Over the past few months, we've had an increase in calls centered around one tricky topic: early morning wake-ups. Many of these calls are from families who have already completed some sort of sleep training. Baby is falling asleep independently, sleeping through the night, but still waking up consistently around 4 or 5am ready to start the day.
Trying to unlock the secret of why this is happening can be challenging. There can be many causes ranging from something very obvious with a quick fix to more complex issues that might take several weeks to correct.
Below are the most common causes of early wake-ups along with solutions you can start trying today:
The early morning hours can bring in extra sunlight as well as outside noises like birds chirping or garbage trucks rumbling by. To combat this, it's best to make sure you have high quality black out curtains. The darker the room the better. And don't forget to turn up your sound machine to drown out any unwanted noises.
This is the classic tale of "not too little, not too much, just the right amount" of sleep during the day. For older children, waking too early is often a sign that naps either need to be cut short or pulled altogether. Meanwhile, with younger children, the problem often starts because baby isn't getting enough total sleep during the day. This usually happens because baby isn't strong enough with independent sleep to be able to connect sleep cycles during naps, leading to consistently short 30 - 45 minute naps. If this sounds familiar, I suggest reading our blog post, Extending Your Baby's Naps.
Bedtime can also be a delicate balance. A child's circadian rhythm or natural body clock will often have them waking around 7:00 am, and because we know that children need between 11 & 12 hours of overnight sleep, 7:00 pm is great bedtime goal. If your child is waking early you might want to take a look at the time they actually fall asleep each night and adjust the start of your bedtime routine in 15 minute increments each day until you reach a more appropriate time.
If your child is using parent-led sleep support (bottles, nursing, rocking, etc) to help with falling asleep initially, there's a good chance that they will wake up during the night for that same support. All adults and children naturally wake during the night while transitioning between sleep cycles, however, most of us return to sleep quickly without any memory of this happening. During the early morning hours we are in our lightest stages of sleep, thus making it harder for some to connect cycles. To help your child with this, it's best to create a plan that has them moving away from using that prop at bedtime and instead encourage self-soothing that leads to independent sleep.
Response to an Early Wake-up
It's important to take a look at how you respond to an early wake-up. Does an older child get to crawl into bed with parents to snuggle and watch cartoons? Does a baby that wakes early immediately get a bottle or nursing time with mom. If so, it can become very desirable to continue waking at that time which eventually becomes a habitual routine. If this sounds familiar, I would suggest responding in a different way. This might look like turning lights on, doing a diaper change, getting dressed for the day, and then leaving the room for that first feeding. For older children, it might look like using the bathroom, getting dressed, and having some breakfast before moving to snuggle or cartoon time.
Could your baby actually be needing some additional calories at this time? It's a possibility that your baby might have hit a growth spurt or maybe didn't get enough ounces of milk during the day. A great way to test this theory is to see how they respond to a feeding. If baby is truly waking for calories he will be very alert and aggressively nurse or drink most or all of his bottle. If that's the case, you may need to find ways to increase calorie consumption during daytime hours.
The truth is, there's no quick answer to helping baby sleep later in the morning. This list is a jumping-off place, but if you've tried these suggestions and still can't seem to pinpoint the problem, please reach out to schedule a free discovery call so we can provide some additional guidance!