*Updated October 2023*
This is a question I get almost daily when I talk to parents about their baby’s sleep. They want to know why their baby wakes up 30-45 minutes after bedtime. It is a common challenge that many parents face with their little ones.
When your baby wakes up 30-45 minutes after bedtime it is commonly called a false start.
What is a False Start?
A false start is when your baby fell asleep at bedtime but was unable to connect their sleep cycles. So at the end of the sleep cycle they wake up. This wake up happens most commonly between 30-45 minutes after falling asleep because that is the average length of their sleep cycle. So around this time they are transitioning into their next sleep cycle. Sometimes it can be up to 60 minutes before the false start happens.
Why False Starts Are Challenging
Once a baby wakes up after their first sleep cycle, it can potentially be challenging to get back to sleep. The difficulty can depend on the reason that likely caused their wake up 30-45 minutes after bedtime. (More details on what causes these false starts below!) In all cases, the sleep pressure that was built up in your baby’s brain before they went to sleep has lowered, at least slightly. This makes it more challenging to get to sleep.
Sleep pressure is from our homeostatic sleep drive. The neurotransmitter adenosine builds up in our brain while we are awake. This increases the need to sleep. Adenosine then clears out of our brains as we sleep.[I] So after sleeping for a period of time, the need to sleep has decreased. When the drive to sleep is lower it makes it more difficult to fall back to sleep.
Why Your Baby Wakes Up 30-45 Minutes After Bedtime
Let’s talk about what causes false starts at bedtime. Here are 4 common causes that may be contributing to your baby’s false starts at bedtime.
Yes, when your baby is too tired it can cause them to wake up more. Overtiredness is when your baby misses their ideal sleep window. Their body compensates for it with stimulating hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which makes it harder to stay asleep. So one sleep cycle into bedtime when their sleep pressure has been lowered slightly, the stimulating hormones associated with overtiredness drive babies to wake up. Babies and toddlers are often fussy and have a hard time getting back to sleep if they woke up because of an overtired related false start.
When this happens it often appears that your baby is fighting sleep. It likely feels to them that their body is working against them in going to sleep because of those stimulating hormones that are pumping through their blood stream.
Adjusting wake windows to avoid overtiredness is helpful in resolving false starts caused by overtiredness.
Your Baby Isn’t Tired Enough at Bedtime (aka Undertiredness)
The opposite of overtiredness is undertiredness. This can also cause your baby to wake up 30-45 minutes after bedtime. Your baby could be undertired because not enough time passes between sleep periods to allow them to build up adequate sleep pressure before bedtime.
This is more common for younger babies. When babies wake up for a false start due to undertiredness it often feels like your baby just treated bedtime like a nap. When they wake up you may see they are very awake, alert and ready to party!
Again in this situation, age-appropriate wake windows helps resolve false starts because your baby is tired but not too tired or not tired enough to fall asleep.
Bedtime is Too Early
For young babies (younger than 4 months), as their circadian rhythms are starting to mature, a later bedtime often works best. Making bedtime too early is another situation where your baby seems to treat their 7PM bedtime like a nap.
If you’ve got a really young baby and are experiencing a lot of false starts, you may need to move bedtime a little later to 8-10PM. This then shifts around when your baby is around 4 months old, when their circadian rhythm becomes more mature.
Bedtime is Too Late
This is the opposite of the above. With a baby older than 4 months, a bedtime too late can not align as well with their circadian rhythm. Additionally, depending on what time your baby is getting up in the morning, they may not be getting enough sleep overall. This can also contribute to overtiredness.
Around 4 months is when a bedtime between 6:30-7:30 starts to work best, aligning with their natural circadian rhythm.
Inconsistent Schedule or Routine Throughout the Day
Having a very inconsistent schedule or very inconsistent wake windows can lead to your baby’s sleep wake cycles being out of whack. For example, it is unlikely that your 6 month old baby has a 1½ hour wake window before one nap and then a 4 hour wake window before the next nap. And then possibly something completely different the next day.
Basically, one piece of the puzzle being off can lead to another piece of the puzzle getting off track. For example, a too short wake window could lead to a short nap because your baby wasn’t tired enough. Then a too long wake window can lead to your baby being overtired going into a nap or bedtime. When their schedule is all over the place, it can create false starts from a combo of the factors above.
Your Baby is Too Drowsy or is Already Asleep When Put Down in Bed
During sleep and in between sleep cycles, our brains are still working. In between sleep cycles when our arousal threshold is low. People often wake up but typically these are very short awakenings and we don’t remember them. However, if your baby is put down too drowsy or already asleep they may fully wake up in between sleep cycles, realize the situation and circumstances present when they went to sleep are not present anymore. Maybe they aren’t nursing any longer, don’t have the pacifier or bottle in their mouth and they are no longer being held or rocked by a parent or caregiver.
If your baby doesn’t know how to get themselves back to sleep, they will call out for help to get back to sleep as they awake between sleep cycles at the 30-45-minute mark after sleep onset. This coupled with the other scheduling factors that can contribute to false starts makes it more likely for babies who are put down drowsy or asleep to wake up fully at this time.
Are False Starts Part of the 4 Month Sleep Regression?
False starts may become more frequent after babies go through their “4-month sleep regression.” This is because the 4 month sleep regression leads to more light sleep as your baby’s sleep matures. This light sleep, when our arousal threshold is lowest, means more opportunities to wake up.
Additionally, babies typically start to become more aware of their surroundings and what is going on to them and around them around 4 months. So your baby may be more likely to realize that the circumstances present when they originally went to sleep are no longer present. Then fully wake up needing this situation to be recreated so they can get back to sleep.
How to Respond to When Your Baby Wakes up 30-45 Minutes After Bedtime
Here are a few things you can do in the moment to get your baby back to sleep when they have a false start.
First, keep it calm, dark and boring. You want your baby to know that it is still night time and time to go back to sleep.
- Staying calm, especially when your baby is upset is one of the best days to help them come back to a place of calm.
- Keeping it dark tells our bodies’ circadian rhythm that it is time to sleep, so they can help your baby get back to sleep faster.
- Lastly, keep it boring. Meaning that you don’t want to have a lot of exciting interaction or playtime because this could send a confusing message about if it is time to be awake, engage and play or if it is time to sleep.
Second, stay consistent. If your baby is used to falling asleep independently, continue to give them the opportunity to do this. Of course, soothe when needed but try to soothe until your baby is calm rather than soothe until your baby is asleep. Allowing them the opportunity to get back to sleep independently will help avoid false starts in the future, too.
How to Stop False Starts at Bedtime
Adjust Wake Windows
Since both overtiredness and undertiredness can lead to false starts, let the average age-appropriate wake windows guide you on when to start looking for sleepy cues so that you can get your baby to bed during their optimal sleep window is helpful.
When your baby wakes up 30-45 minutes after bedtime, evaluate their mood and demeanor to direct you on which way to adjust your baby’s wake window. If your baby is fussy and you know they are tired but it feels like they are fighting sleep, you can lean towards your baby being overtired. If your baby wakes up happy and ready to play, you likely need to increase how long they are awake before bedtime.
Age-Appropriate Bedtime and Consistent Schedule
Keep a consistent bedtime. This means it should be within 30 minutes or less of the target time either way on a regular basis. If you have a very overtired baby you can put them to bed up to 60 minutes early (this should be temporary.) This allows you to help limit or prevent your baby from getting overtired and make up for missed daytime sleep.
Keeping a relatively consistent and age-appropriate schedule or routine throughout the day for your baby. This keeps their sleep regulated so they get the best sleep possible.
Sleep Training (AKA Helping Your Baby Learn How to Fall Asleep Independently)
Working on independent sleep can help resolve false starts. This is because if your baby falls asleep independently then nothing has changed in your baby’s environment when they transition between sleep cycles. They are more easily able to stay asleep, especially assuming the other factors contributing to false starts have been addressed.
(Keep in mind that when a false start is happening, this is NOT the time to first start to try to help your baby learn to fall asleep independently. These ‘in-the-moment’ decisions to start sleep training or encouraging independent sleep skills often do not go well. Starting with a plan and because you mean to start sleep training (and starting at bedtime) often goes much better for you and your baby!)
Independent Sleep Skills to Help When Your Baby Wakes up 30-45 Minutes After Bedtime
When your baby knows how to fall asleep on their own they can more easily handle false start wake ups. Because even if they are not in an ideal situation, they can still use their independent sleep skills to get themselves back to sleep.
There are lots of ways to tackle learning independent sleep and there is no one right way. Find a strategy or philosophy that fits your family’s dynamics, comfort levels and parenting style. Consistency is key in helping your baby learn a new skill so find a method you feel comfortable staying consistent with. (Don’t worry, if you don’t know where to start, we are here to help!)
Feeling Unsure About What to do to Help Your Baby Stop Waking Up 30-45 Minutes After Bedtime?
Helping families overcome this common sleep challenge for babies is something I do everyday with personalized step-by-step plans to get your little ones sleeping well. If you are struggling with false starts, your baby not sleeping independently or other sleep challenges, reach out to me today to learn more about how we can help get you and your family sleeping better in just a few weeks!