If there is one thing I get asked allllllll the time it’s “how do I get my baby/toddler/preschooler to sleep past 5am??”
Now I know that there are a select few individuals out there that function reeeally well at that ungodly hour. I am not one of them. Early morning wakings were just a no-go in my parenting journey. I could get up at all hours in the night (ok, within reason), but ask me to get up for the day before 645am….. heeeelllllllsss no!
Early morning wakings = Nope!
In all seriousness, it was not only that I couldn’t be a decent and present parent before dawn (even 3 cups of coffee in), I was also very committed to the daily schedule that we had consolidated in our family – one in which my babies were still awake in the evening when their dad got home from work. I just wasn’t willing to budge on bedtime and knew that if I accepted the early morning wakings, I would have to shift our whole schedule earlier. NOPE! Not for us.
And so, I resolved myself to doing everything in my power to align my kids natural wake systems to a nice, civilized 7am. Call it selfish, but this mama needs her sleep and a 9pm bedtime for me is not in the cards. I like Netflix too much.
You may be thinking, “wait, it’s possible to shift my morning lark to a later wake time? What if 5am is just their natural wake time? Or, maybe it’s just a phase”. My answers are: Yes. Could be. In my experience, early wakings can be a LONG phase.
So if you’re ready to do away with early morning wakings, read on.
What causes early morning wakings?
The first thing you need to recognize is the cause of the waking. Call me a broken record, but not all sleep behaviours are created equal. And since the cause can be distinct, so too should our response.
Wait – an aside first. Just to be clear, when we are speaking of an early morning waking, we are talking about waking up for the day between 4 and 6am. And waking out of hunger doesn’t really count so long as baby is happy to have a feed and settle back down for an hour or two. I am by no means suggesting that you should drop that early morning feed – I actually recommend keeping it as long as you can as it helps to extend breastfeeding AND it can help your baby get the top up she needs to have a couple more hours of zzzzzs.
However, you may notice by the time she is about 10 months old or so, that early morning feeds stops lulling your baby back to sleep and instead she is up and raring to go as soon as she’s topped up. This would be considered an early morning waking.
Ok now back to the causes.
Here are the 3 primary causes of early morning wakings and how you may respond in each case:
Your baby is overtired
I know. I know. You’ve heard it before. “You’re baby’s not sleeping? Oh she’s just overtired.” This explanation is enough to make you want to pull your hair out. But look. Sleep rhythms have their own agenda and they do not like being messed with.
The reason your OVERtired baby wakes up early or frequently through the night is because the systems in her body that control sleep are competing with each other. When your baby gets overtired – which could be due to a really stimulating day, or inconsistency in her schedules, or an interrupted nap that she wasn’t able to make up – the body systems get mixed messages over whether they should be sleeping, or digesting, or growing, and WHEN. And this confusion just makes it harder for the body and mind to stay in a nice relaxed state of slumber.
And if you’re wondering why this so often turns into the dreaded early morning – well, babies experience more micro-awakenings in the last part of the night, which just means more chances for them NOT to fall back asleep. Why not party instead?!
On top of that, since they have had a pretty extensive night of sleep preceding the waking, the drive to sleep is significantly depleted. So your baby is waking up more in the early morning hours and does not have a strong drive to fall back to sleep.
So there’s truth to the whole sleep begets sleep thing.
The best way to handle early morning waking due to over-tiredness?
Start implementing a consistent and age-appropriate sleep schedule that you carry through each and every day. If something gets completely thrown off, try to adjust for it with an earlier bedtime.
And make sure your little one’s sleep environment is sleep-promoting. Dark, cool, quiet, and safe will remove other competing elements that may encourage your baby to stay awake.
If you need help with either or both of these fixes, snag yourself my FREE and fully customizable Sleep Schedule Templates (good for ages 0 to 3+ years).
Your baby is under-tired
Wait! Before you roll your eyes, hear me out!
As your baby develops, he gradually (and I stress gradually) needs less sleep and can go longer periods in between sleep bouts. And as a result of both of these things, he’ll go from the constantly napping newborn to 4 naps then 3 then 2 then 1 then NONE! And it may not be entirely obvious exactly when these transitions should take place for your unique child. There are general guidelines on age-appropriate nap transitions, but these are just that… guidelines.
One of the biggest signs that your little one might be ready for a nap transition is consistent early morning wakings.
Take the following case:
Your 15 month old has been taking 2 solid naps each day – 1.5 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon. You’re relishing in the consistency and regular breaks that this schedule permits. His bedtime is a solid 7pm and everything is great. Except, he’s suddenly waking up at 5am and wanting to have a dance party with you!
Eeeek! What’s going on?!
15 month olds need anywhere between 12 and 14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period (this can be child-dependent). So let’s do the math: 3.5 hours of daytime sleep + bedtime at 7pm = 13.5 hours of sleep by 5am! Sleep duration met.
The body can only get so much sleep in a 24 hour period. So if this sounds like your situation, it may be time to drop a nap. See our Nap Diagnostic download.
The early waking has become habit
If neither of the above seems to match your experience, you may be resolved to think “maybe my baby just likes to wake up early”. It’s a common and warranted response.
But think of it this way. Sometimes our bodies initiate patterns that are not serving us, but they become habitual and difficult to break anyway. We are often reinforcing this habit in subtle ways, but we may not even realize it’s happening. If you’ve ever suffered a bout of insomnia, then you know what I am talking about.
Many factors can cause this type of habitual shift. Perhaps the early summer sunrise or a recent vacation or a restless sibling is the culprit, but either way your little one’s body begins sending a daily signal that is causing it to wake up before it is ready. And unbeknownst to our best intentions, our acceptance of this waking as THE waking for the morning reinforces it for the next morning. And the one after that.
This may be the trickiest form of early morning waking, because a shift in schedule is not likely to fix the issue. Rather, the body needs a sort of “reset” to get back on track. This is where I really pulled out all the stops with my kids, including crawling right there into the crib next to them in order to extend those morning hours.
Here are some things you may try to break the early waking habit and get those extra hours:
- early morning feeding sessions can help extend the night time sleep, give you a more manageable daytime schedule, and help with extended breastfeeding
- rocking in the nursing chair can help keep baby stay nestled and comfortable until wake time
- if he is awake but happy, try just leaving him be – sometimes those periods of wakefulness are just what they need to practice new skills and become secure in their spaces
- use clear and simple language that it is not morning time yet, and lay her back down in her sleep space
- try a GroClock to add a visual to your messaging – I was floored when this worked for my daughter at only 20 months old
- don’t throw in the towel after one failed attempt – consistency is key for setting new expectations
- if all else fails, try laying next to her even if she doesn’t fall back to sleep or telling her she can read or play quietly in bed
Will your baby always fall back to sleep? Of course not! But the key here is to keep things quiet, dark, under-stimulating, and as much as possible still within your child’s sleep space. Even if you just work in small time increments of say 15 minutes (see my post on dealing with Daylight Savings and other time shifts), with some time and consistency, her body systems will realize that it’s not time to be awake yet, and her body clock will shift to a more reasonable wake time.
Like many other aspects of our behaviour, schedules and rhythms are malleable. You don’t have to get up at 5am because your little one thinks it’s the best time of the day. By understanding why it’s happening and shifting your cues to match your baby’s needs, it is possible to get that more manageable wake time that you long for.