Top Culprits for Early Morning Wakings

Early rising is one of the most common things I am asked about. So many parents struggle with this one, you are not alone. If you are constantly feeling exhausted as your little one persistently wakes up at 4:30am, please read on – there is hope!

What do we mean by early morning wakings?

The usual definition for early-rising is for wake ups between 4 and 6am. A ‘normal’ wake up time for babies is anything between 6 and 7am although later would of course be welcome!

Why are early mornings so difficult?

In the early hours of the morning between 4 and 6am our sleep drive is very low. ‘Sleep drive’ is the pressure that builds over time to help us fall asleep. At bedtime the pressure is high and the conditions are conducive to falling asleep: it’s dark, your body is tired, melatonin (sleepy hormone) is released, the temperature is slightly cooler and it is the time your body expects to go to sleep.

In the early hours of the morning the opposite is true: your body has had a good rest, melatonin levels drop, the sun is beginning to rise and we are in a lighter stage of sleep. All these factors mean that we are more likely to wake up and although we may need more sleep, our sleep drive is very low compared to that at bedtime.

What are the top culprits of early morning wakings?

CULPRIT #1: Sunlight is creeping in

Exposure to light is one of the things that sets our circadian rhythm (internal body clock) and will tell our body when to wake up and when to fall asleep. Even the tiniest shaft of light could be enough to cause a wake up especially when your baby is in its lightest stage of sleep. If you’re not sure if the room is dark enough – it needs to be as dark in the morning as it is in the middle of the night. Use whatever works for your nursery or bedroom to keep the light out. Dark curtains or blackout lining are usually not sufficient by themselves to block out all the light so you could try a blackout blind stuck to the window.

CULPRIT #2: Your baby is cold

Our core body temperature drops in the early hours of the morning and is at its lowest about 5am. It’s often subtle but body temperature may have dropped enough to trigger a wake-up. Research has shown that feet regulate your core body temperature so putting some socks on at bedtime and keeping feet warm may potentially reduce the early-morning waking.⁠

CULPRIT #3: Bedtime is too late

For most babies, a later bedtime does not mean a later wake up. Infact a later bedtime can mean that babies wake earlier. If your baby is waking up early, try an earlier bedtime. Even just 20-30 minutes earlier can have a big difference. Try it for a couple of weeks and see if it makes a difference.

*Occasionally I meet a baby who is going to bed too early. For example, an 8 month old who is getting 4 hours sleep in the day and may only need 10 hours of sleep at night and is going to sleep at 7pm will most likely wake up at 5am. In this case it is better to be realistic and shift bedtime a little later to encourage a more acceptable morning wake up time.

CULPRIT #4: Baby is overtired at bedtime

Babies who go to sleep when they are overtired often wake up in the night and early in the morning. If you are certain that your little one is not getting enough night-time sleep, not napping well in the day or has long wake intervals you can try bringing the bedtime forward. Getting an extra 15 minutes of sleep in the first part of the night will help your little one catch up on deep, restorative sleep and help stop any overtiredness. Watch for your little one’s sleepy cues and look at typical wake windows for your child’s age to know the appropriate bedtime for your baby.

CULPRIT #5: The first nap of the day is too early

When your baby has woken up really early, it’s very tempting to start putting them down earlier and earlier for their morning nap. However, an early first nap can reinforce early morning wakings and will start a viscous cycle of waking up too early and napping early as your baby’s body treats a very early nap as an extension of night sleep.

Please evaluate your wake window (that is how long your baby is up and awake before going back to sleep) between waking and the first nap. These are the typical wake windows based on your baby’s age:

6 – 12 weeks: 60 – 90 minutes

3 – 4 months: 75 – 120 minutes

5 – 6 months: 2 – 3 hours

7 – 12 months: 3 – 4 hours

12 – 16 months: 3.5 – 4.5 hours

16 – 24 months: 4 – 6 hours

The first wake window is often the shortest but it should still fall into the wake window range for your baby’s age. You should aim for the first nap to be at the desired nap time as if they had woken up at 6am. So for a 5 month old waking up at 4:30am this would mean aiming for a naptime of 8am (2 hours after the desired wake up time of 6am). It will be a struggle to keep your little one awake so attempt to lengthen the window by giving them some fresh air and a snack to keep them going as you gradually move the nap later by 15 minutes at a time.

CULPRIT #6: Too much daytime sleep

Some babies are waking up early in the morning as they have had enough sleep. When babies get more daytime sleep than they need they usually will not sleep as long at night. As your baby gets older, naps will need adjusting so please address the balance of daytime sleep in comparison to night-time sleep. With older babies 12 months and above, too much daytime sleep even by 30 minutes can result in early rising. Typical nap requirements by age:

3 – 6 months – 4 naps with total daytime sleep 4-5 hours

6 – 9 months – 3 naps with total daytime sleep 3-4 hours

9 – 16 months – 2 naps with total daytime sleep 2-3 hours

16 –  24 months – 1 nap with total daytime sleep 2-3 hours

2 – 2.5 years – 1 nap with total daytime sleep up to 2 hours

CULPRIT #7: It has become a habit

If you consistently wake up at the same time every day, your body clock adjusts and habit sets in. You know this when you wake up with your alarm every weekday for work, and still wake up at the same time on a Saturday when the alarm is not set. Try not to reinforce this habit by starting the day when they wake up. Keep it dark and as if it’s still night time. If you think habit is the reason your little one is waking early, you could try ‘stirring’ your little one about 15 minutes before their usual wake up time to try and re-boot the sleep cycle and see if you can delay their wake-up. You would do this by gently rubbing a hand on their back or shusshing and wait till you see some movement or a change in their breathing pattern. You would then do this a little later each day.

CULPRIT #8: Hunger

Some babies will be waking up early because they are hungry. If they wake up have a full feed and go back to sleep then this is likely to have been the case. However, if they have a feed and don’t go back to sleep you may need to look at the bigger picture. Assess whether your baby is getting enough calories in the daytime. Are they feeding/eating regularly through the day?

CULPRIT #9: How they fall asleep at bedtime

The way your little one falls asleep at bedtime is most likely the way she will get back to sleep during the early hours of the morning. As the sleep drive is at its lowest in the early hours this is the hardest time for a baby to drift back to sleep. Being able to fall asleep at bedtime and back to sleep at night wakings is an important skill in conquering early morning wakings. If you need support with helping your little one fall asleep independently, please book a free 15 minute call with me to find out how I can help.

What shall I do when my little one wakes up early?

It is a good idea to keep them in the dark and to not turn the light on immediately. If your child is waking at 4:30, wait quietly with them in the dark for 20-30 mins pretending to be asleep before turning the light on. At 5am for example, turn the light on, say good morning and start you day. This gives the child the message that when it’s light it’s time to get up. Keep making the time the lights go on later and later. Do not give your child breakfast until the normal breakfast time as eating times strongly influence the circadian rhythm so keeping meal times regular will help.

Bonus Tips

  • Expose your child to as much natural daylight in the daytime as possible.
  • If your child is falling asleep very early in the evening, keep the lights on brightly in the evening until one hour before your bedtime routine starts as melatonin (sleepy hormone) is closely linked to light exposure.
  • If your child is older, you could leave a book or some quiet activities out to keep them busy for a while when they wake up.

Finally, correcting early morning waking will take time and consistency. When making a change, please allow at least a week to evaluate the improvements before moving on.

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