Combating the early morning wake-up
Around this time each year, my inbox seems to be flooded with messages from parents whose babies are suddenly waking up before 5am! Often the panic that sets in ends up being premature as many children return to their “normal” sleep schedule just a few days after the time change, but some struggle a little longer. And we all know children are not immune to early-morning wake-ups during other parts of the year. While sunlight is certainly one factor that can cause early wakes, there are a whole slew of other things to consider as well.
How Early is Too Early?
If you are a parent dealing with a child who is consistently waking before 6:00 a.m., please know that you are not alone. Babies are in their lightest stages of sleep during the hours of 4-6 a.m. and because they have almost an entire night’s worth of sleep under their belt, the slightest disturbance can wake them and keep them awake. Their drive to sleep is lower, their melatonin levels are lower, and they’re ready to sing the song of their people until you come get them out of bed.
A normal, healthy wake range for babies is usually between 6-7 a.m. based on their circadian rhythm. While some parents need to wake their little ones earlier due to family schedules, those who aren’t actively choosing to have their baby awake can struggle when their child is waking earlier than this. If you’re nodding along with me and have been trolling the internet for a solution, give the following tips a try.
Make Darkness Your Best Friend
If you can see your hand in front of your face, it’s not dark enough. When the shades are drawn and the lights are off in your baby’s room, you should not be able to tell the difference between 2:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. Invest in some blackout shades and make sure to cover any slivers of light that may sneak in between the cracks. You might also consider other sources of light; does the sound machine have a light on it? What about the hallway light? If you can make it darker, do so.
Darkness is crucial to sleep (at all, let alone later in the mornings) because our bodies are highly impacted by both natural and artificial light. Any type of light inhibits the production of melatonin – the sleepy hormone – and makes it harder for us to both fall and stay asleep. We are already at our lightest stage of sleep in the early morning hours, so if some sunlight starts to creep in, it’s game over!
Use White Noise to Block Out External Sounds
If you’re not already using continuous white noise to create an optimal sleep environment for your little one, now might be the time! Even the slightest sounds can rouse a baby in their lightest stages of sleep, so combat that by reducing that possibility. White noise can help block out the garbage truck that goes by or the neighbor that leaves for work at 5 a.m.
Take a Look at Bedtime
One of the biggest causes of chronic early rising is over-tiredness going into bedtime. When the body is over-tired, it produces stimulating hormones in place of the melatonin that should be surging through the body. This can lead to bedtime battles, restlessness throughout the night, and, you guessed it, early rising. More often than not, a late bedtime does not yield sleeping later in the morning; in fact, it usually results in an even earlier wake-up.
You might also need to shift bedtime the other way. I know, I know - I just went on about how early bedtimes are so important for consolidated sleep and helping to prevent early-morning wake-ups. But, if your child is getting a good 11 hours of sleep at night (maybe going to bed at 6:30pm and waking up at 5:30am), you may think about shifting bedtime back slightly so they are achieving the “right” 11 hours.
Distribute Sleep Appropriately
Sleep begets sleep. Just as late bedtimes tend to yield early wake-ups due to over-tiredness, too little daytime sleep can compound and exacerbate that over-tiredness and lead to early wake-ups. If your child has had a day of “bad naps,” you should consider shifting bedtime up to make up for some of that missed daytime sleep.
Alternatively, getting too much daytime sleep can also cause early wake-ups. (Huh? You just told me sleep begets sleep!) While it’s true that you need sufficient daytime sleep to sleep well at night, there is such a thing as too much of it. Every baby needs a certain amount of sleep in a 24-hour period. If their total sleep needs are 14 hours and they get 4 of those hours during the day, they’re likely not going to sleep more than 10 hours overnight. Sleep is important, but the distribution of that sleep is key.
When your little one wakes at 5 a.m., what are you doing? Are you leaving them in their crib to see if they will go back to sleep or are you rushing in there, getting them up, and feeding them a lovely meal or bringing them into your cozy bed for a bit more shut eye? Your response is highly influential to helping their bodies adjust to sleeping later in the mornings, as well as setting the behavioral expectation that it’s not time to get up yet. If your little one is half awake at 5 a.m. and they know that the DisneyWorld of events is waiting for them – a trip to Mommy’s bed and a snuggly nursing sesh – you can be sure they are not going to go back to sleep.
Making changes won’t elicit results overnight. It might take a good 2-3 weeks of consistency to see wake-ups shifting a bit later. But the more you encourage it, the better success you’ll have.
Here’s to later mornings & more sleep!
Jamie is a Certified Pediatric Sleep Coach and owner of Oh Baby Consulting where she offers personalized, gentle sleep solutions to exhausted families nationwide. With a background in child development and infant mental health, she keeps up to date on the latest evolutions in the field which allows her to blend technical knowledge with empathy and compassion to tailor the support she provides. If your baby is not sleeping, Oh Baby can help!