The Peculiar 4:00am Wake-Up

The Peculiar 4:00am Wake-Up

This is a question that I get time and time again from exhausted parents. I have been there too, having my baby or toddler wake me up at this seemingly peculiar time of morning, eager and ready to begin their day. I remember that feeling so well.

I remember begging each of my babies, “It’s still night time. Go to sleep please.” to no avail. If we are to have any chance of changing someone else’s behaviour, we first need to understand all the possible contributing factors to that with which we wish to change.

In researching the peculiar 4:00am wake-up, I learned that there are some interesting theories about why people at any age would habitually wake at this time.

  • Chinese medicine practitioners believe that wake times are linked to various areas of the body, and that habitually waking at 4:00 is linked to the lungs and immune system.  And if you find yourself waking regularly at 4:00, it could also indicate you are grieving something.

  • Have you ever been visited by a deceased relative at the wee hours of the morning?  “The Connection Hour” is what some spiritual folks have named the time between 2am-4am, as it is what they believe to be the time at which spiritual realm and energy beings can more easily connect to the living. 
  • The Wall Street Journal published a story on 4:00am touted as “the most productive time of day”.  Many successful entrepreneurs such as Apple CEO have been setting their alarm clocks for as early as 3:45am, and saying it is their key to success!  One journalist investigated this claim, and after the experiment decided to begin setting her alarm hours earlier for the increased calm, centeredness and productivity it gave her.
  • The final theory I have is something I touched on a bit in a past post, Sleep: A Brief History.Pre-industrial revolution, humans woke up much earlier to tend to their farms and chore.  Cows are much easier to manage in the wee hours, and in order to get them milked and have the milk pasteurized for the next day, 4am is a logical time for many still to wake up.  Maybe our babies have not yet evolved to understand that humans of today like to wake up a few hours later?
In terms of infants and toddlers, I have my own theories as to why they would wake at 4am:
  • Baby got enough sleep already

  • Baby may be dropping a nap (skipping a nap might mean early bedtime and an early rise)
  • Baby may be missing you (from being at daycare or just from day-to-day busy-ness) and learned that this is a time they can catch-up with you
  • Maybe the bedroom set up is not as restful as it could be, or the logistics are that that by the time you get to the baby, she is already wide awake.
  • Maybe there is stress in the home that baby is reacting to, like a recent change (move, or starting daycare)
  • Developmental progressions could be playing a role (increased independence equates to increased separation distress as natures balancing act)
  • 4am is a very light phase of sleep and babies and toddlers are wired to seek help if anything is awry. If you are not beside them, it is natural for them to ask for you.
Why is this even an issue?

I think it really boils down to control and autonomy. Just like the headstrong toddler resists getting her diaper change, we resist someone else dictating our wake-up time.

We feel like if only she will _______ (fill in the blank), we can be well again. The truth is that happiness is rarely found in another’s behaviour, but always within our own depiction of the cards we have been dealt.

Now that we have pondered all of the reasons behind WHY your baby or toddler is waking at 4:00am, I am wondering if you might agree with my conclusion: It is easier to control ourselves, than to change the behaviour of another.

Here is what I would do (and have done)
  • Sleep near baby for quicker comfort
  • Ensure ample attention during the day (if you have to be apart, try to ensure other tasks like dinner prep are quick and easy so that you can connect as much as possible)
  • Get outside every day, get moving (exercise for you and your little one)
  • De-clutter (your mind and your bedroom), as overstimulation might have something to do with the wakefulness in your home.
  • Get to bed earlier. Yes, you want “me-time” or “couple time”, but it you are dealing with 4:00am wake ups, make like a farmer and call 8:00 your bedtime, just for a little while. It won’t last forever, I promise.
  • Screens off as much as possible use natural sun light as much as you can to help regulate circadian rhythms.
  • FUEL your body and brain with that which will really nourish you. Make this non-negotiable! It is in my opinion the most effective way to manage fractured sleep.
  • Watch your language/framing of the situation, and ask yourself, “What am I pretending not to see?” It is easy, in a way to look at sleep in isolation. It’s much more challenging, but more successful to look at all the contributing factors to your woes.
So, in summary, “How can I get her to sleep in past 4:00am?”

Maybe you CAN’T.

Or, maybe one of the ideas in this blog will either help her to sleep later, or help you feel better despite the preposterous wake time. Maybe this time in your life is an opportunity for perspective reframing, radical self-care and leaning on your community. We are here for you!

It is so hard sometimes, I know! I am not trying to be dismissive, I am totally not immune from uttering, “Please go back to sleep!” In fact I might have asked my toddler this just this morning, haha!

I have noticed that becoming a parent is a lesson in letting go. I feel as children grow up, they continue to teach us this in more challenging ways--you know the saying, “Small people, small problems.” The sooner we honour their journey, and take ownership on our own, the better we will fare.

This is just a season, a major change in your life to best be embraced for all the lessens contained within.

Are you ready for a different approach?

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