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Why your baby won't settle in the middle of the night

You’ve managed to settle your baby for the night, you’ve put them down and hallelujah they’re still sleeping, but for how long?

For many new parents this is one of life’s biggest mysteries. Although it’s common and completely normal baby behaviour, the sleep-wake cycle can spiral out of control and become distressing and exhausting for both you and your baby.


It can start to feel like the more you try to help your baby, the more challenging the situation becomes and this reinforces the belief that you’re not doing your job properly as a parent.


This could not be further from the truth.


There are two biological processes that directly impact sleep, and biological processes are not in your control. However, understanding the science behind them can give you all the knowledge and empowerment you need to reclaim that all important restful and restorative sleep. 

The science behind the sleep/wake phenomenon


The two processes that impact sleep:


• The homeostatic drive

• The circadian clock


Both play an essential part of sleep in babies - and adults.


What you’re about to learn is that sleep isn’t automatically triggered by simply “engaging in calm activities after dinner - and dimming the light.”


Whilst this is a good thing to practice, it isn’t the only answer and there’s a lot more to it! 


Let’s understand the biology behind your baby’s mystery sleep pattern.


The homeostatic drive and the circadian clock are the two processes that work together and balance each other out. The homeostatic drive is driving us to sleep - and the circadian process is keeping us awake.


Think about it, as adults, we’re aware of this on a physical level. You know that feeling of the homeostatic drive coming into play, say after lunch - or at 3pm when you start reaching for the sugary snack to get through the last few hours of work. Yet in the evening you might feel wide awake - like you’ve got a “second wind” - that’s the circadian process counteracting the homeostatic drive and promoting wakefulness.


The homeostatic sleep drive increases throughout the day and the purpose of this process is to essentially remind the body to sleep after a certain time. It works pretty intuitively - the longer you’re awake, the stronger the desire to sleep.


What also comes to play is the longer we’ve been asleep the more likely we are to wake.


The circadian clock and your baby


The circadian clock is the body’s built in clock and it controls the timing of sleep. It is independent of sleep and wakefulness - and instead it’s coordinated with day and night or more importantly, light and dark.


So, now you can explain those moments when you’ve had a long nap, but you’re still tired. A long nap at the “wrong” time means that the circadian cycle is inefficient.


The circadian clock is also affected by the hormones, cortisol and melatonin. Cortisol is what helps keep us awake - and melatonin increases throughout the day - making us feel sleepy. You may have heard of melatonin referred to as “the sleep hormone”.


In babies, the circadian clock begins to emerge between 12-16 weeks. Unlike adults where the circadian has a 24 hour clock, babies have a much shorter rhythm. This explains why they wake, sleep and feed frequently. It’s biology!


So, what can you do to help your baby sleep?




• The circadian clock begins to emerge between 3-4 months.

• The circadian clock coordinates with day/night and light/dark. Introduce as much natural light as possible during the day - and at night use black out blinds.

• Maintain a regular routine - this will regulate hormone production. The two we need for sleep are cortisol and melatonin.

• As part of the regular nighttime routine, create a calm atmosphere - and dim the lights. This will help produce melatonin.

• The longer your baby is awake and overtired, the less likely he/she is to fall asleep for longer periods of time.


Finally, remember to think about your own circadian clock - the need for light and the need for dark. As temping as it can be to use our phones and screens of an evening - quiet time, in dim light or reading a book will help produce that melatonin that’s just as important for your sleep as it is your baby.


If you’d like to learn more or chat about your little one’s sleep, please get in touch for a no-obligation initial consultation.


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