Do you have an early riser? Early wakings are a tired parent’s worst nightmare!
Let’s talk about why babies wake early and what we can do about it. Firstly, let’s get clear on one thing: if children go to bed in the early evening, it is common for them to wake up early in the morning. They start their sleep early, therefore they wake early. Anything 6am or later is considered pretty normal for an infant.
If your child is waking up at 4 or 5 am and is ready for the day, but you’re not, there are a few things to consider. Take note of their demeanor when they wake up: are they hungry, do they still seem tired or are they energetic and ready to go? Paying attention to these cues will help you determine which of the factors below could be responsible for your baby’s early waking:
Light and noise can cause babies to wake. In the spring and summer, when the sun rises earlier than you want your child to, you’ll want to block out the sunlight. Some babies are more sensitive to their environment and even a small amount of light tells their body it’s time to wake up! Consider doubling up layers on your windows so NO LIGHT can seep in. If you already have a blackout blind or curtains, but light is seeping in around the edges, you may want to add another layer underneath. A travel blackout blind with suction cups works well. Even tinfoil or an old bed sheet or blanket can help in a pinch!
Sudden noises or a change in noise can cause babies to wake, particularly babies under the age of 6 months, whose nervous systems haven’t yet learned which sounds are significant (ie. threatening, from an evolutionary standpoint) and which ones are not. Sensitive children also wake more easily to a change in sound. Try to limit noise in the early mornings. You may want to consider using light white noise to help muffle some sounds that are not within your control.
Our body temperature lowers while we’re sleeping, so as the early morning approaches, your baby’s body may have cooled down quite a bit and could cause them to wake. Check your baby’s hands, feet and back of their neck for temperature when they wake in the early morning. If they are cold, you may want to consider dressing them more warmly, perhaps with socks or thicker pyjamas.
Adults sometimes wake up to go to the washroom at night, so we can expect that sometimes elimination may wake our babies too, particularly if their diaper is really full by the morning hours. If this is the case, you may want to go up one size in diapers or change the diaper once in the middle of the night. If the baby’s diaper is leaking by morning, you may need to upsize, try a different brand, put two diapers on, or use a cover over the diaper for nighttime.
If your baby is starting to sleep longer stretches at night or is going through a growth spurt, they may wake up hungry in the early hours of the morning. You can try to “top them up” at nighttime before bed with a feed (breastmilk or formula) or snack (that includes protein). You can also offer a “dream feed”, which is a feeding of breastmilk or formula just before the parent goes to bed, to help keep the baby full longer. If they are going to bed satisfied, but still waking up hungry, you can feed them when they wake.
If your baby wakes up for any of the above reasons, there’s a good chance they’re still tired, and you may be able to get them back to sleep with some snuggles and/or a feed. Waking in the early morning is not too much of an issue if you can get the baby to go back to sleep, so everyone can get a few more winks!
Naps & Bedtime:
It’s possible that your child is fully rested by the early morning hours and that’s why they’re waking up, ready to go! Some children can’t do as much consolidated sleep as others and may max out around 10 hours overnight. If you put your child to bed at 6:30pm, they may be done sleeping for the night at 4:30am! In these cases, you may want to adjust bedtime a little later and see if that helps.
Decreasing sleep needs
As babies get older and their overall daily sleep needs decrease, it can sometimes be revealed with early morning wakings. If your child is not seeming tired at naptime or bedtime, you may want to consider first, shortening their nap closest to bedtime, and perhaps even dropping a nap entirely. It may, in turn, make for more consolidated nighttime sleep!
Sleep regression (developmental leap), teething & illness
These factors can affect sleep, but for a short period of time. The best approach is to offer your child whatever support they need to get through the challenging time and keep you routine as normal as you can. Once they are feeling a bit more settled, their sleep should go back to a more normal pattern.
Our body follows a circadian rhythm, which is the 24 hour cycle of life. Our body releases cortisol when it is time for us to wake up. If your baby begins waking early for an environmental reason, or due to illness or teething, but continues to wake early over a period of many weeks, their early waking can be reinforced, as their body develops a cycle of releasing cortisol early in the morning. If your child is waking early habitually, you can try keeping them in bed a little longer. If they wake up and go into a brightly lit room right away, the light tells their body it’s time to wake up, and the early waking may be reinforced. If, instead, you can encourage them to relax their body for a few minutes longer (even 15 minutes is a win!), their body may begin, with time, to adjust to a later waking time. You can help your child rest by massaging them, feeding, singing or doing anything that will keep them relaxed. If your child is verbal, you can explain to them that they are learning to rest their body a little longer after waking up.
If your child is exhausted after early morning wakings and you continually offer early morning naps to catch up, this could be reinforcing their early waking. Try keeping them awake in the morning as long as possible, even keeping them awake 15 minutes longer than the day before. Once their body realizes it won’t be able to have an early morning nap, they may sleep in longer in the morning.
Each baby is an individual and has different needs for sleep overnight. Be sure to watch your baby for clues and patterns. Remember that you know your baby best, so trust your gut!
Do you need a plan to help address early morning wakings? I would love to help your family! Email email@example.com to arrange a FREE 15 minute discussion!
photo: Mitch Oram
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