Looking into the face of our children may be one of the best ways to start a day. Whether you are snuggling with your baby or watching that wide smile on your toddler as they run into your arms. You can’t get much better than that.
Except when their “morning” comes at 5am.
A child waking up in the wee hours of the morning can certainly take the joy out of the situation. Even if you can forget about your own sleep needs for the moment, an early morning wake up is rough on your little one. They are not as well rested as they should be and may struggle through the rest of the day. And I’m sure you could have used that extra hour or two of sleep yourself!
If you are currently struggling with early morning wake ups, I’m happy to tell you that there’s almost always an explanation for why it’s happening, as well as a way to fix it.
Let's dig in.
Assess their sleep environment
It’s very beneficial to your baby’s sleep that their sleep environment is conducive to a good night's rest. Think about room temperature, noise levels, and lighting. Babies are more likely to wake up early if they're too hot or too cold, so ensure they're dressed comfortably. (Typically go with one layer more than an adult would wear while sleeping in the same environment.) Use a sound machine to drown out any disruptive sounds. Dim any lights in the room that are on all night (nope, you don’t need 3 night lights!) and invest in blackout curtains to block out early morning sunlight.
Create a bedtime routine
Children thrive within repetition and predictability, and a structured bedtime routine can work wonders for their sleep schedule. Create a soothing routine that signals to your baby that it's time to wind down. I love starting routines with a warm bath, but you could also include a massage, lullabies, stories. What you include in the routine is not as important as keeping it the same every night.
Monitor daytime sleep
Surprisingly, too much daytime sleep can contribute to early morning wake-ups. Getting too much sleep during the day can leave children less tired at bedtime and lead to early morning wakings. Find a good balance between appropriate nap duration and a schedule suitable for your child’s age. Sleep needs can change so quickly as our babies grow! Is it time for a nap transition? If you need a reminder of what your baby’s current sleep needs are, check out this awake window guide.
P.S. If you've got a 3-4 year old who is waking early, it’s likely time to drop that daytime nap altogether!
Now hear me out here. I just got done explaining why too much sleep and not being tired enough can cause early morning wakings. But the opposite is also true. Too much time awake (“overtiredness”) can also cause early wake ups as well as restless night sleep. If this is the case for your little one, try an earlier bedtime for a week or so and see if there is an improvement.
Encourage self-soothing skills
Babies who have learned to self-soothe are more likely to go back to sleep independently if they wake up too early. Throughout the night, give them a chance to settle themselves back to sleep before intervening. Even if they cry, it’s ok to wait a few minutes to see if they can self-soothe. As they become more skilled at falling asleep on their own, their night sleep should become more restful too!
Stick to a minimum
Pick a (reasonable) time that you can expect your child to sleep until. Often this is 6 or 7am for many families. We don’t want to pick a time based only on our preferences (would anyone else pick 8am like I would?), but a time that is appropriate based on your child. Perhaps a time that they used to wake up. Let’s say you choose 6:30am. That is now your minimum wake up time. If your baby wakes at 5am it is not morning (or even close!) and it is not time to get up. Treat it as if they are waking in the middle of the night and respond appropriately.
If your child is 18 months or older, I recommend getting a toddler clock that changes color at a time that you set. This is a great way to introduce the idea of them staying in bed until morning and encourage independence.
Early morning wake ups can certainly be challenging, but just making a couple changes (and having patience for them to take affect) can make big difference. Every child is different and what works for some will not work for others, so don’t be afraid of some trial and error. If you want some more help digging deeper, shoot me an email!