?’.
So, why does your little one wake up consistently at 3:00 AM?
Is it due to a developmental milestone? A regression? Are they getting too much/not enough sleep during the day? 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, or it could be several of them!
Sleep is complicated, as is parenting! We often second guess ourselves and/or live by trial and error, I’m not telling you anything new here.
Little bodies and brains are constantly developing. Whilst this is vital, it can be overwhelming when you finally get your head around one change, only to find a new challenge in its place!
When it comes to night wake-ups, there are a number of factors you can control. If your little one is too hot/cold, you can adjust clothing and room temperature. If they’re teething, some children’s paracetamol or teething gel can often soothe this discomfort, at least temporarily.
But those are the simple fixes. The reason most people have such a challenging time with their little one’s sleep is due to problems that aren’t so simple, and that don’t have obvious solutions.
An 18-month-old girl gets plenty of fresh air and sunlight during the day, goes down easily for long, restful naps, but when bedtime rolls around, she is suddenly full of energy and wants to play. When her parents tell her it’s time for bed, she becomes very upset and bedtime becomes a battle. Once she finally does drift off to sleep, she wakes several times overnight and never sleeps past 5:30AM.
What is going on here? Is this little girl getting too much sleep during the day?
That’s often the conclusion parents jump to in these situations, and I can see very clearly how they end up there. After all, if we as adults had a 2-3 hour nap in the afternoon, I would bet my bottom dollar we would struggle to fall asleep at our regular bedtime. We may also find the quality of our sleep is affected causing us to wake often or toss and turn during the night.
Surprisingly, the opposite is almost always the case. What this little girl is demonstrating in this scenario is actually the need for more sleep…sorry, what?!
About three hours prior to when we’re naturally prone to waking up, our bodies start secreting a hormone called Cortisol. This particular hormone has received a lot of negative attention when discussing sleep in youngsters, but it’s actually vital to our survival so don’t stop reading just yet!
As most of us know, Cortisol is produced in times of stress (hence it often receives a bad name when talking about bubs and children). In a stressful situation, whereby we need to fight a potential predator, a harmful situation or run away (fight or flight), the job of Cortisol is to prepare our body for either reaction. It causes an increase in heart rate and stimulates the nervous system to enable our bodies to ‘fight or flee’. This is because Cortisol is a stimulating hormone.
This stimulating hormone is also one of the main reasons our bodies wake up in the morning. It is released in the body in the early hours of the morning to stimulate our brain and body systems and wake us from our slumber. Think of it like an internal alarm clock.
If Cortisol is our alarm clock, Melatonin (the sleepy hormone) is our evening lullaby. Melatonin production kicks in when the sun starts to go down. This helps us to get to sleep AND stay asleep until morning when Cortisol kicks in, wakes our bodies up, and the whole process starts over again.
*Extra tip: Exposure to bright, natural sunlight, helps the body produce melatonin. Make sure your little one gets exposure to lots of natural light and fresh air during the day – making sure you remain sun smart!
How does this affect sleep in children?
As beautifully crafted as this alarm clock/lullaby hormone system is, it’s not perfect and is easily confused. So, in the situation we examined above, here’s what’s happening…
Our little 18month old is taking great naps during the day, which is obviously wonderful, and she’s getting lots of time outdoors, so her body is ready to release some Melatonin when nighttime rolls around to help her calm down and prepare her body for sleep. So, what’s with that burst of energy right before bedtime?
When this little girl’s body has begun producing Melatonin, there’s a narrow window of time when her body expects her to go to sleep.
When this window of time is missed, the brain instinctively decides that something isn’t right. For whatever reason, it starts to think that this little girl can’t sleep. Her body thinks it needs to react to enable her to continue to be awake and alert, so it gives a burst of Cortisol to spur her on.
Before you know it, she is energized, playful, and ready for an adventure. The downside is you’re left with a wired 18month old who won’t settle down and will have a very difficult time getting to sleep.
What does all of this have to do with the dreaded 3 AM wake ups?
Here’s what happens… Assuming your baby’s circadian rhythm (internal clock) is scheduling a 6 AM
So now for the big question you’ve probably been hoping I might have an answer for.
How can I prevent it?
While there’s no ‘quick fix’ for adjusting baby’s hormone production schedule, you can definitely help by getting her outdoors during the day as much as possible. As I mentioned before, natural light during the day is the big driver of Melatonin production at night.
It also helps to ensure that baby’s room is as dark as you can get it at night. Also, 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 bedtime rolls around.
Avoid any type of screen time, including TV, smartphones, tablet/IPAD, for that same hour before bedtime, preferably even longer. The blue light in these devices stimulate Cortisol production and delay Melatonin release.
Finally, but most importantly, follow a predictable and consistent sleep schedule and teach your little one the skills she needs to fall asleep independently.
The truth is you’re never going to prevent nighttime wake ups. We all wake up in the night, regardless of our age. The difference with us adults is that we have developed the ability to easily drift back to sleep. When we wake up, we realize where we are and do not rely on anything to get back to sleep. We wake briefly multiple times every night. These wakings are so brief that most of the time we don’t even remember them the next morning.
Although we can’t prevent baby from waking up at night, we can help her learn to recognize that she’s safe, in familiar territory, still tired, and capable of getting back to sleep on her own.