Tackling early waking

Up with the larks: How to stop early morning waking

Oct 19, 2022
7 min read

If you need to know how to stop your baby or toddler waking early (we’re talking 5am and they’re up and at it!), then this article is for you. 

I had a baby like that - my first. And 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. 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.

In this article:

  • How early is too early?
  • What causes early morning waking
  • How to stop early morning waking
  • What to do when your baby or toddler wakes up too early

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How early is too early?

We often get asked what an appropriate morning wake time is for a baby or toddler, but there's no one right answer. It depends on your little one's age and it depends what time you are aiming to start your day.

For example, if you're working towards a 7-7 day and have a younger baby, a wake between 5-6:30am would be considered "early morning". Anything before 5am is still an overnight wake and anything after 6:30am would be considered a pretty normal wake time at this age.

If you have an older baby or toddler though, they can manage a bit more awake time, so 5-6am would be considered "early morning" and anything from 6am onwards is perfectly fine.

If you would prefer to start your day earlier or later, keep in mind that these morning wake times will also shift earlier or later. A toddler waking at 5am is not a problem if you're working towards a 6-6 day, but it can be a nightmare if you're aiming for an 8-8 day!

What causes early morning waking?

Naps vs Night sleep

One of the biggest factors in early waking is the way daytime sleep affects night sleep. Babies only need a certain amount of sleep in a 24 hour period. So if they have too much day sleep, they genuinely don't need to sleep till 7am and will wake early in the morning simply because they aren't tired enough.

Seems simple right? Here's where it gets tricky...

If your baby hasn’t had enough day sleep and was very overtired at bedtime, this can also cause an early morning wake. This is because when a baby gets overtired, their body is flooded with the stress hormone called cortisol, which is similar to adrenaline or caffeine. Higher cortisol levels means your baby's sleep will be more restless, causing more night waking and early morning waking.

The timing of your baby’s naps plays a big part too. If a baby’s morning nap is too early or too long, it can actually trigger or reinforce early morning waking because they essentially learn they can catch up on the missed nighttime sleep at their morning nap!

Having a late afternoon sleep that is too long or too close to bedtime can also lead to those early wakes because your baby won't have built up enough sleep pressure to help them stay asleep until morning.

The best way to rule out both under and over tiredness causing your baby's early morning wakes is to have them in a consistent nap pattern that is appropriate for their age. If you need a helping hand with this, our Little Ones App provides daily, age-appropriate sleep schedules that evolve to keep up with your baby's changing sleep needs.

If your little one's day sleep is spot on for their age and they are 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 really common reason for early morning waking is that they are actually cold.

Having your baby swaddled (for babies under 5 months who aren't rolling yet) or in a sleeping bag is the best way to go to ensure they stay cozy all night long. Using a heater can also be a good option in cooler climates/seasons, as long as you can control the temperature using a thermostat. Between 18-20C (64-68F) is the perfect room temperatures for babies and toddlers.

Little ones who are too hot or over-bundled can also wake early. This is the period of the night when babies come into their lightest sleep, so anything that makes them uncomfortable at this time of the morning can wake them and keep them awake.

Using natural fibres in your baby’s clothing and bedding, like cotton, merino or wool, helps to stop overheating. You should never use polyester, fleece or other man-made fabrics in your baby’s bedding.

Sleep 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, they can stay awake... especially if there is too much to look at in their room! 

Some babies are really sensitive to any daylight coming into their room, as this signals that it is morning and basically resets their body clocks. This can then create a physiological early morning waking habit, which can be hard to break!

Using black out blinds to create a totally dark room can trick them into thinking it is still the middle of the night and helps to keep the sleep hormone melatonin coursing through their bodies. Using white noise can also help your baby to sleep later in the morning, as it drowns out any household or environmental noises that might wake them. Check out our white noise tracks HERE.

White noise and a dark room are both positive sleep associations that signal to your baby that it is still time for sleep. When you get your baby up for the day, open the curtains and turn off the white noise to emphasise that it is now morning. This can help them start to learn the difference between day and night.

Hunger

Genuine hunger is a common cause of early morning wakes in younger babies - especially if they aren't waking earlier in the night for a feed. It is also quite common in babies approaching 6 months who are getting ready to start solids or babies between 6-8 months who are still getting established on solids.

If you're confident your baby is waking hungry, treat this wake like a night wake and offer a small feed to help them resettle back to sleep until 7am. Offering a smaller feed at this wake helps to ensure they are still hungry for their breakfast milk feed.

If your baby is under 6 months of age and only waking once for a feed in the early morning, offering a late "dream feed" around 10-11pm can help to fill them up earlier in the night so that they can sleep through until 7am without waking hungry.

Sickness or Discomfort

If your little one's sleep environment is spot on and you can rule out under and over tiredness, hunger and being too hot/cold, 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 starts quite suddenly) and don't always show other obvious symptoms such as a fever or runny nose etc.

Babies who struggle with trapped wind or reflux can also wake in the early morning as their health conditions can flare up once they come out of their deep sleep stages. 

How to stop early morning waking

Figuring out WHY your baby is waking up too early is the first step to getting them sleeping later in the morning. Once you've figured out and addressed the cause of your little one's early waking, it should stop, simply because there is no longer anything preventing them from sleeping later in the morning.

If the early wakes continue though and your baby is over 6 months of age, it's possible that it may have become a habit wake. In this case, the best thing you can do is to leave them to go to back to sleep (as long as they're not upset!) because they DO need to learn that they have to go back to sleep.

At this age, going into your baby's room will be sending them the message that you're coming to get them up for the day, so they will usually start to protest if you try to resettle them back to sleep. It can be very confusing for them!

If your baby or toddler is not going back to sleep on their own, or if they are upset when they wake, we have gentle methods in our Sleep Programs that you can use to reassure them, whilst still encouraging them to go back to sleep.

For older toddlers and preschoolers who are waking out of habit, using a sleep training clock (like a GroClock) can help them to understand when it's time to get up and start the day.

What to do if your baby or toddler wakes up too early

So despite your best efforts, your baby or toddler has woken early in the morning and won't go back to sleep... now what?

To help prevent your little one becoming too overtired, you'll need to make some tweaks to their naps. Depending on their age and how early they wake in the morning, you might do one of the following:

  • Give your baby a 10 minute power nap to help get them through until their normal morning nap time (or to help your toddler through to their lunch nap).
  • Start your baby's morning nap earlier and let them sleep for longer to "catch up" on some of the sleep they have missed.
  • For toddlers who are no longer having a morning nap, start their lunch nap earlier and let them sleep for longer there.
  • If your toddler or preschooler has dropped their naps altogether, bring bedtime earlier - as early as 6pm if needed.

Our Little Ones App contains detailed troubleshooting notes for early morning wakes that tell you exactly what to do to get your day back on track.

No one likes an early riser. There is very little about a baby or toddler that is cute at 5am in the morning! Hopefully this information has helped you get to the bottom of your baby’s early waking behaviour but if you want to take the guesswork out of it all, make sure to take a look at the comprehensive Sleep Programs in our Little Ones App.

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Bibliography 

Dewar, G. (2014, January 2). Baby sleep requirements: How much sleep do babies really need? PARENTING SCIENCE. https://parentingscience.com/baby-sleep-requirements/

Dewar, G. (2018, May 2). What’s normal? An evidence-based baby sleep chart. PARENTING SCIENCE. https://parentingscience.com/baby-sleep-chart/

Dewar, G. (2020, July 17). Baby sleep deprivation: How to tell if your baby isn’t sleeping enough. PARENTING SCIENCE. https://parentingscience.com/baby-sleep-deprivation/

Galland, B. C., Taylor, B. J., Elder, D. E., & Herbison, P. (2012). Normal sleep patterns in infants and children: A systematic review of observational studies. Sleep Medicine Reviews16(3), 213–222. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2011.06.001

Iwata, S., Fujita, F., Kinoshita, M., Unno, M., Horinouchi, T., Morokuma, S., & Iwata, O. (2017). Dependence of nighttime sleep duration in one-month-old infants on alterations in natural and artificial photoperiodScientific Reports7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep44749

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