One of the most common questions I get asked is ‘how to stop early wakings’ and ‘why is my child always waking at 5am?’. So many families reach out to me because their little ones wake early and they can’t settle them back to sleep. It’s so tough. It’s tough for your little one as it means they are tired for the rest of the day. And it’s tough on you because we all need our down time but you get to the evening and after an early start, you are exhausted yourself and just want to go bed.
So what can you do to stop these early wakings?
Their sleep environment is often a good place to start when trying to establish what might be causing them to wake early. Is the room dark all night or does it gradually get lighter as the sun rises? If so, one of the cheapest and most effective ways of ensuring your little one’s room is dark are blackout blinds or curtains. They can be purchased reasonably cheaply and can sometimes be all your infant needs to sleep longer. Just like for adults, sleep patterns for children are interrupted by light.
Sticking with the environment you also need to look at noise. If their bedrooms are at the front of the house, noise from the street starts to get louder from about 5:30am. If noise is something that disturbs their sleep it’s ok to use white noise. My key tip here is to make sure you invest in a machine that stays on all night. This is critical otherwise you might find your little one needs you to keep going back in to turn the machine on all night! As a side note, I only advise using a white noise machine if external noise is an issue. Keep it simple and don’t introduce something your little one can become dependent on if they don’t need it.
This might sound a bit counterintuitive, but another thing that can cause early wakings is a baby not getting enough sleep in the day. I won’t go into the science of it here, but essentially over-tiredness can lead to more cortisol (the ‘awake’ hormone) in your little one’s body leading to them being ready to get up earlier than normal. The reverse is also true - too much day sleep can also contribute to early wakings and it might be a sign that your little one is ready to drop one of their day naps. However, too much sleep is more applicable to toddlers as they start to need less day sleep.
Cognitive & Physical Development
Sometimes it isn’t anything that we can control that wakes our babies in the morning. Cognitive and physical development leaps can often be the cause. Our tots go through such a huge amount of advancement in their first few years and their little brains are in constant overdrive. When my youngest son Rafferty first started clapping he would wake at 5am for a clap! He wasn’t upset; he just wanted to practice his new skill. It’s how parents react to these changes that determine if they are only temporary or become a longer term habit. As Rafferty wasn’t upset, we left him to clap. After a while he drifted back off to sleep. If we had reacted to him and assumed he was up for the day, he easily could have thought 5am was an acceptable time to wake going forward (and I can assure you it isn’t an acceptable time for Mummy and Daddy!).
The other culprit that we all know and love is teething. Before becoming a Dad I thought teething was something that happened in fits and spurts. I didn’t realise that it’s pretty much constant for 2 years! But what’s important to remember is that little ones typically sleep through what I like to call ‘normal teething’. It shouldn’t be a reason to put off or delay encouraging your baby to practice independent sleep. There are times when them little teeth are pushing through the skin. This can be such a tough time for babies and you should give them as much extra support that they need. Use your parental instinct - it’s the best tool you have in your bag!
OK, so we have established some of the causes, but what can you do to help encourage them back to sleep?
Start with looking at the sleep environment: blackout blinds, white noise and temperature are all reasonably easy fixes.
Focus on day sleep. Finding the ideal day routine for your little one is a huge component of long and restful night sleep.
Make sure bedtime isn't too late. I often hear parents say they put little ones down later to stop them waking early but as we learned above, over-tiredness can have the opposite effect.
This is optional and for older babies, but I encourage a ‘no feed zone’ between 5-6am (if your baby’s schedule is 7pm-7am). Feeding too early in the morning kickstarts baby's metabolism and they can begin to ‘need’ that early feed which reinforces them waking again and again. If they wake between this time, encourage them back to sleep with settling methods such as rubbing their back, shushing and repeating a consistent sleep phrase such as ‘sleepy time’.
Work out what time of the day is acceptable for your family to wake up. As a guide I tell my clients to count forward 11 hours from bedtime e.g. if little one goes down at 7pm then 6am is an OK time to start the day (hence the 5-6am no feed zone). It might be hard but try and not rush to get them up before then and instead help settle them back to sleep. Getting them to drift off is a very powerful response to shifting the body clock. Once it gets to your agreed ‘wake time’, burst into the room happy and sunny to start the day.
I’m a baby and toddler sleep consultant specialising in designing gentle sleep training programmes for babies and toddlers. I work with clients on a one to one basis and I also have a series of age-specific online courses for you to implement at your own pace.
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