Why does my baby wake up during those early morning hours?
This may be the most common question new parents ask. The truth is, your baby could be waking at 3 A.M. or 4 A.M. for many different reasons.
What you probably already know is that baby’s sleep is tremendously complicated. Their bodies and brains are rapidly changing and by the time they’ve got one issue under control, a new one pops up.
Some parents may think that their baby is getting too much sleep during the day and that’s why they’re not sleeping at night. But, the opposite is almost always the case. What baby’s actually need is 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 before we naturally wake up, our bodies start secreting a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a stimulating hormone, and is also produced in times of stress.
In the morning, it’s just to get us started. It’s like mother nature’s caffeine. In the evening, our bodies begin to produce a sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, which helps us get to sleep and stay asleep until morning.
As beautifully crafted as this system is, it’s not perfect and it’s easily confused. So, if your baby’s taking great naps during the day and getting lots of time outdoors, their body should be ready to produce 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 go to sleep.
When they miss the window, the brain instinctively decides that something’s wrong; that for whatever reason, baby can’t sleep. Then, baby’s system starts secreting cortisol and, before you know it, they’re all wound up.
So what does all of this have to do with the dreaded 3 A.M. wake ups? Well, assuming your baby’s body is scheduling a 6 A.M. wake-up, their body starts to secrete cortisol three hours prior to that. At this point, melatonin production has ceased. During those early morning hours, when you baby comes through a sleep cycle and gets to that “slightly awake” state, there is now a stimulant and no natural sedative. This, combined with a lack of independent sleep skills, means that baby’s probably going to wake-up and have a hard time getting back to sleep.
So now the question you’ve been waiting for: How do I fix it? While there’s no quick fix for adjusting baby’s hormone production, you can definitely help them by getting outdoors during the day as this helps with melatonin production at night. Ensure baby’s room is as dark as possible at night, and start turning down the lights at least an hour before bed. Simulating the sunset will help cue melatonin production. Avoid any screen time for that same hour before bedtime as these devices emit blue light, which stimulates cortisol production.
Above all, get your baby on a predictable, consistent sleep schedule and teach them the skills they need to fall asleep independently. You’ll never prevent nighttime wake ups, but you can safely and effectively help your baby learn to recognize that they’re safe, in familiar territory, still tired, and capable of getting back to sleep on their own.
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