The most common question new parents ask is “Why does my baby wake at night?”.

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, maybe they just need a cuddle. We come up with so many reasons for night wakings!

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 a baby’s sleep is extremely complicated.

Their bodies and brains are rapidly going through significant changes and when you think you finally have everything sorted out, the baby comes up with a new issue or a change to their schedule.

Obviously, there are factors you can control. If the baby’s too hot, you can turn down the air-con or put a fan in the room. If they’re teething, a bit of Nurofen/Panadol can offer that temporary relief. But these are the simple and quick fixes.

The reason most people have such a tough time with their babies’ sleep is because of problems that aren’t so simple and don’t have quick solutions.

Imagine this scenario: An 18-month-old child gets plenty of fresh air and sunlight during the day and goes down easily for long naps, but when bedtime rolls around suddenly they’re full of energy and want to play. When they’re told it’s time for bed, they get upset and bedtime becomes a battle. Once they do finally get to sleep, they wake up several times at night and never sleep past 5:30 in the morning. How exhausting!!

So, what’s going on? The reasonable assumption would be that this child is getting too much day sleep. After all, if we 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 the opposite is almost always the case. What the baby’s demonstrating in this scenario is actually a need for more sleep, not less. #Mindblown!

To understand this counterintuitive reasoning, let me explain 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 have a little twitch.

Cortisol is a stimulating hormone and is also produced in times of stress to elevate the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system but in the morning, it’s just trying to get us started. Think of it as Mother Nature’s big cup of coffee.

Now, if cortisol is our morning cup of coffee, melatonin is our evening glass (or glasses) 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 the warm, 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 with the 18-month-old, here’s what’s happening.

Baby’s taking great naps during the day, which is obviously great, and they are getting lots of time outdoors, so their body’s ready to crank out some melatonin when night time comes. So why the burst of energy right before bedtime?

When a baby’s body has begun producing melatonin, there’s a narrow window of time when the body expects to be going to sleep. Why would they need to stay awake? 18-month old’s don’t watch The Bachelor and haven’t discovered mindless social media scrolling yet.

The brain instinctively decides that something isn’t right; that for whatever reason, the baby can’t sleep (Monsters under the bed suddenly?). So, a mix of not being put to bed and possible monsters we add a shot of cortisol to help increase the chances of survival.

Baby’s system starts secreting cortisol and, before you know it, they are hyperactive, and we are dealing with a “second wind”. This often shows up in the form of playfulness and an abundance of energy. In short, the baby missed the window and now they are going to have a hard time getting to sleep and the behaviour indicates anything but sleepiness.

Now, what does all of this have to do with the dreaded overnight wake-ups? Here’s what happens, assuming your baby’s circadian rhythm is scheduling a 6am wake-up, then their body starts to secrete cortisol three hours prior to that. At this point, the melatonin production has ceased for the night. So, if a baby hits the end of a sleep cycle around 3am they get 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 the baby’s probably going to wake up fully and have a really hard time getting back to sleep. Now for the big question – how do you fix it?

Sadly, there’s no quick fix for adjusting baby’s hormone production schedule (please don’t medicate your child with melatonin, the studies for use in children are so limited!). But you can help them out by getting them 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 them to bed. Dim light will help to cue that melatonin production so that it’s in full swing when they go to bed.

Avoid any TV or screen time of any kind for that same hour before bedtime. (Preferably even longer) as these devices emit blue light which will stimulate cortisol production right when you’re trying to avoid it. Above all, the number one way to help your baby sleep through the night is to get them on a predictable, consistent sleep schedule and teach them the skills they need to fall asleep independently.

To be very honest, 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, realize 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. So although we can’t prevent baby from waking up at night, we can safely and effectively help them learn to recognize that they are safe, in their cot and comforting bedroom, they are still tired and capable of getting back to sleep on their own.

For help in teaching your child to sleep independently, contact me to discuss a sleep support package! And although I know I made a joke of it, you should always check and make sure that baby’s room is absolutely, positively, 100% free of monsters! Waking up to a monster under the bed will definitely set your baby’s sleep habits back immeasurably.