Waking in the night?

This is probably one of the things I get asked about most by both parents and adults who are struggling with their own sleep.  But the science often applies to both (not surprisingly as little people are…well, little people!).  So, I’m going to use children as an example, but if you’re curious regarding your own sleep read on, it might give you food for thought.


Kids waking in the night could be, depending on who you talk to or which website you look at,blamed on a regression, developmental milestone, hungry etc etc. Honestly, it could well be any of those or many other reasons (yeah, sorry, not all that helpful, but stay with me!).  And that’s because actually little ones don’t come with an instruction manual (o, if only they did!), and of course they’re all completely unique!  Which is great, except when it’s not.

They’re growing at such a rapid rate, not just their little bodies but their brains too, that they get over one hurdle only for another one to raise its ugly head!

Obviously it’s not all doom and gloom.  There’s some simple fixes – if they’re too hot, pop a fan on in their room.  Too cold?  Pop an extra layer of clothes on them.  And of course if it’s teething that’s the problem, a dose of calpol or teething granules could be what you’re after.

Of course, those are the simple wins, the ones that you’ve probably already thought of,  What about the not so obvious curve balls that, understandably, disrupt the status quo?

I’m thinking an example could be useful, so I’m going to ask you to imagine an 18 month old bundle of joy.  They get plenty of exercise during the day (particularly in the morning), they have amazing naps each and every day, BUT, when bedtime rolls around they’re manic!  Like a Tazmanian devil running around and bedtime becomes a huge battle! Argh!  I’m sure we’ve all been there. Then, they keep waking in the night and wake around the time you used to be heading home from the nightclub pre-kids.  Not fun!  It’s exhausting for all concerned.

So what’s happening?  You’d be forgiven for thinking they’re maybe just getting too much sleep, which is a reasonable assumption to make.  After all, as grown ups, we’d struggle to get to sleep at a reasonable time if we have 2+ hours sleep during the day.

But interestingly, it’s often the opposite.  Their behaviour is more likely to be to do with over-tiredness than under-tiredness (just let that sink in for a tick).

Yup, sounds odd doesn’t it.  Let me explain a little more about sleep in general.

We’ll all remember from biology classes at school that we have various hormones surging through our bodies at any one time (although oestrogen and testosterone are probably the ones we initially think of when someone mentions hormones).  But actually, there’s two main hormones that play a large role in our sleep (even as adults), which are melatonin and cortisol.  You could think of melatonin (the sleepy one) as a relaxing evening glass of wine, and cortisol (also our primary stress hormones) as your caffeine fix.  They cycle through our system throughout the day, with one (usually) at its peak as the other is at its lowest.  

Our bodies are incredibly clever, but like anything clever, it can get a bit confused.  Now we have a little grasp on the hormones, let’s look again at the example above.

Looks like this little one is doing everything right during the day (or rather, the parents are enabling everything perfectly during the day), including lots of outside time to help regulate their melatonin levels.  So why oh why are they suddenly so hyper just before bed?

Well, this little one’s body has been ramping up it’s melatonin production all day ready for a restful night of slumber, BUT, somehow, the window of opportunity has been missed to get that baby down in their cot when their body is expecting it.  So what does it do?  It figures there’s something amiss and gives a shot of cortisol instead, just in case there’s a sabre toothed tiger on the loose or something that they need to run away from (not that I’ve ever seen one roaming the streets of suburban London where I live, but you never know…).  So with an unexpected dose of cortisol cursing through their veins, they can appear pretty wired and quite frankly anything but tired!

But Sam, I hear you say, you’re not asking about bedtime, what the heck has that got to do with the waking up in the middle of the night? Well, actually, that unexpected rise in cortisol has played havoc with how the hormones were expecting to do their merry little dance overnight.  Cortisol should be at its lowest in the middle of the night and starting to increase 2-3 hours before their normal wake up time to help jolt them awake, but if this little person has had an extra dose, it won’t be as low as it should be.  This additional cortisol then increases light sleep and night wakings throughout the night.  This, combined with a possible 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.

Of course, you’ve read this far, and are probably hoping I have a magic answer how to help overcome this?

Well, I wish there was one simple answer, but, often it’s not always that easy (sorry!). There’s a few things you can do that combined should go a long way to helping though.  Again, these are aimed at children, but if you’re an adult having difficulties with waking during the night, could be worth thinking about these factors too:

  • Get your small person outside and in the daylight as much as possible (especially in the mornings) as this is a big factor in regulating our melatonin production.
  • Try to make sure their bedroom is as dark as possible whatever the time of night.  And, if possible, start to dim the lights about an hour before bed as this simulates sunset.
  • Bedtime isn’t screen time – Try to avoid screens (TV, mobiles, tablets etc etc) for at least the hour before bed (obviously this is more relevant for older kids as well as adults!), as the blue light from screens simulates daylight, so confuses our hormonal response again.
  • Above all, sticking to a regular routine so their body clock (or circadian rhythm) knows exactly what to expect and when will work wonders.

It’s also worth remembering that waking up in the night is actually completely normal, we all do it regardless of our age, as that’s how we naturally cycle through the different stages of sleep. More often than not for those of us who class ourselves as good sleepers we don’t remember anything about it because we have the skills and strategies to get ourselves back off to the land of nod without too much difficulty (usually).  So we actually can’t prevent anyone from waking in the night, but, what we can do is help minimise the amount of time they’re actually awake for, whether that’s by helping to encourage independent sleep skills for little ones, or looking at what is keeping us awake as adults.  Of course, I’m always available to have a chat if you’d like to find out more!

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