Updated: Mar 23
Why are early mornings so hard to change? Because our little one’s physiological drive to sleep is really low from 4am. When I talk about sleep drive, I’m talking about that urge and pressure that’s built up to sleep which is obviously really high at bedtime. At bedtime, its dark, the sun is going down, your body is tired and you need to fall asleep! In those early hours of the morning that sleep pressure has diminished, the drive to sleep is really low, melatonin levels are wearing off, the sun is rising and we are in a really light phase of sleep.
What do I consider an early morning wakeup? Anything before 5am in my eyes needs to be treated as a night wakeup, it’s still night time! But those that wake between 5-6am I’d be calling early rises. A typical circadian rhythm for our babies is around 6-7am.
How do we stop early morning wakeups? Here’s a checklist of things to rule out in order to push your babies start time later.
1. Is their room dark enough? We know darkness is key for the production of melatonin and blocking out that simulation in the early hours of the morning. Because your babies already in a light phase of sleep anyway from 4am, we want to make this as easy as possible for them to sleep later and darkness will do this. Often block out curtains just won’t cut the mustard here and we need it darker. Just a tiny bit of light creeping through the curtain rail or under the door is enough to trigger the brain to wake up more fully in this light phase of sleep. If you can still see your hand in front of you in your little one’s bedroom at 4am – its not dark enough and you need to invest in some good black out blinds. We want to make this as easy as we can on our little one’s and darkness is key!
2. Is their bedtime too late? If you are consistently seeing early morning wakeups look at your little ones bedtime as this can be the culprit of these early starts. Often adjusting their bedtime by 10-15 minutes earlier helps. A bedtime of around 6:30-7pm is generally what we are looking for but if they have been struggling with short naps don’t be afraid to bring bedtime super early, even 6pm for a few nights. It sounds totally counter intuitive, that an early bedtime will make them sleep longer in the morning but its true! Sleep begets sleep!
3. Have you got realistic expectations? Has your baby been asleep since 6pm?! Then that’s been 11 hours which is a reasonable expectation – expecting them to sleep more than 11-12 hours overnight is a big ask so it maybe your expectations need to be adjusted here!
4. Is your little ones morning nap too early? Now this can get complicated… your baby wakes early say 5am and starts showing tired signs at 7:30am so we pop them down for a nap. But what happens here is their little bodies view this early nap as an extension of their night sleep and the earlier nap will keep reinforcing these wakeups. This was the case for my little boy Ryder. At 6 months he was waking 5:45am… 2 hours later he was shattered, so I’d be putting him down for his nap early as he couldn’t quite stretch even 2.5 hours awake time. This short awake window again was re-inforcing the wakeup. I tried to extend his awake time to 2.5 hours making his first nap 8:15am but even this wasn’t helping. What I needed to do was push his awake window out a little later, even just 10-15 minutes every few days. We want to get to the point where their awake window is from our desired morning awake time rather than their actual wake time.
5. Is your little one overtired? Often early morning wakeups are due to our babies and toddlers being overtired. To combat some of this overtiredness we need to bring bedtime earlier. I know this sounds counter intuitive but trust me – an earlier bedtime helps so much! You may also need to help your little one with assisted naps to reduce some sleep debt.
6. Could it be that your little one is hungry in those early hours? If they are on solids make sure you bump up their protein intake as this is what helps keep them fuller for longer overnight. If they are under 6-7 months of age I find it can be easier to give them a quick feed in these early hours and pop them back down for another hour or two rather than expecting them to easily resettle without a feed.
7. Is social interaction the culprit? Believe it or not, sometimes it is us as parents that are the cause of early wakeups. If your toddler wakes early and then gets to come out to the lounge and watch some tv, then of course that drive to wake early will be high! Same with a bottle or a feed early – this social interaction actually reinforces them to wake early. One of the things we need to eliminate when tackling early morning wakeups is social interaction. When we go into the room and they see us they don’t think oh yay mummy’s here, I shall go back to sleep! They think yay mums finally come in that means I’m getting out of the cot and getting snuggles and a feed!
These 7 things are the biggest culprits of early morning wakeups and hopefully by asking yourself these questions you will be able to solve these. If you find you need more help and want coaching through this, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we can tackle this together. Early mornings become habitual quickly and truthfully they take weeks of patience and consistency to solve. Keep at it and keep consistent!