When your little one decides that 3 a.m is the perfect time to wake you up, it can leave you stumbling through the darkened hallways of parenthood, searching for answers and a way to reclaim those precious hours of sleep. But once you are fully awakened you may lie in bed wondering is it a developmental milestone? A regression? Are they getting too much sleep during the day, or not enough? Or maybe they’re hungry.

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 is tremendously complicated. As their bodies and brains undergo rapid and substantial changes, just when they seem to have one challenge mastered, another arises to replace it. While simple solutions may work well for some, the reason many parents struggle with their babies’ sleep lies in more complex issues that lack straightforward and apparent solutions.

Something that many people aren’t aware of is that about three hours prior to when we’re naturally prone to waking up, our bodies start secreting a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, a stimulating hormone, is typically produced during times of stress to increase the heart rate and activate the nervous system (fight or flight). However, in the morning, its role is simply to kick-start our day—a natural equivalent to 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 recognise 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. This aids in falling asleep and maintaining rest until the morning, restarting the cycle. Melatonin production is heightened and initiates earlier in the evening when we bask in the glow of bright sunlight upon awakening. Yet, as finely tuned as this system may be, it is not flawless and can be easily disrupted.

This ties in seamlessly with infants experiencing a surge of energy just before bedtime. Once the baby’s body initiates melatonin production, there’s a brief timeframe when the body anticipates the baby to be settling down for sleep. If the baby isn’t sleeping during this window the brain may instinctively decide that something isn’t right; that for whatever reason, baby can’t sleep, (probably because, y’know, bears.) In response, if there’s a threat to escape from, introducing a boost of cortisol should enhance the chances of survival. That’s precisely what occurs: the baby’s system releases cortisol, and suddenly, they become more lively. This often manifests as playfulness and heightened energy levels. In summary, the baby misses the sleep window, making it challenging to drift off, yet the baby’s behaviour suggests anything but drowsiness.

So what does all of this have to do with the dreaded 3 A.M. wake ups? Here’s what happens… Assuming your baby’s circadian rhythm is scheduling a 6 A.M. wake up, then the body starts to secrete cortisol three hours prior to that. At this point, the melatonin production has ceased for the night. As the baby reaches the conclusion of a sleep cycle around 3:00, they enter a “slightly awake” state, marked by a presence of natural stimulants and an absence of natural sedatives. Coupled with a lack of independent sleep skills, it’s likely that the baby will fully wake up and encounter considerable difficulty returning to sleep. So, how do we fix it?

Although there’s no swift solution for altering baby’s hormone production schedule, you can assist by spending time outdoors during the day. Exposure to natural light during the day significantly promotes melatonin production at night. At night-time, ensure that baby’s room is as dark as you can get it, and start turning down the lights in the house at least one hour before you put them to bed. This will help to cue that melatonin production so that it’s in full swing when going into the cot. Avoid screen time of any kind for that same hour before bedtime (preferably even longer). 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 is to get them on a predictable, consistent sleep schedule and teach them the skills they need to fall asleep independently. Because the truth is that you’re never going to prevent night-time 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, realise where we are, see that it’s still night-time, and go right back to sleep. Most of the time we don’t even remember it the next morning.

See Previous Blog: Navigating the 4-Month Sleep Regression