How to Manage Early Morning Wake-ups

Waking up early to the sound of your baby crying before 5am, is not exactly the most peaceful way to start your day.

Early morning wake-ups are a common challenge that many parents face with their littles and can also be one of the most challenging issues to correct. Unfortunately, there isn’t a “quick fix” for this problem and many babies become stuck in a cycle of waking up early that they can’t seem to break out of.

The good new is, there are a few ways you can help adjust their cycle, but before we dive into how to do this, there are a few things you should know about early morning-wakes ups and why they happen.

What is considered an early morning wake-up?

Being an early riser is much different than waking up before your body has gotten the rest it needs. I consider “too early” to be anytime before 6am for your baby to be awake for the day. This is based off of a recommend 12 hours of nighttime sleep, so if your child is going to bed at 6pm, an appropriate awake time would be 6am (or 7pm-7am, etc.).

Because not all babies are the same, we must consider that some children sleep closer to 10-11 hours per night which is still considered healthy nighttime sleep. However, we must also consider the time it takes your baby to fall asleep at bedtime and any middle of the night wakings that happen throughout the night; even if they are brief.

So if your child is naturally an early riser and wakes up around 530am, that might be OK as long as night-time sleep is a minimum of 10 hours and isn’t broken up by several long wakings.

What causes early morning wake-ups?

There are a few different reasons why your child might be consistently waking up early or has recently just started this pattern.  In order to change the behavior, we need to first be able to get to the “why” behind it so there are a few questions you can answer to help you better understand what is going on.

1)     Are my child’s nap schedules appropriate? If your child is waking at 5am, it is very likely she is still tired and can barely make it 1.5-2 hours before she needs a nap. If you are putting her down before 730/8am for a nap, her first nap of the day is essentially being lumped in with what should have been nighttime sleep. When this happens, she is relying on that first nap to make up for the night-time sleep she isn’t getting. I often see that when this is the case, that first nap ends up being very long which is considered a “crash nap”.

What to do: If this happening you want to try and stretch that first morning awake window, even if it means she is slightly overtired. In order to make any type of change to your child’s biological clock, you need to re-train her body to sleep within her appropriate windows. If your child is on a two-nap schedule, the first nap of the day should never be before 830am, and if she is on a three nap schedule, never before 8am.

2)     What is the light exposure like in my baby’s room? Your child’s circadian rhythm (or internal sleep clock) is primarily driven by light. Your baby is very sensitive to light in the morning so even the smallest crack in the blinds or strong ray of light can wake her up. The reason for this, is that between 2/3am-6/7am is when your baby is in her lightest stage of sleep. So if she is awoken by light, it is going to be very difficult for her to go back to sleep because her internal clock is telling driving her desire to be awake, even if she still feels tired.

What to do: Blackout shades are your best friend! I highly recommend investing in blackout shades and blocking as much light as possible into your baby’s room, especially if she is in an area that is directly exposed to light. The same goes for lights in your home. If other people are up and about early in the morning and there is light that creeps in from lights in the house, you better believe that can wake up your baby! The darker the better during all sleep times is our recommendation.

3)     Does my baby have a sleep association that is causing her to wake early? If your child wakes with the expectation that she needs to be fed back to sleep, rocked, held, etc. then this issue needs to be corrected first, before you can expect your baby not to wake up so early. Because of what I mentioned above, that your baby is in her lightest sleep in the early morning hours, it is going to be very difficult (and near impossible) for her to fall back asleep if she is relying on someone or something to do that for her.

What to do: If you know this is happening, I highly recommend you invest in one of our sleep guides or take one of our sleep courses to address middle of the night wakings when your baby has a sleep crutch. If this is the case with your child, early morning wake-ups WILL continue, until this issue is corrected.

4)     Is my baby’s bedtime appropriate? You have likely been given the advice “put your baby down later and she will sleep later”. Unfortunately, this is a common myth that often backfires. Your baby’s bedtime should be determined by two things: what time she awakes from last nap, and her age. You can find recommended awake and bedtimes in our article here, but as mentioned previously, your baby should be following a 12-hour cycle; so 6-6, 7-7, or 8-8. If your child is going to bed too early that can affect what time she is waking for the day and likewise if she is going to bed too late.

What to do: Your baby needs enough sleep pressure built up in order to fall asleep and stay asleep. Sleep pressure, is essentially the time built up in between sleep that causes tiredness. This is why following awake times are equally as important. If your child is waking too late from her last nap and then being put down without enough sleep pressure built up, it can affect her ability to fall asleep AND cause middle of the night wake ups.

5)     Does your baby seem legitimately hungry in the morning? I want to be very clear on this one. If your baby relies on feeding as a sleep crutch, then this is a very different situation. But if your child is 7/8 months old or younger and is generally sleeping through the night, it is possible she is waking up because she is hungry. If this is the case it is ok to go in and feed her IF she goes right back down afterwards. 12 hours can be a long time for a younger child to go without feeding so you may need to keep that morning feed until she is developmentally ready to drop it.

What to do: Again, I want to emphasize that this should only happen when feeding is NOT a sleep crutch. If your child woke up for example at 3/4am and took a feed then, there is no reason she should need another feed at 5/530am. This is an indication that she is relying on feeding to fall back asleep as opposed to actually needing it.

Another response that many parents find helpful when managing early morning wake-ups, is not to get your child out of her crib before 6am. This gives her the opportunity to potentially fall back asleep on her own and allows time for her to get used to being in her crib until then, as opposed to starting her day at 5am.

Remember that in the morning, because she is in such a light sleep, she also becomes overstimulated easily, so it’s best not to be going in and out of her room and spending too long trying to get her to go back down. Often this can make things worse or cause her to become even more awake.

I also encourage you to be patient with this process, as it can take several weeks to see a shift in your child’s sleep patters as you address the above issues. Consistency is always key and once you address the root you should start to see a difference and soon be on your way to “sleeping in”. Wouldn’t that be nice!

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