Why Does My Baby Wake in the Middle of the Night?

Look on any Facebook mommy group and you will find that this is the single most common question new parents ask.

Is it a developmental milestone? Teething? A regression? Am I doing something wrong?  Should I use a white noise machine? Am I letting baby nap too long in the day, or not following the correct sleep schedule? Maybe my baby is hungry, hot or cold?

Well, the truth is that it could be any of those things, and it could be a combination of several of them. As you already know, baby’s sleep is tremendously complicated. Their bodies and brains are rapidly going through significant changes, through developmental milestones, and by the time they have got one issue under control, a new one comes up to take its place.

There are factors you can control, obviously. If it is too hot in baby’s room, you can turn up the AC or turn a fan on.  If baby seems to have teething discomforts, a little Children’s Tylenol can often help, at least temporarily.

But those are the simple fixes that you can figure out on your own most of the time. The reason most people have such a challenging time with their babies’ sleep despite all the information that’s so readily available online, from friends, and family is because of problems that aren’t so simple, and don’t have obvious solutions.

How hard could it be?  Imagine this scenerio: An 18 month old spends the daytime playing outside, gets plenty of fresh air and sunlight and takes long, restful naps.  However, when bedtime rolls around, suddenly they’re full of energy and want to play. When they’re taken to bed, they get upset and bedtime becomes a battle. Once they do finally get to sleep, they wake up several times at night and often wake before 5:30 in the morning.

So what’s the deal with bedtime? Is baby getting sleeping too much during the day? That would be the reasonable assumption, for sure. After all, if adults took 3 hour naps in the afternoon, there’s a good chance it would be difficult to fall and stay asleep all night. But 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 counter-intuitive 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, and if you’ve 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 (in case of any emergencies) but in the morning, it’s just trying to get us started. 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 earlier in the evening when we awaken to some nice, bright sunlight.  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’s what’s happening…

Baby’s taking great naps during the day, which is obviously wonderful, and she’s getting lots of time outdoors, so her body’s ready to crank out some melatonin when nighttime rolls around. So what’s with that burst of energy right before bedtime?

When baby’s body has begun producing melatonin, there’s a narrow window of time when the body expects baby to be going to sleep. After all, she’s a baby. What’s she got to stay awake for? She doesn’t watch Game of Thrones and she hasn’t discovered Snapchat yet.

The brain instinctively decides that something isn’t right; that for whatever reason, baby can’t sleep, and of course, adds a shot of cortisol to help liven the bedtime after party.

So that’s exactly what it 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. In short, baby missed the window and now she’s going to have a hard time getting to sleep, but her behavior indicates anything but sleepiness.

So what does all of this have to do with the horrible 3 A.M. wake ups?

Here’s what happens… Assuming your baby’s circadian rhythm is scheduling a 6 A.M. wake up, then her body starts to secrete cortisol three hours prior to that. At this point, the melatonin production has stalled for the night. So baby hits the end of a sleep cycle around 3:00am. 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’s probably going to wake up fully, and have a really hard time getting back to sleep.

So now for the big question you’ve probably been hoping I might have an answer for. How do I fix it?

While there’s 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 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 as well as turning down the lights in the house at least an hour before you put her to bed. During the summer when it is still light outside at 8pm, simulating the sunset will help to cue that melatonin production so that it’s 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. (Preferably 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.

Most importantly, 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.

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 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 my “5 Tips to Get Your Baby Sleeping Through the Night” guide.

Sleep well!