So many parents reach out to me because their child is sleeping well…until 4 or even 5:00 a.m. They are ecstatic that their baby is “sleeping through the night,” until they wake at the literal crack of dawn. Or perhaps your baby was sleeping thru until 6am or 7am until daylight saving time.
Believe me when I say this is a very common problem, but often, the solution isn’t one that is instant, as so many parents wish. Like anything to do with learning a new skill, learning how to fall asleep (and stay asleep) takes time. Early rising is essentially your child having a difficult time putting himself back to sleep after a long strength of sleep at night, or isn’t getting quite enough sleep to make it to his or her nap without being overtired This part of the skill is more difficult than putting yourself to sleep at bedtime.
I’ve found that when children are waking up well before it’s time, there are often 6 potential causes that parents need to consider that may be at the root of the issue.
Rule Out Illness Before You Worry About Early Rising
When your baby is sick they will usually wake up to let you know they do not feel well, and this is normal. During an illness, you need to know what your baby needs, even if it’s the middle of the night. It’s possible that your child is getting a cold or has an earache. If you suspect illness, pay special attention to his cries and body temperature and contact your pediatrician if you feel that anything is out of the ordinary.
Along that same line of thought, the common cold, allergies, or even GERD may be the culprit.
Another common cause of early rising is undiagnosed sleep apnea. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you ever hear or see your child breathing through his mouth?
- Do you hear him snoring?
- Is his sleep overly restless?
- Is the bed wet from sweating?
- Is his head cocked back during sleep?
If you were nodding along with anything on this list, please contact your pediatrician and ask them to check his tonsils and adenoids.
The Most Common Reasons For Early Rising
Sometimes a child will become an early riser and you may not recognize it as it is happening.
By “early riser” I mean that he is waking up earlier and earlier than the normal waking window wanting to start his day (6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. is normal for a baby, so anything before that is too early).
Here are six factors that can directly affect your child’s wake time:
- Too Drowsy at Bedtime
- Too Long of a Wakeful Window Between the Afternoon Nap and Bedtime
- Too Little Napping
- Too Late of a Bedtime
- Too Bright of a Room in the Morning
- Too Hungry
The paramount lesson of helping your baby to learn to fall asleep on his own is putting him to bed drowsy but awake. You want him to be tired and ready for sleep, not falling asleep as soon as his head hits the mattress.
Putting yourself to sleep is a form of self-soothing, and in order for him to learn, he needs to be awake enough and in bed long enough to experiment and figure out what helps him drift off to sleep. You’ll know when he’s mastered this because when he wakes up during the night (or in the wee hours of the morning) he can and will use the same “method” to drift off to sleep again.
Overestimating Their Wakeful Window
This may seem counterintuitive, but an overtired child generally takes longer to get to sleep and will wake more often during the night. So, while we want him to be drowsy, you definitely do not want to keep your child up too late, hoping that they will wake less often during the night and sleep later in the morning, as this rarely (if ever) works.
Review your baby’s nap schedule to make sure that you are not exceeding their wakeful window, and be sure there are no more than 4 hours between the end of his afternoon nap and his bedtime.
It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but short napping or not enough napping can cause increased night wakings and early rising. Quality naptime actually helps encourage quality nighttime sleep.
If your child tends to take very short naps or finishes their naps early in the day, you are probably dealing with early rising. Review your child’s sample schedule to see if you may need to adjust naptime.
Too Late of a Bedtime
Many parents are shocked when I tell them that their child’s natural bedtime is likely between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
If your baby’s bedtime is well beyond this window, sleep in the night could be disrupted and can lead to early rising, not to mention night terrors!
If your schedule is wildly different from the sample schedules, and your child is rising early, consider adjusting bedtime to see if this allows him to make it to a reasonable wake-up time.
Too Bright of a Room in the Morning
Is your child’s room bright as day even in the early morning hours? If so, the sunlight could be triggering a wake-up call for your child. Remember, our circadian rhythm is strongly influenced by natural light.
Even if you don’t think that this is the problem, it doesn’t hurt to install room-darkening shades or curtains in order to block out the sunlight.
If your baby is younger than 8 months, he may be genuinely hungry in the early morning. Remember, his tummy can only hold so much food, and once it digests he may be waking from real hunger.
If you suspect this is the problem try a “dream feed” at about 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. Additionally, be sure to review your baby’s daytime feeding schedule with your doctor at your next appointment to make sure that he’s eating enough during the day.
To successfully dream feed, slip into his room quietly and keep the light as dark as possible. Nurse or feed him while he is still very drowsy (just awake enough to eat) and place him right back in the crib.
Don’t talk to him at all and don’t change his diaper unless absolutely necessary. This late-night dream feed may give him what he needs to sleep until a reasonable wake time.
Return to The Sleep Lady Shuffle
If you find that after making adjustments based on the tips above, your child is still waking up too early, go back to The Shuffle and treat the early rising like any night waking. The catch is that you use you consistent response until 6:00 a.m.
Then, if he still has trouble, use what I like to call the Dramatic Wake Up! Leave the room for a full minute (actually, watch the clock!). After 60 seconds, return to the room bright and cheerful with a “Good Morning!” while you open the curtains and let the light flood in. This signals your child that you are getting him up because it is morning and not because he is waking up too early!
Keep using The Shuffle in the early morning until the habit resolved. If you allow it to persist you could be introducing a new sleep crutch that will need to be broken eventually.
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