It’s 5 a.m., you roll over as the monitor goes off. You hear rustling from the nursery. Yawn!!! After a few minutes go by your baby starts to fuss and you wait patiently in hopes they will fall back asleep.
Alas, at 5:30 a.m., fussing turns into more of a cry and you decide to get up and go get your baby. After a feed your baby is showing no signs of falling back asleep so you decide to start the day.
Does this story sound familiar?
Early morning wake-ups are one of the most common sleep challenges I get asked about! They also take the longest to see improvement. The first step you can do at home is to go through the list below to see if your baby or toddler falls into any category. If so, work on making that change first. If you can check everything off the list, it’s quite possible your baby has developed a habitual early morning wake-up pattern! This can happen very quickly, resetting the circadian rhythm and the internal alarm clock to start the day at 5 a.m.
Let’s review some of the top reasons for early morning wake-ups:
1. Sleep environment needs to be adjusted!
Is there any light peaking into the room before your desired wake time? If so, let’s start here with adding blackout shades! In the early morning hours, your baby is in a lighter stage of sleep and if they happen to roll over and see it’s light outside, their body will tell them it’s okay to start the day!
2. Sleep associations
Does your baby depend upon feeding, rocking, holding, or the pacifier to fall asleep? If so, your baby is much more likely to wake up and look for the same intervention to fall back asleep no matter what time it is! Giving your baby the important life skill to fall asleep independently will give them the skill to soothe themselves and fall back asleep at 5 a.m. without your help
3. Daytime schedule needs adjustment
Your baby’s daytime sleep needs change frequently in the first year of life! Making sure your baby is on an age appropriate schedule with the right amount of naps and wake windows will make a huge difference when it comes to overnight sleep. If your baby gets too much daytime sleep it will start to rob the overnight sleep bank thus another culprit of early wake ups. They’ve had enough for 24 hours! The opposite holds true as well and if your baby doesn’t get enough daytime sleep they will go to bed overtired increasing the chance for an early wake up.
4. Baby is hungry
Many babies under 6 months still need one overnight feed. If your baby is sleeping a long stretch prior to waking and will take a feed and go back to sleep without a fuss, then this is absolutely okay! If baby will not go back to sleep after the feed this can turn into the habitual pattern where their body starts to expect a feed at this time and because they have already slept 10 hours their body is telling them to wake up for the day!
What is baby or toddler’s expectation when they wake up early?
Another important piece of the early wake-up puzzle is to understand what your baby expects upon waking in the morning. Do they expect to nurse and snuggle with you the moment they wake up before ANYTHING else happens? If so, it’s hard to fall back asleep when you’re waiting for Mom or Dad to come in! Try putting a diaper change, dressing for the day, and a song before the feeding in the morning! A few minutes at first is about all you can expect, but gradually working toward 5-10 minutes before feeding can help out so much!
Does your toddler expect that they will get to watch a video, tablet, or snuggle in bed with parents? I know this is tough because we’re tired too, but this ingrains the pattern of early rising!
So how do I recommend handling early morning wake-ups?
Once you have checked everything off the list it’s time to give your baby or toddler MORE TIME! This is one of the biggest challenges!
Oftentimes I see families give their baby 5, 10, or 15-20 minutes to fall back asleep and then decide to start the day when they might actually fall back asleep if given a longer period of time. This is tough, but usually one of the most effective ways to move away from the habitual early wake up.
Any wake up before 6 a.m. is considered a middle of the night wake up, so we want to treat it that way! If your baby woke up at 2 a.m. you would do everything you could to get your baby back to sleep and would not end up starting your day, so think of 5-6 a.m. the same way!
My first goal is to have baby start falling back asleep after the early morning wake up even if only for 5 minutes at first. This will slowly start to reset the circadian rhythm and start of the day, but you have to give your baby an adequate amount of time to do this before starting their day! This does not mean you have to leave your baby to cry for an hour before your desired wake up time. Take it in baby steps and give them and extra 10-15 minutes every 2-3 days before starting their day.
Check in if needed!
Your baby doesn’t have to be alone during this time, but I do encourage parents to keep the environment dark and with as little stimulation as possible. Keep your baby in the crib and give various levels of reassurance with either verbal or physical touch to help calm and check in on your baby. Your baby’s age will play a big role in what kind of check in you can do if they start to escalate before your desired wake time. Babies going through peak stages of separation anxiety may do better with verbal reassurance over a monitor or very brief check-ins.
Early morning wake ups can take anywhere from 2-4 weeks to see improvement and resolution if you stay consistent with your approach!
Katy is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified baby and toddler sleep coach, certified breastfeeding counselor, and founder of Well Rested Wee Ones.
She has over 15 years of experience working in the field of pediatrics. She is married and a mom to two boys. Her mission is to ensure families “Feed Well, Sleep Well, and Feel Well.” She lives in the Kansas City area and works with families both locally and virtually from newborn to age 5. Follow her on IG here!
Note: Guest blog posts are shared for informational and educational purposes and may not reflect the official policy or position of SlumberPod (parent company, Dovetail Essentials, LLC), our employees and/or contractors.