Hearing your baby wake up early, your toddler call out for you, or your older child come to your room, all before 6:00 am, is the WORST! If you’re like me, you even cringe if it’s before 7:00 am.
But I’m sure we’ve all been there! Early morning wakings are so frustrating as a parent and they can take time to rectify, but it’s not impossible! So in this blog post, I will share:
- How to know if your child is getting enough sleep each day and night
- The five most common reasons babies, toddlers, and school-aged kids wake up so early
- How to handle early morning wakings
How to Determine if Your Child is Getting Enough Sleep
Before we can talk about solving those pesky early morning wakings, we need to determine if your child is actually capable of sleeping in a bit more, or if it’s a matter of re-structuring their schedule.
So let’s start with how much sleep your child actually needs!
When I work with families of babies and toddlers, we try to structure the day so that each child gets around 11-12 hours of nighttime sleep.
When I work with older kids, the amount of nighttime sleep they need is often slightly less, though I still aim for around 10-11 hours of nighttime sleep.
As you can see from this chart, kids’ sleep needs continue to change as they grow older, and how much sleep each child actually needs changes from child to child; some kids seem to have higher sleep needs, while others seem to be on the lower end of sleep needs.
So when determining if your child is actually getting enough sleep, start with this chart.
If your child is not getting enough sleep in a 24-hour period, we need to do some digging to make sure they’re getting adequate sleep!
If they are getting enough sleep in a 24-hour period, yet are regularly starting the day before 6:00 am, let’s look at potentially dropping or capping naps, or shifting their bedtime later.
We also need to look at your child’s overall mood throughout the day.
When your child wakes up in the morning, do they still seem really tired? Do they fall back asleep on your shoulder or in your bed, shortly after waking up?
Do they seem grumpier, or overall just really tired throughout the day? If it seems like your child just isn’t getting enough sleep, trust your instincts – you’re probably right!
If your child is technically getting enough sleep in a 24-hour period yet is waking before 6:00 am and is clearly still really tired, keep reading for the most common reasons your child wakes up early to see how we can help them sleep in more!
The Five Most Common Reasons Babies and Kids Wake Up Early
Have you heard the phrase “sleep begets sleep”? It means that better daytime sleep = better nighttime sleep. It sounds counter-intuitive, but when kids don’t get enough sleep, their bodies actually build up a sleep debt that is hard to “pay back.”
Physically, overtiredness sends cortisol and adrenaline running through your child’s system – they need sleep more than anything, but those stress hormones make it so hard to not only fall asleep but to stay asleep, which can cause early morning wake-ups.
So if your child is still taking one or multiple naps during the day, make sure you’re following their appropriate awake windows/schedule and that they’re getting the right amount of daytime sleep.
It’s also important to make sure your baby or child is going to bed at an appropriate time each night (see the chart below). Most babies and young kids benefit from a bedtime between 6:30-8:00 pm, so if your child is regularly going to bed later, an earlier bedtime may solve those early mornings!
Finally, whether or not your child is still napping, don’t be afraid of an early bedtime to make up for a rough nap day or just an extra sleepy or off day; I have been known to put my girls down around 6 or 6:30 pm when necessary. Some parents fear that an early bedtime will cause an early waking, so they keep pushing bedtime later and later, but that’s where sleep debt starts setting in!
[If your child is still napping and you’re not sure what an age-appropriate schedule might look like, go snag my (free!) Ultimate Guide to Sleep Schedules!]
2. Feed-to-Sleep Association
You may not be nursing or bottle-feeding your little one all the way to sleep, but if feedings are too close on either side of sleep, this can cause early morning wake-ups to persist.
As a general rule of thumb, you should always aim to leave at least 15-20 minutes between finishing a feeding and laying your child down for a nap or bedtime. This will help prevent drowsiness as you lay your little one down (see reason #3 for early wake-ups!), and will of course ensure they’re not using feeding in order to fall asleep.
Keeping this 15-20 minute buffer between feeding and sleep will also prevent a “loose and lingering association.” A loose and lingering association is essentially a sleep prop that is not directly putting your little one to sleep, however your child is still relying on it to some extent to help them get ready for sleep – feeding and sleep are still very closely connected in their mind.
So if you have a babe who still needs a feeding as part of the bedtime routine (12 months and younger), make sure it’s the first step! Similarly, if your baby needs a top-off feed before his nap, make sure there are still at least 15-20 minutes between the feed and sleep.
Similar to leaving space between feeding and going to sleep, we also want to keep a space between your little one waking up and feeding again. So when your child wakes up in the morning or from a nap, wait at least 10 minutes before feeding them so sleep and milk feel disconnected!
3. Drowsiness at Bedtime
Similar to the feed-to-sleep association, if you’re helping your baby get drowsy before falling asleep, this could be another reason for those early morning wakings.
Whether that be from rocking, singing, cuddling, or even a pacifier, if your child is not doing the work of getting drowsy all on his own, you might see early mornings creep in. I explain it like this…
Imagine you are laying in bed, almost asleep, and your phone buzzes on the nightstand next to you. You’re awake enough to know that you weren’t actually asleep, however you now recognize it’s going to take a good 20 more minutes to fall asleep, because you’re now much more awake. The same thing happens to our babies and kids!
Not only could laying our babies down drowsy cause them to pop awake the moment they hit their crib, it could also make it challenging for our babies, toddlers, and even older kids to connect their sleep cycles through the night and/or come early morning, when their bodies are naturally in a lighter stage of sleep.
Laying our kids down AWAKE helps them learn to slip into drowsy on their own and fall asleep independently, so as they stir in the night, they know how to get right back to sleep without needing extra help (unless they still need a feed, of course! In which case, our goal is to lay them back down semi-awake, aware they’re back in their bed.)
[This is for babies four months and older – putting your newborn down drowsy is still okay!]
4. Wake-Up “Reward”
What does your child do within the first few minutes of waking up? Eat? Snuggle in bed with you? Watch TV? Some early morning wakings, especially for toddlers and older kids, are due to children getting one of these exciting “rewards” as soon as they wake up – why would they not keep waking up early?
I know it’s sometimes survival mode for you to catch some extra z’s, but try to delay those extra snuggles in your bed, immediate nursing, bottle feeding, or breakfast, and TV for at least 10 minutes after your child wakes up to break that association.
Instead, they can get dressed, help open the blinds, do a puzzle, read a book, etc., and then start getting their milk or breakfast.
5. Too Much Light
Our bodies are in a lighter stage of sleep in those early morning hours, so if there is any light peaking through the windows, it could cause your child to wake up early!
I tell the families I work with that the ideal level of darkness is, “I can’t see my hand in front of my face,” whether it’s 2:00 pm or 2:00 am. If you’re looking for some better blackout solutions, check out my favorites!
How to Handle Early Morning Wake-Ups
When I work with families on correcting these early mornings, we make it a rule that morning is not until at least 6:00 am, because no one wants to start their day any earlier, or if you do, you don’t want a child attached to you! And we certainly don’t want those early mornings to become a pattern.
So if your child wakes up at 5:15 am, treat it just like you would a night waking at 2 am – the expectation is sleep! In a perfect world, your child would fall back asleep and wake up at a more appropriate time (after 6!), but even if they don’t fall back asleep, staying in a dark and quiet room with minimal interaction is teaching their body clock that it’s still time for sleep.
And if your child is two or older, consider using a toddler clock! to help combat these early mornings! Rather than it being nighttime or morning time based on what mom and dad say, it’s based on their clock!
p.s. If your baby or toddler has been caught in an early-to-rise and therefore early-to-bed pattern, continue learning more about how to break that cycle in this blog post!
Early morning wakings are TOUGH! Fighting naps, short naps, and waking up early are the toughest parts of the sleep puzzle, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to fix! It takes time to adjust, as you’re often competing with your little one’s body clock, but you can get there. Consistency is everything with early mornings!
And if you’ve gone through this list and are still stumped by your child’s early mornings, don’t hesitate to reach out and book a free call! I work with families all the time with the goal to help their child start the day later, and I would love to help you, too!
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