Why Does My Child Wake so Early?

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Arrgggg…This is one of the most frustrating things when you have a child. 

You finally get night wakings under control and your LO decides that they would like to be up at 5:30 A.M., just so they can torture you a little more (or at least that is what you think).

 Well… believe it or not, in most cases there is a reason behind the early rise.  In the post you will see that I am definitely more 'sleep consultant' like because I will be talking about total sleep hours and adjusting schedules which I don't normally do.  Unfortunately an early rise usually requires schedule shifts and the use of 'sleep science' to get things back on track.

I want to start by saying that there are just some little ones who wake early and there is absolutely nothing that you can do about it.  Make sure that you go to bed early so that you can get a full night of sleep.  I have worked with a few families recently who are in this situation and unfortunately we have done everything to try to adjust this.  Often times when a sleep consultant uses sleep training (which most do), the strategy will be to leave the baby or child in the crib until a certain time, even if they are screaming.  The purpose would be to then have the child lay in the crib silently until the parent comes to get them.  This absolutely would not remove the early rise, it would just mean that the child learns the parent is not coming so they lay there awake.  For those of you who know me, you know that this type of approach breaks my heart.  If you want more information about this, please sign-up to read my email series titled, '8 Things You Need to Know About Sleep Training.'

The most common cause of early rising is going to bed too late.
It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? As parents we often want to push bedtime later and later because our child is waking earlier and earlier. What actually happens by moving bedtime back is that then they are overtired when going to bed. When they are overtired, their body produces Cortisol (which is like a shot of espresso to the system) to keep them up. Going to bed with Cortisol in their system will interfere with the quality of their sleep and will more than likely cause them to wake up too early.

What is an appropriate bedtime?
It is important to watch their afternoon nap times. A bedtime that is too late is too late for one child may be just fine for another.  If you have an early rise, I would strongly recommend adjusting bedtime and moving it earlier to see if this might help.  For example, an 8-month old baby may be on two naps and have a three hour window before bed.  This may be absolutely perfect for one baby but may be way too much for another.  Again, the best way to tell is to adjust bedtime by even 15-30 minutes and see if that helps.

I am putting my child to bed at 6 PM and they are still waking at 5AM.  I would first like to point out that I never recommend a bedtime before 6:30 PM. If your child is an ’11 hours at night’ child and are going to bed at 6 PM, then 5 AM is 11 hours later – great night sleep! You may need to slowly move bedtime back by 15 minutes until you start to see the early rise resolve itself.

It is also important to know that if your child is getting too much day sleep, you may need to cap the naps to add to night sleep.  For example, a 10-month-old baby taking two, 2-hour naps then only sleeping from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.  This is four hours of day sleep and 9 hours of night sleep.  You could absolutely reduce the day sleep hours and see if this will add to your nighttime sleep hours.

I can’t even get my child to nap, or they don’t nap long enough.
Lack of daytime sleep has a big impact on bedtime (and therefore the morning) for the same reasons mentioned above. Naptime can be hard for some children, especially if they are not sleeping well at night. Just like the difficulty they have in the early morning with falling back to sleep, the daytime is a similar struggle because, well, it is daytime. Mom is doing things, they don’t want to miss out, it is light outside, etc. Watching their sleep-wake windows is critical and getting them down within these windows will give them a longer, and more quality sleep.  aGAIN i want to stress that every child has a different window.  Watch your baby, tune into them and try to follow their cues and not a book.

Another point about naps is that you really need to look at your whole day when trying to address the early rise.  Sometimes a family will put their baby down for their first nap too early.  If, for example, you have a 7-month-old baby who is waking at 5 a.m. and will only take three naps a day and you are putting them down for their first nap at 8 a.m., how are they going to make it to 6:30 p.m.? Depending on the age of the baby, I usually recommend holding off on that first nap until 8:30 a.m.

I have tried everything… Sometimes I go in and rub their back, sometimes I give a bottle and sometimes I let them cry but nothing work.  This is sending a very inconsistent response to your expectations before 6AM.  Baby is likely thinking, “Mom came in yesterday and hung around, today she isn’t showing up… I don’t understand.”  It is really important to come up with a plan for your early rising and try to be consistent.  The last thing that you need is a surprise at 5:30 in the morning and trust me, responding to your baby all night then sending dad in for that early rise is going to be a big surprise and will be met with lots of tears.  Find a response that gives enough support to your baby without overstimulating them. 

What else can I do... my child still wakes at 5 A.M.

Wait until another spring time change... just kidding!

A few additional strategies:

- I like to add a dreamfeed for a baby around 4 a.m. to see if they will sleep through if they have a full belly.  This is a really great strategy if your child will take a dreamfeed and sleep through it.

- I also love the groclock for children over 2.5 years old but this must be matched with connection, boundaries and limits in order for it to be successful.

- I also like to make sure that parents check and double check their child's sleep environment to make sure that nothing is bothering them, no noises are waking them, no light is creeping in and that their child's diaper is not so wet and heavy that it is bothering them.

But I know all of this and my child still wakes at 5 A.M.
Feel free to reach out - I have a whole list of additional tips and tricks up my sleeve to help with that early rise!

If you have more sleep related questions, feel free to reach out – lauren@islagrace.ca