Puppy Circadian Rhythm

Puppies Who Wake Up Screaming at 4 AM. Why It Happens and What To Do About It.

Jane Messineo Lindquist, Puppy Culture

10 Oct 2023 | 5 minute read

This adorable puppy looks so serene but he has a set of lungs on him that will pierce your eardrums at 4 AM

As we discuss in our breeder course, it’s a very common complaint that litters will wake up either in the middle of the night or, more commonly, at 4-6 AM and scream their heads off.

 Let’s talk about:

  • Why they do it
  • Why it’s a drag but not a problem, and
  • Four things that you can do to work around it.

Puppies Ain’t Got (Circadian) Rhythm

Mammals in general and puppies in particular do not have an established circadian rhythm at birth. So, this waking up and screaming at what seems to us like odd hours is not so odd at all. They just do that.

Also, as the circadian rhythm is developing, the sleep cycle is shorter in dogs AND it has been shown that puppies become active about two hours earlier in response to first light than do adult dogs.

Bottom line, these puppies come by this behavior honestly. It's normal behavior for puppies to be up at or just before the crack of dawn, or even in the middle of the night.

How the Circadian Rhythm is Trained

Circadian rhythms in puppies have not been extensively studied, other than to identify the absence of one. So, I'll share some things that we know about other mammals that might be helpful in understanding the development of circadian rhythms in dogs.

Mammals in general get maternal input regarding circadian rhythms while they are in their mother’s womb. Once they are born, that direct input is abruptly cut off. The young mammal now needs to begin to establish his own circadian rhythm.

Mother’s milk gives the developing mammal cues about when it’s time to go to sleep.

At first, the young mammal is aided by his mother's milk. Milk changes composition throughout the day and night and is thought to help entrain the young mammal to changes in light for sleep/wake cycles.

But after weaning the young mammal is again at a fork in the road with circadian rhythms and now must stand on his own with sleep/wake cycles.

So, it's not surprising that young puppies show short sleep cycles and wake up seemingly randomly. Their endocrine systems are still developing the internal clock needed to regulate sleep-wake cycles.

It's also not surprising that we see most of the breeders complain about 4 AM screamers in that 5-6 week old range - probably just post weaning for many breeds.

What can we do?

A late-night snack is a great sleep aid

  1. If the puppies are still nursing at all, allowing them to nurse just before bed might be helpful. It will both keep their bellies full longer and give them some maternal input about it being bedtime.
  2. Putting a dish of food in last thing at night with more than they can possibly eat can be helpful. When the puppies wake, they have a project to occupy themselves and food is a mild soporific, so this increases the chance of them just going back to sleep.
  3. Ignoring the ruckus is certainly a viable option. But if you are literally losing sleep over it, just give them something to do. Put in a food puzzle or a new toy. I would not worry about spoiling them at this age, their sleep/wake cycles will regulate as they age.
  4. If the waking up is at anything near a reasonable hour, you could also get up and let them out for a while. See above, I would not worry overly about spoiling them, they will naturally begin to sleep longer as they grow up.

If you can talk mom into one last nursing session before bedtime, that can help. But your dam should always have a way to get away from the puppies if she chooses to and you should never push a reluctant dam to nurse puppies – that puts her in a bad position of potential conflict with her offspring. 

Don’t Try to Solve Problems That Don’t Exist

Bottom line, just gently support the development of the puppies’ circadian rhythm and they will grow out of waking up at all hours of the night. It’s a developmental phase, not a behavior problem.

Circadian rhythms continue to evolve throughout young adulthood and shown significant changes throughout life...the circadian rhythm of a 1.5 year old dog is quite different than that of a 5 year old dog. So it's more of a continuum than a black and white thing. And puppies are still on the "jelly" end of the continuum when it comes to sleep/wake cycles.

More than anything else, I just want to impress upon you that there is nothing that you are doing wrong as a breeder to create this behavior, and nothing in particular you should be doing to change it. It tends to be a developmental and self-limiting behavior that will change as the puppies age.

For further reading and citations to the studies and findings mentioned in this article:

Eric Suni, Dr. Abhinav Singh (2023): Circadian Rhythm

Available at: www.sleepfoundation.org

Brian M. Zanghi, PhD (2010): Circadian Biorhythms of Sleep/Wake and Activity/Rest Cycles In Adult and Aged Dogs
Available at: www.vetcenter.purina.es

Dominic L. Palazzolo (1983): Effects of aging on thyroxine and cortisol responses in dogs
Available at: www.krex.k-state.edu

Sachi D. Wong, Kenneth P. Wright Jr, Robert L. Spencer, Céline Vetter, Laurel M. Hicks, Oskar G. Jenni & Monique K. LeBourgeois (2022): Development of the circadian system in early life: maternal and environmental factors
Available at: www.jphysiolanthropol.biomedcentral.com

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About the Author

Jane Messineo Lindquist (Killion) is the director of "Puppy Culture the Powerful First Twelve Weeks That Can Shape Your Puppies' Future" as well as the author of "When Pigs Fly: Training Success With Impossible Dogs" and founder of Madcap University.

Jane has had Bull Terriers since 1982 and she and her husband, Mark Lindquist, breed Bull Terriers under the Madcap kennel name.

Her interests include dog shows, dog agility, gardening, and any cocktail that involves an infused simple syrup.

Visit Jane's Websites

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