The Power of The 3 AM Wake-up Call:

Shaping your child’s relationships for years to come

By: Rachel Rosenholtz, LCSW-R


            It begins again with a 3:00 AM wake-up call. There’s no snooze button: it’s your baby and she’s hungry. After that's taken care of, she needs to be burped, changed, cuddled, and lovingly put back to sleep. Predictably, a simmering frustration starts to rise. It's not fair. I have a very busy day today! All of my time has been used up meeting her needs. A feeling of resentment creeps in. I just need a few hours of actual sleep! Is that too much to ask?!  

While this feeling of frustration and resentment is quite common and natural, the line of reasoning behind it, of course, is not. As much as one may wish for their baby to be more understanding of their needs, parents know that a baby is both physically and emotionally incapable of taking care of themselves, much less anyone else. People come into this world powerless, self-centered, and driven by emotion. 

So how does this intrinsically selfish, emotional being develop into the type of person who can sustain a healthy, meaningful relationship? How will the necessary social skills be developed? Social skills include being aware of social norms as well as the ability to empathize, share, help others, problem solve, and compromise—all of which are skills that require selflessness as opposed to selfishness.

What can you, as a caregiver, do to foster healthy social development in your child?

The process starts when your child is a baby.

Give, give, give. Your child is learning a tremendous amount about the world around them through social and emotional interactions. That 3 AM wake-up call is an opportunity to bond with your baby and shower them with love. It may become exhausting to constantly give to your child, however, it’s important to do so nonetheless; numerous studies have shown that the love, attention, and physical care given to a child lays the foundation for their ability to give to others and, consequently, their future relationships. This will also set the stage for your child’s relationship with you. Though they won’t remember any of it, the cognitive wiring will be established.

A person must first receive in order to give. Only after a baby's needs are met, are they able to give back. Think of the very first smile. The first giggle. The first hug. You receive the baby’s affections only after they’ve learned to trust you.

Every time a caretaker is responsive to their emotional and physical need, the child learns that they are safe. Trust is established.  The child develops a positive sense of self, learning that they are valuable, worthy of other people’s love and affection. A child who feels secure no longer has to focus inward but can begin to look outward at others.

Conversely, when a child’s emotional and physical needs are not consistently met, a child develops the sense that the world is not predictable or safe. The child will focus on themselves and how to ensure that their needs are met. Basic survival instincts are activated. This child will do whatever it takes to ensure that their needs are met, even if it means treating others badly.

It's very sad and painful to observe a child struggling in this way. How can we help a child who unfortunately did not get what they needed?

            Children are mostly emotional beings. A child who is focused on getting their emotional needs met will be focused inward and miss crucial social cues. If a child appears overly self-centered, seems socially inept, or is acting out, a caregiver needs to identify what emotional needs are not being met and attempt to remediate the deficit. Once a child feels emotionally secure, they will be able to look outward and become more aware of socially appropriate behaviors. With this realization, the child’s behaviors should improve.

Caregivers can foster an awareness of others by helping a child become more aware of their own feelings. A child must understand their own feelings before they can gain an understanding of others. When reflecting upon a child’s feelings, it's best to use general terms.

 Use a word like “upset” rather than “angry” or “sad.” The word “upset” can mean either one and will give a child the chance to define what “upset” means as they grow older and their capacity for logic and rationality develops further. Encourage the child to talk about what is making them feel upset and be sure to validate their feelings. Validating feelings does not mean condoning behaviors; bad behavior that is challenged in a supportive environment can actually play a positive role in a child's sense of self. Part of creating a sense of security for a child is ensuring that they are safe as are the people around them. Safety is a basic logical concept that even very young children can understand. Establishing clear guidelines about what is right and wrong as well as how to treat others will contribute to a child’s sense of security.

The time you invest in your child, in expressing love verbally and physically as well as being mindful of what your child needs in the moment, will pave the way for their relationship with you and those they create with the world around them.

It's an investment.

Take advantage of this time. The childhood years go by fast. The more secure, safe, loved, and validated your child feels, the more confident they will be as they grow up. The child will be able to successfully navigate almost any social relationship in which they find themselves. Through your interactions with your child, you play a critical role in this development.

The child that has received will have what to give. Tenfold.

Maybe even at 3:00 AM.


Rachel Rosenholtz, LCSW-R has over 15 years’ experience working with children, teens, and families. She is certified in TF-CBT, and specializes in treating anxiety related issues, trauma, behavioral problems, and depression in people of all ages. Rachel’s private practice is located in the Five Towns. She can be reached at 347-673-1953 and at To find out more, visit her website -