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!
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!
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 you 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 night time 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!
If your child is still napping, make sure you’re following his awake windows and that he’s getting the right amount of daytime sleep.
And whether or not your child is still napping, don’t be afraid of an early bedtime!
Some parents fear that an early bedtime will cause an early waking, so they keep pushing bedtime later and later – cue sleep debt.
[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!]
Parents may not be nursing or bottle-feeding their child to sleep, but if feedings are too close on either side of sleep, this can cause early morning wakings.
You should always aim to leave at least 10 minutes between feedings and sleep, although 15-20 minutes is ideal. This will not only prevent drowsiness (another common reason for early wake-ups!), but it will also prevent a “loose and lingering association.”
A loose and lingering association is essentially a sleep prop the 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.
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 10 minutes between the feed and sleep.
And when your child wakes in the morning or from a nap, leave a gap of at least 10 minutes before feeding him.
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 that early morning waking.
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!
Not only could laying our babies down drowsy cause them to pop awake the moment they hit their crib, it could 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.)
[This is for babies four months and older – putting your newborn down drowsy is still okay!]
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 are due to children being “rewarded” right when they wake up, giving them extra incentive to wake 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.
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 my families they shouldn’t be able to see their hand in front of their face, whether it’s 2:00 pm or 2:00 am. If you’re looking for some better blackout solutions, check out my favorites!
My Final Early Morning Tip
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…no one wants to start their day any earlier, and we certainly don’t want that becoming a pattern.
So if your child wakes up at 5:15 am, treat it like you would a night waking. In a perfect world, your child would fall back asleep and wake up later, but even if they don’t fall back asleep, by staying in a dark and quiet room with minimal interaction, we’re teaching their body clock that it’s still time for sleep.
It takes time to adjust, as you’re often competing with your little one’s body clock, but you can get there!
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 would love to help you, too!
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