Cortisol, what is it and why is it important? 

Cortisol is a stress hormone that has many purposes within our bodies.  It wakes us up in the morning, it gives us a second wind if we stay up too late and it is one of our “fight or flight” hormones. It is affected by positive stress (such as exercising or positive excitement) as well as negative stress.  

As a new mama, understanding cortisol in your baby is important because once you understand what cortisol is doing you will then gain some understanding into your baby’s behaviors around sleep.

A baby’s cortisol levels can become raised after prolonged crying, being in a situation that is stressful or new to them as well as when a baby becomes sleep deprived.  Typically a baby becomes sleep deprived after missing their sleep window. While short-term sleep deprivation is not going to do harm to a baby’s body, long-term sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on both mom and baby.

Our bodies weren’t meant to be bathed in cortisol for months on end. Many baby’s (and mom’s)  that I see are chronically sleep-deprived and therefore living on a day-to-day basis with elevated cortisol levels. Many of them have lived for months never getting more than a few hours of sleep at any given time.  

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine defines chronic sleep deprivation as curtailed sleep that persists for 3 months or longer. It defines chronic sleep deficiency or insufficient sleep as ongoing sleep deprivation or poor sleep that occurs because of sleep fragmentations or other disruptions.

Now obviously there is a big difference between a baby that is 3-4 months old waking once per night needing a feed and a baby that is still waking every 3-4 hours at that age or older. One feed per night can be manageable when your baby is on his way to sleeping through the night. But the older baby who has not learned independent sleep and needs mom to feed or soothe every time they go through a sleep cycle, this is what causes chronic sleep deprivation and leads to elevated cortisol in both mom and baby.

The bottom line is that whether you have a baby or not chronic sleep deprivation is not good for anyone. When you live for months or years with fragmented sleep the only thing keeping you going is cortisol and adrenaline. That’s what allows you to function, which of course is a good thing, however needing it to function long-term turns into NOT a good thing real quick. There is a point where our bodies have had enough and according to the American Academy of sleep medicine that point is roughly 3 months. That’s about where our bodies start to hit a wall and if sleep deprivation continues things start to unravel. Not just our physical health but our mental and emotional health as well as our relationships.

I remember this well when I was having babies. I remember feeling like I could handle the fragmented sleep for about 3 months but once my babies got to the 3-month mark I remember feeling a more desperate need for sleep. I needed the night feeds to come to an end for all of us. And thankfully they did….., but that was because I was putting in a concerted amount of effort during the day to establish a sleep foundation. This gave me the peace of knowing that by the time my babies were roughly 3 months old sleeping through the night was on the horizon. And thankfully they all slept through at just about the 3-month mark. One of them even earlier. This is always SUCH a HUGE milestone in the life of any parent. It’s the point where you get to start feeling “normal” again! Hallelujah! It always feels quite miraculous when it ACTUALLY happens!

So back to how cortisol affects your baby. This elevated cortisol keeps baby’s from being able to go to sleep easily or stay asleep for extended periods. A few common symptoms of elevated cortisol is prolonged crying, inability to go to sleep, prolonged daytime or nighttime wakefulness and waking up again a short time later once sleep has finally happened.  

Your baby’s is essentially “wired” and even though he is in desperate need of sleep his body is  “fighting sleep”.  This becomes extremely burdensome to moms and can lead to many other health problems such as postpartum depression.

I hear moms all the time tell me they are so sleep deprived that they can’t even sleep anymore.   Cortisol is responsible for that.  When I hear moms tell me that their young baby stays awake for hours at a time and just WON’T go to sleep I know unfortunately what is happening.

So how do you get a baby to go to sleep once they are overtired and cortisol is elevated?

In order for a baby to go to sleep at that point he typically is going to fuss/cry whether thats in your arms or in the crib for a few minutes is up to you. The first thing mom needs to do is to remove all stimulation by taking baby to a darkened room, preferably the nursery, and turn on some white noise. If your baby is young getting him swaddled can also help. Any stimulation( lights, screens, noise etc.) just makes an overtired baby even more overstimulated.

Once your baby has reached the point of overtired/overstimulated you may have to lay him down for some short intervals to give yourself a break and let him get his cries out, this is usually effective as it helps him to get that wired energy out. You may then have to hold him to get him into a deep sleep or hold him for the duration of one nap. Sometimes this is whats necessary if baby is past the point of no return and just cant get to sleep on his own. Getting one good nap under his belt (even if its a contact nap) can many times break the overtired cycle so you can begin again. Remember keep wake windows short ( for your baby’s age) for the next wake cycle. Stay on top of sleepy signs and use the clock as a guide to help you get your baby down for their next nap before they become overtired. Keeping babies up too long is a common mistake among new parents. Its hard to believe that their young baby can only be comfortably awake for an hour (or sometimes less!) before they need to sleep again. But its true. Young babies should have short periods of wakefulness followed by a 1-2 hour nap.

Once you realize you have an overtired baby on your hands the sooner you make sleep a priority the better.  The longer you spend trying to “put your baby to sleep” by bouncing, rocking, or holding, the longer you will be delaying the sleep process and the more overtired your baby will become.  

I talk to MANY moms that say they spend HOURS trying to get their baby to sleep! This can become brutal when you are chained to having to do this day after day. That is why it is so important to establish healthy sleeping patterns from a young age and learn to understand your baby’s sleep window. If your young baby is swaddled properly, all their needs are met and you get them down in their sleep window then you should see a baby that is capable of putting themselves to sleep with a fair amount of ease. The older they get the easier it will become along as you’ve been working on laying a sleep foundation.

If your baby still isn’t going down and you know your putting him down at the right time, or your baby has developed negative sleep associations that have prevented him from learning to self soothe then contact Mamie for some extra troubleshooting help or to do a comprehensive sleep consultation that will enable your baby and your family to start getting the sleep he so desperately needs!

10 Simple Ways to Get Your Baby to Sleep Better Tonight

These tips are simple, easy to implement, and created to help your baby slowly step into a healthy, secure relationship with sleep!

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