Updated: Sep 30, 2020
That right there might be the single most common question new parents ask. Is it a developmental milestone? A regression? Are they getting too much sleep during the
day, or not enough? 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, and it could be a combination of several of them. What that means, and what you’re probably already aware of, is that baby’s sleep, at first, is unstable and unregulated. Their bodies and brains are rapidly going through significant changes, and by the time they’ve got one issue under control, a new phase or new development milestone pops up to take its place. There are factors you can control, obviously. If baby’s too hot, you can turn up the AC or put a fan in the room. If they’re teething, a teething ring or piece of cold cucumber (not frozen) 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 babies’ 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 is told it’s time for bed, he gets 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 in the morning. So what’s going on? Why doesn't my baby sleep well at night? 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’d have a hard time falling and staying asleep that night. But with babies, the opposite is almost always the case. What baby’s 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’re naturally prone to waking up, our bodies start secreting a hormone called cortisol. 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, but in the morning, it serves to help us start the day. 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 starts in the early evening and is increased when we are exposed to a beautiful, bright sun during the day. But as beautifully crafted as this system is, it’s not perfect and it’s easily confused. So going back to the scenario quoted above, here's what's going on: Baby’s taking great naps during the day, which is obviously wonderful, and he’s getting lots of time outdoors, so his body’s ready to crank out some melatonin when nighttime rolls around. So why that burst of energy occurs right before bedtime? When the baby's body starts producing melatonin, there is a narrow window of time in which the body waits for the baby to be going to sleep. If we miss the right moment in that window, the brain instinctively decides that something isn’t right, since the baby cannot sleep, for whatever reason. And if the baby has something stimulating or frightening him, the body adds an injection of cortisol to increase his chances of "survival". This is exactly what happens. Baby’s system starts secreting cortisol and, before you know it, he’s a little bit cranked. This often shows up in the form of playfulness and an abundance of energy. In short, baby missed the sleep window and now he’s going to have a hard time getting to sleep, and his behavior indicates anything but overtiredness and sleepiness. So what does all of this have to do with the dreaded 3:00am wake ups? Assuming your baby’s circadian rhythm is scheduling a 6:00am wake up, then his body starts to secrete cortisol three hours prior to that. At this point, the melatonin production has ceased for the night. So baby hits the end of a sleep cycle around 3:00am. He 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’s probably going to wake up fully, and have a really hard time getting back to sleep. Now, the big question you will have is: How do I fix this?
While there’s no quick fix for adjusting baby’s hormone production schedule, you can definitely help him out by getting him 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 him to bed. Simulating the sunset will help to cue that melatonin production so that it’s in full swing when he goes into his crib.
Avoid any TV, iPhone or tablet an hour before bedtime (if possible, 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 him on a predictable, consistent sleep schedule and teach him the skills he needs to fall asleep independently.
Because the truth 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, 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 him learn to recognize that he’s safe, in familiar territory, still tired, and capable of getting back to sleep on his own.
If you want to talk more about the subject and you want to have someone to hold your hand during the process of teaching healthy sleeping habits for your child, don’t hesitate to talk to me. I will be very happy to help you!