Why Does My Baby Wake at 3 AM?

– Written by JoAnna Inks 

unhappy little boy - JoAnna Inks Sleep Solutions

This might be the most common question I’m asked by new parents when they come to me for help with their little one’s sleep.

Is it teething?  Is it regression?  Are they too hot? Too cold?  Are they hungry? Are they over-tired?  The list goes on and on for the reasons parents give me behind their baby’s wake-ups.

The truth is, it could be any of these things or even a combination of them.

Baby’s sleep is actually quite complicated and it’s often hard to know exactly why a baby is waking.

Babies go through significant changes and just when they’ve gotten on developmental milestone under control, there’s another one upon them!

There are some things you can control.

If your baby’s too hot, you can make it cooler.

If your child’s teething, some children’s Tylenol will do the trick, at least for a while.

Those are the simple fixes to a child’s poor sleep.  The main reason most people really struggle to get their babies sleeping well is that there are many issues that aren’t so obvious and truly don’t have an easy solution.

Imagine this scenario: An 12-month-old child gets a lot of fresh air and sunlight each day, takes long, restful naps, then bedtime comes and they don’t seem tired and want to play.  Bedtime becomes a battle and baby gets upset when told it’s time for bed. When they finally fall asleep, they wake multiple times per night and never sleep past 5 am.

So what’s the issue? Is baby sleeping too much in the day?

That would seem reasonable. If we, as grown-ups, got 3 hours of sleep during the day, then we’d probably have a rough time falling asleep at bedtime and staying asleep all night long.

But, with babies, it’s almost always the opposite.  This baby is clearly over-tired and needs more sleep, not less.

So we can understand why this is the case, we need to know a little bit about how sleep works. 

A few hours before we wake up our bodies begin to secrete a hormone called cortisol.  If you’ve done any reading on the internet about babies and sleep, this word often causes parents to freak out a bit!  Not to worry, this is actually a good thing and totally normal at this stage of sleep.

Cortisol is a hormone responsible to help us in times of stress to elevate heart rate and stimulate the nervous system.

In case, you know, you’re being chased by a bear!

But, in the early morning, it’s doing its job to wake us up.  It’s known as mother nature’s caffeine!

So, if cortisol is our morning cup of joe then melatonin is our evening glass of wine.  When the sun goes down, our bodies begin to produce an amazing, sleep-inducing hormone which helps us know it’s time for bed and helps keep us asleep all night long.  Then, the whole process starts over again- every single day!

Just a side note:  Melatonin production is increased and starts even earlier in the evening if we awaken to some good, bright sunlight

Our bodies are amazing but, this system of hormone production isn’t perfect and it can be easily confused.  So, with the cutie baby, we talked about above, here’s what’s happening.

Baby is sleeping well during the day, which is great, and she’s getting sunlight to help her with her melatonin production in the evening.  But, what’s with so much energy right before bed?

When melatonin production starts in the evening, there’s a small window of time when baby’s body is expecting it to go to sleep.  If you miss this window, the brain decides something isn’t right, baby can’t sleep (maybe a bear!). If baby’s got to be awake then a shot of cortisol should really help keep her awake for whatever she needs to do to survive. 

Baby’s system begins producing cortisol and then she’s wide awake.  Long, story short, baby missed the sleep “window” and she’s going to struggle to get to sleep.  This can be confusing because her behavior doesn’t lead you to believe she’s tired at all!

Back to the dreaded 3 am wake up…..

This is exactly what’s happening.  Let’s assume a baby’s circadian rhythm is scheduled for a 6 am wake up so her body starts producing cortisol 3 hours before this and melatonin production has stopped.  Baby comes to the end of a sleep cycle around 3 am and she’s “slightly awake” and now that’s combined with some stimulating cortisol. 

If you combine the wake-up, the cortisol and lack of good sleep skills, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.  Simply put, baby’s going to have a REALLY hard time going back to sleep without quite a bit of help from mom or dad.

You’re probably wondering about now…How do I fix this?

You can help your baby’s natural hormone production schedule by ensuring they’re getting enough natural light during the day.  This will help with melatonin production at night and therefore help with sleep.

You want to make sure that baby’s room is as dark as possible.  Dimming the lights around the house in the evening about an hour before bed will simulate the sunset and help with cueing melatonin production.

Try to Avoid any screen time an hour before bed, preferably longer.  These devices emit a geyser of blue light, which will increase cortisol production at the time when you’re trying to eliminate it.

The number one thing you can do to help your baby sleep through the night is to teach her independent sleep skills and get her on a predictable schedule.

Because you’re never going to eliminate night time wake ups.  We all wake in the night every night. As grown-ups, we have the ability to recognize that it’s night time and we should go right back to sleep.  Most of the time we don’t even remember waking between sleep cycles when we wake in the morning. 

We can’t prevent a baby from waking in the night, but we can safely teach baby to recognize that she’s awake, she’s safe, still tired, and can get back to sleep without our help.

You can find more information about how to teach your little one to stop waking at 3 am by downloading The 7 Best Sleep Tips guide. 

I made light of it earlier but, you should always check to make sure there are no bears in baby’s room.  A growling bear could set anyone’s sleep habits back. LOL

Here’s to a well-rested family,

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