Guest Written by Kate Roeder of Happily Ever After Sleep.
Does your child wake up super early no matter what you’ve tried? I always recommend not starting your child’s day until 6:00 AM at the earliest, but sometimes even 6:00 AM may be earlier than you would like.
Just two weeks ago Daylight Savings Time ended granting us all an extra hour of sleep. That is unless you’re a parent, because most likely your child didn’t sleep an extra hour on Sunday. Which means your early morning waking probably went from 6:00 AM to 5:00 AM. That’s just way too early! So why do these early morning wake ups happen and what can you do to fix them?
Is your child an independent sleeper?
What does it mean to be an independent sleeper? This means your child is able to fall asleep completely on their own from being laid down awake. So no drowsiness or anything external helping them to sleep. Anything that helps them fall asleep would be considered a sleep prop (ie. patting, rocking, feeding, pacifiers, swings. laying with parents).
Think about your child’s bedtime routine. You want to keep them fully awake during the routine so they can be laid down awake. Make sure the feeding isn’t the last step of the routine and your child getting drowsy. This feeding should be a good, full feed with baby not getting too sleepy and not eating. I recommend keeping the light on and sleepy music off during the bedtime routine to help prevent your child from falling asleep.
Even if your child isn’t struggling with night wakings, going down awake will help prevent early morning wake ups. When they wake up in the 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 AM hour it’s very difficult for them to go back to sleep. Their melatonin levels are depleted and they’ve just gotten a nice chunk of sleep. Children with independent sleep skills will have an easier time getting themselves back to sleep in the early morning hours.
If you’ve just gone through the sleep training process it could just be a matter of time. Your child’s circadian rhythm is a complicated mechanism. Making changes to your child’s sleep routines and schedules can take 4-6 weeks to regulate. You need to give your child some time to adjust, especially if prior to sleep training they were having a lot of fragmented sleep. As your child starts to sleep better they will start to sleep longer stretches.
When is bedtime?
The majority of the time I find that an early morning wake up is because something is off with your child’s schedule. What timing are you following throughout the day? Age appropriate awake windows are key to avoiding overtiredness, which, spoiler alert, can cause early morning wake ups.
Overtiredness is the archenemy of sleep. If your baby is waking early consistently there is a good chance she is overtired. Try moving bedtime up by 30 minutes and stick to that for a week or more to see if things improve.
I must urge you that consistency is key with these early mornings. Any type of change you make to your child’s sleep schedule must be carried out for at least a week before you dismiss that the solution isn’t working. It’s also helpful to note how long it’s taking your child to fall asleep at bedtime and if there is more crying. Ideally your child would be asleep in 15 minutes or less with minimal to no crying.
If an earlier bedtime didn’t work, then try moving bedtime 30 minutes later (than it was before you moved it earlier). Do this gradually, 15 minutes every few days until you are at the right time, again giving this a week to work. I would not make bedtime later than 8:00/8:30 PM.
How long is your child napping?
Every child has a total range of sleep needs per day. Too much or too little daytime sleep can also be the cause of early morning wakings. Your baby’s nap schedule should be based on the appropriate awake window and sleep totals for your child’s age. Download a free awake window guide here.
What time is your baby’s first nap? Depending on your baby’s age, offering a nap too early in the morning can make the first nap an extension of the night. Let’s say your baby usually wakes up at 6:00 AM and usually naps around 8:30 AM. Since she’s been waking up at 5:00 AM she seems exhausted by 6:30/7:00 AM so you put her down early for a nap. This shifts her entire day forward and then she’s ready for bed by 6:00 PM. Then the early wake up cycle repeats. Try to push your baby as close as you can to their normal nap time. This will help regulate your baby’s circadian rhythm.
Short naps are more common than long naps, but if your baby is taking long naps (2+ hours), try shortening the first nap to one hour or it could be time for your baby to drop down to one nap. Make sure the last nap is not too late in the evening that it’s interfering with bedtime. The gap between the last nap and bedtime should be based on the awake window.
How are you handling the early wake up?
If your baby is waking at 5:00 AM you want to stick to a minimum wake up time until things are resolved. 6:00 AM should be the earliest you go and get your baby out of the crib to start the day. If you are getting your baby at 5:00 AM and bringing her out into the daylight, this exposure to daylight will set her circadian rhythm and she will continue to wake up at 5:00 AM.
Are you caving and feeding your baby in hopes she’ll go back to sleep? Or bringing her to your bed? If you are bringing your baby to bed or feeding her at this time that will also reinforce the early morning wake up. If you don’t mind doing a 5:00 AM feeding and your baby goes back to sleep, then that’s fine. However, some babies won’t go back to sleep at this time even after a feeding. If there’s something she looks forward to now, she will continue to wake up early. Delay that first feed, change her diaper, do what you can so you are delaying this gratification.
So, what do you do for an hour? If your baby isn’t full out fussing or crying leave her in her crib until 6:00 AM. If your baby is unhappy try to wait 10-15 minutes before going in. Then go in and try to calm her for a few minutes then leave for 10-15 minutes again. If this isn’t cutting it, go ahead and pick her up, but try your best to stay in her dark room until 6:00 AM with no feedings. Then bring her out of the room, change her, offer her a feed and start the day.
Is your child’s room a sleep sanctuary?
Aside from all of the other factors I’ve mentioned, you want to revisit your child’s sleeping environment. Babies sleep best in a dark, cool room (68°-72° is a good range). When I say dark, I mean pitch black, like a cave. If your child’s room does not have black out curtains, there could be light coming through in the early morning causing these wakings.
I also recommend having a sound machine to drown out any external noises. Garbage trucks, cars driving by, the dog barking or someone in the house showering and getting ready for the day could all be causing these early morning wake ups.
This may seem like a lot of guessing work, but really you are trying to diagnose why your baby is waking early. Sleep can be a complicated thing and just when you get your baby’s sleep on track, something new pops up. They get sick, start teething or learn a new skill, like crawling.
If you are struggling with your child’s sleep or if you have tried these tips and tricks and still are experiencing early mornings wake ups, I am here to help you. Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to diagnose what’s going on with your child’s sleep. Schedule a free sleep solution call today.
Katie Roeder is the owner and founder of Happily Ever After Sleep. Katie is a certified pediatric sleep consultant and postpartum doula. She lives in Wallingford, PA with her husband Brian and 2 girls, Sophia and Skylar. Her children are the reason for her current career. After struggling with both of their sleep and after finding an amazing sleep program, IT WAS LIFE CHANGING! Seriously! She knew that she wanted to help other families achieve this same freedom.
Katie loves to help exhausted moms (and dads) get their children sleeping independently, all night. As a doula she loves supporting families postpartum through those exhausting nights. When you work with Katie she will get to know you on a personal level, create a customized sleep plan that will work for your family and help you achieve your sleep goals. Follow HappilyEverAfterSleep on Instagram here!