Tackling early waking

UP WITH THE LARKS. Tackling early waking...

Nov 16, 2021
4 min read

If you need to know how to stop your baby waking early - we’re talking 4am, 5am they’re up and at it - then this story is for you. 

I sure had a baby like that - my first. It frustrated the living hell out of me!

It seemed no matter what I did with her bedtime, she still woke at 5:30am every single day. You, like me, have probably tried making bedtime later or making it earlier (which does work often by the way). I didn’t know back then, that the bedtime is actually only a tiny factor in your baby sleeping (or not sleeping) till a reasonable hour in the morning.

We field lots of questions about early waking, so thought we’d tackle this infuriating part of your baby’s sleep in a video:

Here are the main reasons babies wake early:

NAPS vs NIGHT SLEEP

One of the biggest factors in early waking is the way daytime sleep affects night sleep. If a baby has too much day sleep, they have simply already had enough sleep in that 24 hour period and they genuinely don't need to sleep till 7am. The opposite is also true - if your baby hasn’t had enough day sleep and was very overtired at bedtime, this stimulates a hormone called cortisol, which is similar to adrenaline and peaks during the afternoon and evening. Higher cortisol levels means your baby's sleep will be more restless, causing night waking and early morning waking.

The timing of your baby’s naps plays a part too - if a baby’s morning nap is too early or for too long it will actually cause or reinforce early morning waking because babies learn they can catch up on the missed nighttime sleep at that nap! Having a late afternoon sleep that is too long can also lead to those early wakes.

The best way to rule out nap-related reasons for early waking is to have your baby is in a good sleeping pattern so their naps are spot on.  

See THIS blog for more information about the relationship between naps and nighttime sleep. If your day sleep is all in line and your wee one is still waking before 6am, this is not "normal" and here are the next most likely causes:

TEMPERATURE

Babies are quite sensitive to being too hot or cold. A common reason for an early wake is that they are actually cold. Having your baby swaddled and then cotton or wool blankets over the top for babies under 4 months or in a merino sleeping bag for older babies is the best way to go to ensure they are cosy all night long. Using a heater in their room is a good option in cooler climates/seasons, as long as you can control the temperature - use a thermostat to set the room temperature: between 18-20 degrees Celcius is the perfect room temperatures for babies.

Babies who are too hot or over-bundled can also wake early too... this is the period of the night when babies come into their lightest sleep (they enter deep sleep again right before it's time to wake up), so anything that makes them uncomfortable at this time of the morning will wake them and keep them awake. Using natural fibres in your baby’s clothing and bedding helps stop overheating - we’d recommend fabrics like cotton, merino or wool. You should never use polyester, fleece or other man-made fabrics in your baby’s bed.

ROOM/ENVIRONMENT

If mornings are starting to get lighter your baby may start to wake around 5:30/6:00am and instead of going back into another sleep cycle, can stay awake if there is too much to look at in their room!  Some babies can be really sensitive to any daylight coming into their room as this resets their body clocks, signalling that it is morning. This can create a physiological habit of early waking which can be hard to break! Having a dark room can trick them into thinking it is still the middle of the night and keep those sleep hormones coursing through their bodies.

Using white noise will help settle your baby as it drowns out any household or environmental noises that might stimulate them at this time of the morning. White noise and a dark room are both positive sleep associations that signal to your baby that it is still sleeping time. When you get your baby up for the day, open the curtains, turn off the white noise and emphasise that it is morning so they start to learn the difference between day and night.

HUNGER

Genuine hunger in younger babies, babies approaching 6 months or babies who have recently been weaned off night feeds can cause them to wake around 5 AM. Treating this wake like a night wake and offering them a feed here would be your best bet, then put them back to bed till 7 AM.

SICKNESS

If you can rule out hunger, being too hot/cold and day sleep having been an issue, it might pay to have your baby checked by your doctor. Even if they don't seem sick, ear infections or sore throats are common culprits for early waking (especially if it happens quite suddenly) and don't always show other symptoms such as a fever or runny nose etc. Babies with wind/gas issues or reflux can also be early wakers as their health conditions can flare up in the early morning once they come out of their deep sleep stages. 

HABIT

In babies older than 6 months a habit may have formed, which could have initially been caused by one of the above reasons. In this case your best option is to leave them to it, as long as they're not upset, because they do need to learn they have to go back to sleep. At this age, even going into your baby's room will be sending them the message that you're coming to get them up for the day and they might really protest any resettling attempts you make. (Younger babies won't form these habits so easily, so look to the above reasons if your baby is younger than 6 months and waking early). Often babies wake early as they're still learning to consolidate their nighttime sleep; giving them the chance to go back to sleep here will help that process.

EARLY WAKING IN TODDLERS OR PRESCHOOLERS

If your toddler or preschooler is waking early, check the things off this list first. Habit, too much/too little day sleep, napping too late in the day or a room that is too light are the main culprits of early waking at this age. Using a tool such as a sleep training clock (like a GroClock) will help establish the “rules” with your little one around when is the right time to get up and start the day. Blackout blinds and white noise is just as effective for toddlers as it is for babies. 

No one likes an early riser. There is very little about a baby that is cute at 5:30 in the morning! Hopefully this information has helped you get to the bottom of your baby’s early waking behaviour. 

The best way forward is to take the guesswork out of it all by allowing your baby to fall into the rhythm of our Sleep Programs.

CLICK HERE to download your FREE Baby Sleep Journey Chart

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