Surviving the Early Morning Wakeups

by Dr. Rebecca Kempton

It’s 4:30 a.m. It’s still dark out. And yet, your 1-year-old is wide awake and ready for the day. It’s too early for this.

Have you noticed that your older baby or toddler (approximately 9 months old through 4 years old) has been waking up for the day at an unusually early hour—between 4 and 6 a.m.? You are not alone! You’re likely wondering why this happens and, more importantly, how to help your child wake up later.

First, let’s be realistic. Babies don’t sleep in like teenagers! The normal wake time for babies, in sync with their circadian rhythms (the body’s internal clock), is between 6 and 7:30 a.m. Anytime before 6 a.m. is considered a night waking, so the goal is to shift your early riser to wake after 6 a.m.

The good news is shifting wake time is easier than you may think. It entails understanding why your child may be waking early, and then solving those issues.  Early wakings are most common around 3 to 6 a.m., during the body’s lighter stages of sleep. Sometimes when babies or toddlers wake at that hour, they appear happy and ready to start the day, though you may not be.

Here are the three of the most common reasons babies and toddlers wake too early:

  • A bedtime that is too early OR too late, based on the daytime nap schedule:  For example, if your toddler took a short nap and bedtime was too late, early risings can ensue. Or a day of extra-long naps can also lead to early wakings in a baby who doesn’t need as much daytime sleep.
  • A less-than-ideal sleep environment. If the room is not dark enough, especially in the early morning hours, it can lead to early and sustained wakings. It is very difficult to fall back to sleep if the room is too light in the morning. Also, if it’s not cool enough or the air is too dry, for example, it can be hard to maintain sleep throughout the night.
  • The inability to self-soothe: If your child needs help to fall asleep, then when they wake, they will also need help to fall back to sleep.

Once you identify the causes, then you can help your little one sleep later in the morning. These solutions rely on consistent, repeated action from caregivers in order to succeed.

  1. First, avoid too much or too little daytime sleep. If a child is napping more than is appropriate for their age, or isn’t resting at all during the daytime, they may become overtired or not ready to settle at bedtime. Overtiredness can also contribute to sleep interruptions throughout the night and early morning hours. Keeping a routine sleep schedule during the day, with regularly enforced naps and a well-timed bedtime based on the naps, is often the best way to create a consistent sleep schedule.
  2. Second, work on helping your child learn to self-soothe both at bedtime and when they wake early. If they wake during the night or early morning hours, resist the urge to immediately go to them and soothe them. They need to learn how to self-soothe to get back to sleep without needing help. A helpful tool to use with children over 18 months old is a night timers. Since kids don’t have a true grasp on time for a couple of years, these timers can let children know when to expect their parent to return in the morning by changing color (e.g., red means stay in bed, green means parents come back).
  3. Third, create an optimal sleep environment. Blackout curtains keep the room dark, ensuring that outside light does not disrupt the baby’s sleep (especially during early morning wakings and daytime naps). To ensure dry air isn’t contributing to early wakings, consider using a humidifier. The ideal temperature for the bedroom is 68-72 degrees during sleep. Additionally, sound machines that provide continuous, consistent white noise can aid in long-lasting and good-quality sleep.
  4. Finally, ensure that they’re not hungry or thirsty at bedtime (within reason). Leaving a sippy cup of water next to a toddler’s bed could give them an option to take a drink when they wake up early, then (hopefully) get back to sleep on their own—without involving parents.

Don’t let your child’s early rising stump you! Young kids naturally wake between 6 and 7:30 a.m.—if yours wakes before then, think about what might be causing your early riser to wake, then use these tips to help shift that wake time to a more reasonable hour. Responding to the situation, quickly, is key to modifying this behavior. Remember to always look at the bigger picture and solve for every possible variable in order to truly overcome the issue of early risings.

Once this challenge is mastered, baby and parent can (finally!) get a good night’s—and good morning’s—rest.

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