Early morning wake ups can be oh so hard. Sometimes you can take steps to fix it. Sometimes you can't.
It is just barely 5 a.m. and I hear Vivian rustling in her bed. I’m not fully awake but already hoping that she is just resettling. I keep my eyes closed and pray “go back to sleep, go back to sleep…” Nope, a minute or two later she is crying. And not the kind of whimper of sleep cycle connecting, the kind of crying that tells me she is up. My heart races because all the thoughts go through my head: this is going to throw off her whole day, she’ll be too over-tired to nap, she will be over-tired at bedtime and have a rough night, and, last, how will I function today being up this early?? Can you tell I have some anxiety? Early mornings are so hard!
Sleep disruptions happen for a number of reasons including teething/illness, growth spurt, or from being over tired. Early morning wake ups can often rear their ugly heads during sleep training: your kiddo has finally gotten much needed consolidated sleep (probably slept through the night for the first few times ever!!) and feel like they are ready to tackle the world – at 5:00 a.m. Babies and toddler’s don’t yet know that NO ONE tackles the world at 5 a.m. And usually this is temporary as kiddos typically fall into a regular routine and parents also learn how to adapt and manage their child’s sleeping patterns.
But what about after sleep training? How can we get kids to wake up at an ACCEPTABLE (6:00 a.m. or later) time? What happens if they are waking up early for “no apparent reason” like Vivian the other morning? Let’s dig in on a few things you can try to discourage early morning wake ups.
Babies and toddler’s don’t yet know that NO ONE tackles the world at 5 a.m.
Steps to Solving the Problem
I’m a teacher and data is key. So, I recommend grabbing a notebook and start jotting down notes to help you find a pattern. Yes, this may take about a week or so. But it is a good place to start.
Step 1: Check the Environment
Babies are super sensitive to light and I always recommend that you have your room dark dark DARK! Like a 10/10 on the darkness scale. Any light creeping in will stimulate your baby’s natural hormone (cortisol) that tells them it is time to wake up. Get creative here: blinds, black out curtains, EZ Blackout covers, trash bags, cardboard – do what you need to make it dark. I use push pins to tac the blackout curtains to the wall basically sealing all the light OUT of the room. It may not be pretty, but it is totally necessary!!
Also, could it be a noise situation? Vivian used to wake up early every Tuesday morning and we could not figure it out (we had just moved to a new house) and we finally made the connection that the trash truck came early (like 5:30 a.m., WTH?!) and this was waking her up! So when your baby wakes up early, start to notice trends in noise. In our old house, my shower was right next to Evelyn’s room and I would wake her up every morning when I took a shower before work.
Step 2: Check the Morning Routine
Sometimes, especially for younger babies, the first nap is too close to wake up time and they are treating that nap as an extension of nighttime instead of a nap. So the early morning wake up is simply a brief party then back to bed. Make sure you are following (and then adjusting accordingly) your child’s wake windows.
I’d also think about what is happening when baby wakes up. Is baby waking up early looking forward to something? In Vivian’s case, one of the issues was that she was waking up because she wanted to watch Curious George. See, we had gotten into a habit of putting it on in the morning because we were exhausted. This backfired. I recommend that you delay any meaningful activities until 10-30 minutes after wake up. Maybe you sit with them in the living room for 10 minutes before offering breakfast or perhaps you give them a book to read while you get dressed. Basically find a way to make early morning boring and not worth the early morning.
Step 3: Early Bedtime
Most of the time, early morning wake ups are due to overtired: Something happened the day/night before that threw everything off and
either your kiddo had multiple (and unusual) night wakings and/or an early morning. I see this with clients often. If your child had a rough day with naps, maybe short or non existent naps, or strangely timed naps, or something was just off, I recommend you go for an early bedtime. If it is an issue of overtired, an early bedtime is your go to.
This is not a forever deal so don’t get worried if your baby is going to sleep too early (around 6:00) for your family's schedule. This is just temporary to get through this phase of overtiredness. Things should even out once they clear their sleep debt and get back on schedule.
Step 3.5: Later Bedtime
It could be that your child is getting the right amount of sleep during the day in naps and also at night but their timing is a bit leaning the wrong way. If this is the case, you can start to nudge back bedtime to a slightly later time. I suggest doing so in 10-15 minute increments for about 3 days at a time until your baby’s bedtime is about 30 minutes later than usual. You will NOT see later wake ups right away. So be consistent and give it a few weeks to sink in.
Step 4: Morning Starts at 6:00 a.m.
Do not get your child out of the crib until 6:00 a.m. If she wakes at 5:00 a.m., you will treat it just a like a night time wake up and give interval reassurance. But keep her in the crib until 6. If you start giving in on this her body clock will eventually adjust and her wake up times will get earlier and earlier and earlier.
Step 5: Wake to Sleep
Oh boy. This is a last resort and, frankly, has a moderate success rate so certainly not fool proof. But if you have legitimately tried all of the above with fidelity and longevity, you can try this. THIS is unforgiving with inconsistency so you MUST be prepared for it, just like you did with sleep training with me during our two weeks together (haven’t sleep trained yet? Click here).
How it works:
Write down the time your baby is waking up for about 4-7 days. You will likely see a pattern. For example, you notice that baby usually wakes between 5:05 - 5:13 a.m. each morning
Set your alarm for 4:00 a.m. and go into your child’s room to slightly rouse them – bring them out of REM sleep but not fully awake – then leave. THIS IS THE HARD PART!!! Sometimes simply opening the door to the room is enough to accomplish this.
If baby wakes up early (anytime before 6:00 a.m. is early), leave them into the crib until 6:00 a.m.
If baby sleeps in (YAY), celebrate! And then do it again for 7 days.
Innate Early Risers
And, of course, there are some babies who are simply early risers. Both my girls were 5:45 a.m. kids. NO MATTER WHAT WE DID. As a parent, I just had to manage my expectations and prepare to be up at 5:45 each morning. I am the kind of person who can deal with most things if I know ahead of time what is coming. Things with Evelyn got better when she was about 2.5 or 3 years old when she started sleeping until 7 (holla!!!). But we are still in it with Vivian. She wakes (expectedly) each morning at 5:45 and she stays in the crib until 6. I’m really hoping she follows her sister and this starts to turn around soon!! (Update: SHE DID!!!!)
On the days you feel like you don't have it, have extra COFFEE!
Early morning wake up is amongst the top topics I get asked about as a sleep consultant – they are so common, you are not alone! Try these 5 steps on moving your child’s morning wake up time back. I truly hope one does the trick!! Or, at the least, you can learn to accept that this is a phase and one day it won’t be so bad. You got this, mama. And on the days you feel like you don’t “have it”, have extra COFFEE!!!!
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