That right there might be the single most common question new parents ask.
Is it a developmental milestone? A regression? Is baby getting too much sleep during the day, or not enough? My old standby- maybe he's just hungry? Maybe she's too hot, or too cold?
Well, the truth is that it could be any one of those things, or it could be a combination of several of them.
What that means, and what you are probably already aware of, is that baby’s sleep is tremendously complicated. Complex even.
Baby's bodies and brains are rapidly going through significant changes, and by the time they have got one issue under control, a new one pops up to take its place.
There are factors you can control, obviously. If baby is too hot, you can turn on the air conditioning or put a fan in the room. If it's 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 don’t have 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 he is full of energy and wants to play. When he's told it’s time for bed, he get 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 am 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. What 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, our bodies start secreting a hormone called cortisol, and if you have 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 (it can help us flee from danger), but in the morning it’s just trying to get us started and wake us up. 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, which helps us get to sleep and stay asleep until morning, when the whole process starts over again. Melatonin production is increased and starts secreting earlier in the evening when we awaken to some nice, bright sunlight in the morning and are exposed to it during the day.
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 is what’s happening...
Baby is taking great naps during the day, which is obviously wonderful, and she is getting lots of time outdoors (with glorious sunlight), so her body is 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 is a narrow window of time when the body expects baby to be going to sleep. After all, she is a baby. What’s she got to stay awake for?
The brain instinctively decides that if she is not asleep within that narrow window then something isn’t right; that for whatever reason baby is not sleeping- maybe primitive survival from predators. And if baby has got a bear to run from, adding a shot of cortisol should help increase her chances for survival.
Lo and behold that is exactly what the body does.
Baby’s system starts secreting cortisol and, before you know it, she’s a little bit cranked. This often shows up in the form of playfulness and an abundance of energy-sometimes even manic behavior! In short, baby missed the sweet spot for sleep and now she’s going to have a hard time falling to sleep, and even though she is tired her behavior indicates anything but sleepiness.
What does all of this have to do with the dreaded 3:00 am wake ups?
Here’s what happens... assuming your baby’s circadian rhythm is scheduling a 6:00 am 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 3:00 am. 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, means that baby is probably going to wake up fully, and have a really hard time getting back to sleep.
Now for the big question. How do I fix it?
While there is 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 encourages 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 is 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. These devices emit blue light, which will stimulate cortisol production right at the time when you are 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.
Because the truth is that you are 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.
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, 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 our “5 Tips to Get Your Baby Sleeping Through the Night” guide.