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Why does my baby wake up at 3am?!

This is a problem that most families have or will face at some point in their baby’s life!

I often hear: “Is it a developmental milestone? Maybe a leap? What about a regression? Probably teething, right? Could she be hungry? Maybe he’s too hot or too cold?”

The truth is it could be any of these. Or it could be a combination of them.

Babies are constantly going through so many changes that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s happening each time a wake up occurs. This is the part that will drive any parent crazy!

Imagine this scenario: a 10 month old child plays outside for plenty of time during the day. She’s exposed to the perfect amount of sunlight and fresh air! She takes a beautiful nap that she peacefully laid down for! Then, bedtime rolls around and she is bouncing off the walls! She’s a little ball of energy! Once we finally get her to sleep, she wakes up several times during the night and is ready to go at 5am.

The parents of this child the next morning: “What was that?! Did she wear the wrong PJs? Did she eat something different that gave her a belly ache? Is she teething? Maybe she is about to start talking more? Or… did she sleep too much during the day?”

Ahhh… too much daytime sleep. Wouldn’t that be the reasonable cause? I mean, if us adults took a long nap in the afternoon, we will most likely experience some trouble falling asleep and staying asleep that night.

But, almost always, the opposite is the reason why. Baby may need more sleep, not less.

Let’s talk a little more about the sleep hormones and how they interact with the body to better understand this.

About three hours before we are naturally prone to waking up, our bodies start secreting a hormone called cortisol. I’m sure you’ve heard about this hormone, usually in reference to stress. This is a stimulating hormone and it also produced in times of stress in order to elevate the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system. In the morning hours, it is produced to help get our bodies started for the day. Think of it as our body’s natural coffee.

On the contrary, melatonin is our evening glass of wine. Once the sun begins to go down, our body recognizes that the day is coming to an end and begins to produce this sleep-inducing hormone. Melatonin is important to help us get to sleep and stay asleep for the night.

The problem lies in the fact that this system does not always run perfectly, and it can be easily confused.

Let us go back to the above scenario…

Baby takes great naps during the day, has lots of outside time and her body is ready to crank out some melatonin when the sun goes down. So why is she ready to throw a party right before bed?

When baby’s body has begun the production of melatonin, the ideal time to get into bed to take advantage of the sleepy hormone is usually a narrow window.

When baby doesn’t go to sleep during this window the brain instinctively assumes that something isn’t right, baby can’t sleep and that it’s time to help protect her! It does this by producing cortisol! This will help baby stay awake to ward off any danger and increase her chances of survival (again, this is just the brain’s instinct).

Once the baby’s body begins secreting cortisol, baby is ready to go! This usually appears as playfulness and lots of energy.

So, in conclusion, baby missed her sleepy window, her body gave her a shot of coffee and now she’s going to have a tough time falling and/or staying asleep.

You’re probably wondering “ok, but why is she waking at 3am?!?”

Here’s what happens… if your baby’s circadian rhythm is a 6am wake up, then her body begins to secrete cortisol three hours before that. When this happens, the melatonin production has ended for the night. Once baby reaches the end of a sleep cycle and comes to a slight awakened state, her body has more stimulant (cortisol) and no sedative (melatonin). This combined with a lack of independent sleep skills can cause baby to wake up fully and have a really difficult time getting back to sleep.

How do we fix this?

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for changing the production of your baby’s hormones. There are a few things that you can do to help, though!

Get outside as much as possible! Natural sunlight results in more melatonin production at night! Which would explain why a day at the beach leads to the best night of sleep!

Make sure baby’s room is as dark as possible. Also, consider turning down the lights in the house about an hour prior to bedtime. This helps to keep baby calm and helps them get ready for bed!

Avoid screen time, about one to two hours before bed. This includes TV, tablet, iPhone, or anything else of the sort. These devices give off a ton of blue light which disrupts the production of melatonin. Not only that, but it will stimulate cortisol secretion at bedtime, which is when it is needed the least!

And, most importantly, the best way to help your baby learn to sleep peacefully through the night and follow a predictable nap schedule, is to teach her the skills needed to fall asleep without any sleep props or help from you.

The truth is night wake ups are natural. There is no way to prevent a baby from waking AT ALL during the night. As adults, we wake up periodically all throughout the night. The purpose of these wake ups is to briefly come to a more conscious state, check that our surroundings are the same as what we remember them to be, that it’s still nighttime and then we are able to go back to sleep. If we give the baby the ability to fall back to sleep independently, these natural night wakings will become just a quick “check in” and then your baby will be back to sleep within minutes, on her own.

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