Last updated on April 5th, 2024

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Kim West, MSW, Mom of 2, creator of The Sleep Lady Shuffle

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Early Rising in Babies and Toddlers – 10 Tips to Resolve Early Wake-Ups

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? The average baby wakes ‘early’ by most adult standards. Believe it or not, sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. is a biologically appropriate time for your child to wake up. If your baby is bright eyed and ready to play at 5:00, or worse, 3:00 a.m., you have to resolve early rising. If your baby, toddler, or preschooler is waking up too early, chances are it’s due to one of the four most common reasons for early rising:

  • A late bedtime
  • Nap deprivation
  • Staying awake too long between the afternoon nap and bedtime
  • Going to bed too drowsy

1. Try an Earlier Bedtime

What time are you putting your toddler to bed? It may seem counter intuitive, 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.

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2. Naps Lead to Good Sleep

Another common misconception 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. That can lead to early rising. Instead, make sure that you pay attention to their wakefulness windows. 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.

Questions about naps?
Read all about naps: Nap Training: The Best Tips from The Sleep Lady

3. Pay Attention to Wakefulness Windows

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, there are some other things that you can look for to help nip early rising in the bud.

4. Investigate Medical Conditions

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!

5. Encourage Sleep With a Dark Bedroom

Sleep comes easier in a dark bedroom. 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.

early rising
If you hear your baby stirring at 4:00 a.m., head into their 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 they can’t fall back to sleep

6. Eliminate Hunger

For some babies, waking early may be a sign of hunger. You may want to attempt a dream feed if your baby is under 8 months of age, and you think that this could be the source of your early rising issue. 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 return him to the crib. The hope is that he barely wakes up while he nurses or takes a bottle.

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7. Avoid Letting 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.

8. Understand 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.

Drowsy But Awake? What’s That?
Read more:
Drowsy But Awake — The Cornerstone of Successful Sleep Training

9. 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.

10. Use 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.

Hang In There

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. Move to an earlier bedtime if necessary — to fit with their wake up time — so that you don’t end up with an overtired baby at bedtime.

Author: Kim West, MSW, Mom of 2, creator of The Sleep Lady Shuffle

My name is Kim West, and I’m the mother of two beautiful girls, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 21 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. My sleep journey began when I started experimenting with gently shaping my daughter’s sleep by not following the conventional wisdom at the time. After having success (and then more success with my second daughter!), I began helping family and friends and my step-by-step method spread like wildfire, exactly like an excellent night of sleep for a tired parent should!