The term ‘false starts at bedtime’ may be new to you however you may have encountered them or experience them regularly with your baby. This blog details the 5 common contributors to baby waking within an hour of going to sleep at night and what you can do about it.
What is a false start?
A false start at bedtime is when your baby most commonly wakes around 30-50 minutes after their initial bedtime settle, ‘Surprise I’m not really down for the night!’.
As parents we can mistake this as a “final nap” which is discussed below, but most commonly it is linked to 2 common themes – your baby or toddler’s day sleep structure and how they are falling asleep initially.
As melatonin (our sleep hormone) pumps through the body from 6:00pm to midnight, the early to late evening should be your baby’s deepest and most restorative sleep for the night, even if the rest of the night gets harder.
Waking in the first part of the night has a number of common causes and we will troubleshoot these below.
5 Reasons false starts occur at bedtime
1) Baby is under 2-3 months
Your baby treats the 7:00-8:00pm bedtime as a final power nap. Biologically younger babies will often have a later bedtime closer to 8:00-10:00pm. If a late power nap is followed by a nice long stretch of sleep (3-4 hours +) then the later bedtime is currently working for them.
After their late power nap, your baby can be up for another stretch of awake time and then commence their bedtime routine a little later. You’ll notice that as their awake times lengthen in the following weeks to months their sleep structure will naturally bring bedtime back towards 6:00-7:00pm.
Expert tip: Did you know our Circadian Rhythm (the body’s internal body clock) doesn’t start to develop until closer to 8-12 weeks of age. This is why achieving a predictable routine can be difficult in young babies and why I recommend sleep based on awake times as your best guide.
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2) Baby’s last awake window in the day needs tweaking
If your baby is overtired or under tired in the evening this can play a role in false starts at bedtime.
Overtired vs under tired is such a fine balance parents try their best to keep in check. Here’s some signs to look out for.
Why do false starts occur in overtired babies?
We know overtired babies wake frequently overnight and this is due to their cortisol level being raised and subsequently releasing adrenaline. Adrenaline triggers the fight or flight pattern and makes it not only hard to fall asleep, but also stay asleep.
Overtired signs in a baby include:
- Late tired cues for sleep
- Longer than average awake times
- Frantic or distressed crying
- Rigid and stiff body or pushing away
- Waking after 20-30 minutes upset and tired
Why do false starts occur in under tired babies?
On the opposite side, an under tired baby is tired for a short nap but not tired enough for a longer sleep. Their sleep pressure isn’t high enough and causes them to wake earlier than anticipated from a nap or at bedtime.
Under tired signs in a baby include:
- No tired cues before sleep
- Shorter than average awake times
- Fights nap time and is happy, alert and playful
- Wakes after a full sleep cycle (around an hour) happy, alert and playful
Let’s consider age appropriate final awake windows (the awake time at the end of the day) for different baby age groups.
Note: These are not absolute and can be tweaked to your individual baby +/- 15-30 minutes.
- 4 – 8 weeks – 40 – 75 minutes
- 8 – 12 weeks – 75 – 90 minutes
- 3 – 4 months – 1.5 – 2 hours
- 5 – 6 months – 2 – 2.5 hours
- 7 – 10 months – 3 – 3.5 hours
- 11 – 15 months – 3.5 – 4 hours
- 15/18 months – 2.5 years – 4.5 – 5.5 hours
Find out more about the sleep routines I recommend with my comprehensive Nap Routine Guide – 35 pages of sleep routines from 6 weeks to 4 years
3) Zoning out and resetting
Bub gets too drowsy during their final milk feed at the breast or bottle and takes a quick micro nap. This could be as little as a few minutes, but can often be enough to dump their tired tank and give them a second wind.
Have you ever fallen asleep watching T.V in an ad break, then woken and taken yourself to bed as you’re obviously tired, only to then stay awake for ages and should have just got up and finished watching your show anyway?
This is similar for babies who have a second wind after their power nap and now they have another 30-60 minutes of energy to resist sleep. This can happen in the lead up to sleep or with babies waking after their first sleep cycle at night.
Expert tip: Move your final milk feed to earlier in the bedtime routine and focus on this being a wide awake feed, ideally 20-30 minutes before bedtime.
If your little one is getting a second wind of energy, try using gentle engagement to keep them alert.
You may look to create a bedtime routine that includes:
- Milk feed
- Sleeping bag
- White noise
- Lights off
- Cuddles and sleep phrase
- Settle into the cot calm and awake
4) Start of the day
Is your little one creating a predictable 24 hour rhythm for sleep?
Most babies will biologically rise and fall with the sun meaning a 7:00pm-7:00am schedule is ideal. This can naturally move a little earlier or later depending on your family but it is easiest to explain on a standard 7-7 schedule.
This also aligns with our bodies biological sleep rhythms where we have a hormone and temperature dip to encourage sleep rhythms throughout the day.
Babies and toddlers typically need a 12-13 hour day to rebuild sleep pressure for the right balance across a 24 hour rhythm. This provides the best opportunity to achieve 11-12 hours sleep overnight (broken for age appropriate feeds). So if they sleep in, we want to ensure they then have sufficient time to rebuild sleep pressure for the night ahead.
Expert tip: To encourage night sleep consolidation, wake your baby at a predictable time each morning (within 30 minutes), even if sleep has been difficult overnight.
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5) How did your baby fall asleep initially?
When you stepped out of the room was your baby drifting off? Were they drowsy? almost asleep? or completely asleep? After 4-6 months of age we go through a permanent neurological change in sleeping patterns known as the 4 month sleep regression. For all things 4 Month Sleep Regression check out our detailed blog providing tips on what to do to promote healthy sleep habits. Read it now.
Babies surface between sleep cycles around 45-60 minutes and 2-4 hourly overnight. As your baby reaches the end of their sleep cycle, they are likely to wake and become upset and frustrated if the circumstances have changed from when they initially fell asleep.
What exactly does this mean and why does this occur? In short, they’re likely missing an external sleep association. Learn all about sleep associations in the blog What Are Sleep Associations. This could be rocking in mum or dad’s arms, no longer being at the breast or their dummy has fallen out and they can’t find and replace it independently. This is why we encourage falling asleep independently as the first priority to developing long-term healthy sleep foundations.
Want to learn more about developing healthy sleep foundations? Let’s chat about working 1-1 to provide you with tailored advice and support for your individual family. View Packages.
Looking for more information on nap routines and daily sleep structure with realistic expectations from 6 weeks through to 4 years? Check out the blog Baby Nap Routine Tips And Guidance.