Waking early can quickly become habitual
Aim to avoid the trap.
Once an early morning waking habit has formed, it will usually only change if parents make a conscious effort to resolve the issue. This might mean making adjustments to the sleep environment or nap routine. It might mean doing some sleep training to teach the child to continue sleeping or to happily stay in bed until a reasonable wake up time.
Why fix an early morning wake up?
Avoid a grumpy, irritable child.
When your child habitually wakes early, they can be losing up to two hours sleep a night (from 5am to 7am, for example), or at the very least one hour depending on the time that they woke and your desired wakeup time. Sleep debt accumulates which means if this is happening every day, your child could become increasingly overtired. With this compounding sleep debt comes the likelihood of your child becoming more and more irritable and grumpy, which can negatively impact everything from their appetite to their sociability. Naps can begin to fall apart and become shorter or more difficult to achieve and quite often, night time sleep will begin to deteriorate. It’s also difficult to maintain a routine when your child wakes consistently early. For example, if your child usually naps at 9.30am, but wakes at 5am, this is a long stretch of time for your child to be awake. Your child will either fall asleep earlier than their usual nap time or they will become overtired, which can upset the whole day.
Why is your child waking early?
When your child is overtired, their body secretes hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can hinder their ability to sleep soundly and stay asleep for longer. Overtiredness is a leading cause of an early morning waking problem. It can become a habitual cycle, where the early mornings contribute to an accumulation of sleep debt, which then negatively impacts sleep in the early morning hours. On top of this, overtired children tend to have more wake ups overnight which compounds the issue even further.
The solution to this is twofold. Get on top of naps by following an age appropriate nap schedule and put your child to bed earlier. In the week leading up to when you plan to start working on your child’s early morning waking, put them to bed as early as 6 to 6.30pm for a few days. Keep in mind the saying that ‘sleep begets sleep’. It’s true!
Too much day sleep can also cause an early morning waking. A child only needs a certain amount of sleep across a twenty-four hour period. If your child is sleeping a lot during the day, this sleep will ‘rob’ night sleep and your child will wake early to compensate. This is why it is important to factor in the timing and duration of naps when working on a solution for early morning wake ups, which is why following an age appropriate nap schedule can be beneficial.
In addition to focussing on naps, it’s important to address certain aspects of your child’s sleep environment as part of your plan to fix early morning wake ups, so your child has the best possible starting point. Your child is more likely to wake early if the morning sunlight shines through cracks in the blinds or they feel uncomfortable from the drop in temperature in the early morning hours. Those persky garbage trucks and dogs barking can also very easily wake a child as the early morning hours are a period of lightest sleep.
Inability to self-settle
It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect your child to resettle themselves at five or six in the morning, if they don’t know how to self-settle at other times.
How to fix an early morning wake up
☑️ Focus on nap timing.
If your child is on two or three naps a day, make sure the first nap is no earlier than 8.30am and preferably closer to 9.30am the closer they are to eight months of age. A nap earlier than 8.30/9am, especially if the nap is long in duration, can cause your child to wake early. This happens because your child’s body needs to build up enough sleep debt to compensate for the long, early nap they have become accustomed to. Early naps can be seen as a continuum of night sleep.
☑️ Focus on nap duration.
Wake your child from their first nap after thirty to forty five minutes and aim for the lunchtime nap to be longer. You might have to help resettle your child back to sleep if they wake early at the lunchtime nap.If your baby has woken early before around 6am, they will find it difficult to make it to their next nap time due the their awake time being too long. In this case, it may be necessary to offer your baby a ten to fifteen-minute bridging nap around 7.30am. This nap can be assisted which can mean in the car, the pram or on you, just to get them through. It is important that you view this only as a short-term solution of no more than two or three days and it’s not really suitable for children over six months.
☑️ Check your child is not too hot or too cold.
Think about cot and bed sheets and what you dress your child in. Use bedding and dress your child in PJ’s that are made from natural breathable fibres like cotton, bamboo or wool. Sleep your baby or toddler in a sleeping bag after they have transitioned from a swaddle because this will help to regulate their body temperature overnight, eliminate the need for bed coverings and it will keep your child cosy. Check that the TOG rating (Thermal Overall Grade) of the sleeping bag you use suits the temperature of the room. If you can, regulate the temperature of your child’s room to be between 18 and 22 degrees Celsius. You might have to use a fan, air conditioner or heater, depending on your climate.
☑️ Check your child is not hungry or thirsty.
In the week leading up to when you plan to start working on fixing your child’s early morning waking, assess their diet and make adjustments if you need to. It can be a good idea to keep a food diary to keep track of what your child is eating. If your child is still breast or bottle fed, make sure they are having enough full feeds during the day. Your baby might still need a feed overnight up to the age of between six and nine months so check this with your health professional.
☑️ Check your child’s bedroom is very dark.
Make sure there is no light filtering through cracks in the blinds or under the door, as even the smallest amount of light can be enough to wake your child early in the morning. Darkness also means it will be less stimulating and distracting if your child wakes, because they won’t be able to see anything in the room. You can use a blackout material such as black plastic taped to fit the windows right to the edges. Alternatively, you could use a commercial product which can be used at home but are also portable so you can take them with you when you travel. If your child is over two and a half years old, they might need a night light if you think they might be starting to show signs of being scared of the dark. Make sure the light is very dim and an ‘orangey’ shade of red.
☑️ Consider using loud white noise.
This can help to block out any disturbing external noises.
☑️ Teach your child to self-settle.
This is the ‘biggie’. Before you begin the process of working on an early morning wake up problem, you need to ensure your child has the ability to self-settle at bedtime and resettle for any waking at night.
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