Having a baby is akin to having a human alarm clock. Both wake you up with sudden noise, but what happens when your baby suddenly begins to wake earlier and earlier? Sure, the average baby wakes ‘early’ by most adult standards, usually sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. (which is a biologically appropriate time for your child to wake up). But what happens when your baby is bright eyed and ready to play at 5:00…or worse, 3:00 a.m.?
Early rising is a common problem for babies and toddlers (and even some preschoolers), but luckily, it’s also normally a fairly easy fix, once you’ve identified the problem.
Did you know that most cases of early rising may be contributed to one of four issues:
• A late bedtime,
• Nap deprivation,
• Staying awake too long between the afternoon nap and bedtime, or
• Going to bed too drowsy.
A Late Bedtime
What time are you putting your toddler to bed? It may seem counterintuitive (if your baby stays up longer, he’s bound to sleep longer, right?), but keeping your child up later may actually be the cause of his early rising. When you put your baby to bed exhausted and overtired, it actually makes it harder for his little body to settle down and get quality sleep. Most parents find that a bedtime between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. fits within their children’s ability to sleep well, and not wake too early.
Another misconception I find very common is that if you keep your child from napping, they’ll sleep better at night. In fact, the opposite is true. Babies who take very short naps, or finish all of their naps early in the day tend to have trouble sleeping at night, which can lead to early rising. Instead, make sure that you pay attention to their wakefulness windows (link to naps recap article), and try not to exceed them if at all possible. A baby (or toddler) who is overtired and wired before their nap simply will not nap as well or as long.
With children who have moved to a single nap each day, make sure that their nap is after lunch to ensure that they aren’t overtired at bedtime.
Too large of a wakefulness window between the end of your baby’s afternoon nap and bedtime can cause early rising. The average wakefulness window for most toddlers is around 4 hours.
If you have a child who is waking early, and the above suggestions are simply not working (or you’re following all of my advice, but still dealing with an early riser), there are some other things that you can look for to help nip early rising in the bud.
You may be surprised to learn that a common cause of early rising is undiagnosed sleep apnea, along with allergies, the common cold, and GERD. This is because these conditions restrict the nasal passageways (babies, newborns especially, are exclusive nose-breathers) which makes it hard to breathe, and therefore, harder to sleep. If you hear your child snoring, or gasping in their sleep, please do not ignore the symptoms and see your pediatrician.
Remember, this applies to all children, not just newborns!
Encourage Sleep With a Dark Bedroom
How dark their bedroom is during sleep times can greatly influence the quality of your baby’s sleep. If you find that this is the case with your toddler’s bedroom, consider purchasing room-darkening or blackout shades to truly block the light. We are all influenced by our circadian rhythms, none so much as our children.
Having too much light can actually cause your child to wake up earlier than normal, so be sure that their room is sufficiently dark.
For some babies, waking early may be a sign of hunger. If your baby is under 8 months of age, and you think that this could be the source of your early rising issue, you may want to attempt a dream feed. Simply put, this means that you would feed your baby at 11:00 p.m., being careful to be as discrete and quiet as possible, and immediately returning him to the crib. The hope is that he barely wakes up while he nurses or takes a bottle.
Do Not Let Your Baby Wake Screaming
If you hear your baby stirring at 4:00 a.m., head into her room right away and try to coax her back to sleep. The last thing you want is for her to scream until she is so upset that she can’t fall back to sleep. Be careful though, you don’t want to create a sleep crutch by running to her aid at the smallest whimper. Listen to the sounds that your baby is making. If you think that she may not be fully awake, try to resist the urge to go and check.
Remember: Drowsy but AWAKE
It’s an oldie but a goodie: make sure that you are putting your baby in his crib drowsy but awake. This means that you need to be aware of how sleepy he is getting during his bedtime routine, and may need to make some adjustments. To ensure that your child is ‘awake enough’, try to put him in the crib when he is still alert, and will understand that he’s being put in his bed. If you are putting your child to bed too drowsy, he won’t learn to resettle himself when he wakes during the night.
Use The Shuffle
If all else fails, revert to The Sleep Lady Shuffle at night. Treat the early rising issue as you would normal night waking, with the exception that you will only be ‘shuffling’ until 6:30 a.m. If your child still has not fallen asleep, leave the room for 30 to 60 seconds, and then return, using dramatic wake up to help your child differentiate between sleep time and awake time.
Utilize Dramatic Wake Up
Some children need a definite line between sleep time and wake up time. Dramatic wake up is great for that. When you go in every morning, make a big deal about saying ‘Good Morning’. This will send the message that you are getting her up because it’s morning, not because she is crying, or refusing to go back to sleep.
With older children, it can help to get them a ‘sleep clock’ that either changes color when it’s time to rise, or plays music. This especially helps with children who like to be independent, but still need guidance about appropriate wake times.
As with changing any sleep habit, changing the pattern of early rising is going to take both time and consistency. Don’t give up if you feel that the problem isn’t resolving itself-it may just be that your child is bright eyed and refreshed between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. Remember that this is an appropriate time for your baby to wake up. Be sure that you are adjusting your child’s flexible schedule (including moving to en earlier bedtime if necessary) to fit with their wake up time so that you don’t end up with an overtired baby at bedtime.