Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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Early Morning Wake-Ups? Reasons and Tips to Manage Them Effectively

What qualifies as an early morning wake up for a baby or toddler?  Anything before 6 am is considered an early wake up.  Due to the sun and circadian rhythms it is not uncommon for kids less than 3 years to wake up in the 6 am to 7 am range.    The key to solving early morning wake up is understanding why they happen, figuring what that root cause is and how you can address it. 

Everyone will experience some early morning wake ups at one time or another, and it's nothing that you've done wrong, it’s just part of the process. 

5 Reasons for Early Wake Ups

  1. Being overtired. 

Being overtired means that your child woke up too many times in the night. They may have stayed awake too long before bed or they didn't nap enough the day before. This will often cause them to wake up early because they're overtired. 

The sleep cycles in the early morning are not very deep. They're shallow and fast. You may notice that your child might be in and out of sleep even between 5 and 6, and that's not uncommon. The painful part is when they wake up at 4:45, 5:00, 5:15 and you have to try and help them to get back to sleep.

I often notice that when kids start to drop naps, their parents don't adjust their bedtime to be earlier.  These long awake times before bed can cause the 5 am wake ups. 

One simple thing that a lot of parents can do is work on when's kiddos bedtime. Is your child getting enough sleep? 

Here’s a sleep summary by age so you can know what time your child should be heading to bed roughly at night. 

Click on the image above for the download page.
  1. Teething.
    Teething can cause inflammation in the night. Inflammation causes swelling.  Swelling puts pressure on pain receptors which send a message to the brain that there is discomfort. This discomfort may prevent them from relaxing back down and connecting to the next sleep cycle. Teething can also shorten naps for the same reason. 

Key times tend to be when a lot of teeth come in around ten and eleven months.

The pain from teething actually occurs before the tooth cuts through the gums. Once the tooth comes through, often the pain recedes.  However, teething usually come in pairs and another tooth may be on the horizon.  

  1. Motor leaps

When your child is busy learning how to roll both ways, pull up to standing, or walking before they have mastery, they may wake up at 5 a.m.

Sometimes motor leaps can manifest as being awake but content in the middle of the night for 45 minutes to an hour.

That emotional, cognitive system churning and being busy in the background can prevent children from relaxing into sleep. That's what sleep regressions are caused by: growth and distraction. 

Key point:  When you hear the term “sleep regression,”  I want you to think growth and distraction.  

Your child is growing physically by getting teeth, or neurologically by understanding concepts or motor skills, and that can distract them from falling back into sleep. 

  1. Environmental factors

Something environmental can distract your child from relaxing and getting back down to the next sleep cycle. 

In the winter, household temperatures tend to be the coldest around 5 a.m..  Does your child have enough layers on? A winter sleep sack or sacks with wool can be really helpful.

In the summer, as the sun starts to come out earlier, your child starts to wake up earlier. One great thing that you can do is block out the sun. This can be done with blackout curtains.

I use these black out curtains for home and for travel.  www.sleepoutcurtains.com.  You can use my code HELPINGBABIESSLEEP10 for 10% off. 

Auditory distractions.  Can you use white noise to block out household noises. Just keep in mind that some children may be more sensitive to noise than others.  Noise is not something you can “train” them to sleep through. 

  1. Habit

Maybe one of the above started the early morning wake up and now your child’s body is used to waking up at that time of day. 

What can you do about these early morning wake-ups? 

These early wake ups can be especially challenging if you’re still responsible for making your baby or toddler sleep.  Physiologically their body is getting ready to wake them up for the day with the natural rise in cortisol.  Add on seeing their favorite person in the world, you, and it can be very stimulating for them and hard to get them to relax back down to sleep.   Wouldn’t it be great if the whole world had the enthusiasm of a baby or toddler in the morning?  What a happy, exciting place the world could be. 

3 Tips to Help Your Little One Overcome Early Wake Ups:

  1. Is your room as dark and quiet as possible to help rule out distractions?
  2. Ask yourself if your child truly has independent sleep skills.  Can they be put down completely awake at bedtime and naps and fall asleep on their own?  If not, they will likely not be able to do that at 5 am.
  3. How is your behavior rewarding their behavior? Especially with toddlers, often early wake ups are rewarded with the undivided attention of a parent or being brought into a parents bed to get another 45 minutes in.  That can be very rewarding for a little person and perpetuate the behavior.  Ask yourself how can I limit stimulation and interaction to encourage them to either stay in bed, hang out in the crib on their own until my desired and reasonable wake up time for the day. 


Ready to solve your sleep challenges once and for all?   We can help you be loving, attached and well rested.  Check out Helping Babies Sleep School, we help parents with kids from four weeks of age all the way up to four years. 

helping babies sleep school Dr Sarah Mitchell

We can help you understand what their sleeping/feeding needs are to set you up for success and then work on how you can help your little one develop the number one thing that they need to sleep through the night :  self-soothing skills.

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