Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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The 4 Reasons Your Baby Wakes Up Too Early!

Do you have a baby or toddler who is waking up early in the morning? By early, I mean before 6 am. Anything after 6 am is fair game. Based on a human’s circadian rhythm, we can expect that babies and toddlers will wake up anywhere between 6 and 7 am. 5:00 am and 4:30 am are pushing that limit and our patience.

Early Wake Ups – Why the sudden change?

When these early wake ups first start appearing, they can be a shock to the system and a big cup of coffee and maybe some Netflix to pass the time is in order.  Then some sound deductive reasoning comes into play. Why is this happening? What’s changed?

There are a few main causes of EWUs:

1. Being Overtired

When a baby is overtired, he “surfaces” in the lighter sleep cycles of the early morning and realizes he’s awake – and cries out because he doesn’t feel great! He’s still tired. Contrary, a well-rested baby who gets to bed before he’s overtired and “wired”, would be able to self-soothe back down into sleep for a bit longer.  

  • The causes of overtiredness include:
  • Not getting enough daytime nap quantity.
    From 3- 6months baby needs 3 -4 hours of total daytime naps.
    From 6 months to 9 months baby needs 2 -3 hours of naps.
    From 9 months to 3.5 years baby needs 1.5 – 3 hours until no daytime nap takes place somewhere between 3 and 4 years of age.
  • Bedtime is too late. Parents commonly make the error of setting bedtime based on some arbitrary time such as when Dad comes home.    However,  staying awake too long before bed can be the reason why your baby fights bedtime, takes forever to fall asleep AND gets up early in the morning.
  • Bedtime should be based on when your child woke up from his last nap until at least 2 years of age.

Want to know more about awake times and how long your baby or toddler can comfortably stay awake for between sleeps?  

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2. Teething

When a baby surfaces between light sleep cycles in the early morning, their teeth may be bothering them. Inflammation accumulates overnight and they don’t have the stimuli of the daytime to distract them away from the discomfort that inflammation causes. This discomfort distracts your child from getting back to sleep, just like a poopy diaper, being too cold or having too much light in the room would.

What you can do for teething: Pain relief via medications. Unfortunately, most medications wear off after 6 – 8 hours.   When my daughter’s teething was at its worst and was keeping her up in the early morning, I would slip into her room around 2 am and give her a dose of Advil. She was in a state of semi-consciousness when she received the meds and would drift back off. Not every child can do this, but if you know your baby will go back to sleep you can try this. Otherwise, all you can do is ride out these early wake ups.  *Always consult with your pharmacist or pediatrician regarding medications.

3. Motor Development

We are so excited when baby starts to roll, crawl or take some new steps! That excitement starts to wan when they start waking at 5 am to practice this new skill.

Have you ever had a morning where you woke up before your alarm and thought about something new and exciting and perhaps slightly stressful going on in your life? I’m sure most of us remember being pregnant and waking up thinking about how our life would be changing, and then not being able to fall back asleep. It’s the same type of scenario for our little movers. They are distracted by their new skill – either in thinking about it, or wanting to practice it that they can’t go back to sleep. This scenario can often go hand in hand with a night waking that last about 1 hour where baby may babble and play a bit but not cry. You are likely to see these changes pop up around 9 months, 18 months and 22 months.

What can you do: Unfortunately, not much. Give them ample time to practice the new skill during the day. Make sure they get lots of rest during the day to compensate for the night wakings and/or early mornings.  Remember that this too shall pass.  Often we think it is our job to “make kids sleep.”  Instead think of your role as teaching your child how to sleep, and then setting her up for successful sleep with timing, skills and boundaries.

4. Habit

Your baby may have started with some early wake ups due to teething or developmental changes and the changes passed, but the waking up didn’t. Then you are stuck with a habitual wake-up. Little babe’s body has gotten used to getting up at a certain time everyday and can’t get out of it. It is similar to us habitually waking up at 7 am on the weekend when we get up during the week at that hour.

As a general rule, you don’t want to get your baby out of bed until 6:00 am and you want to set the tone that Mom decides when wake up time is.  At 6:00 am then you go in and do your dramatic wake up.

This dramatic wake up is you setting the stage of who decides when morning starts. You open the curtains, turn on the lights, act cheery and get baby up and going for the day. You are setting expectations that Mom will come in and decide when morning is, not baby. You want to start this from the beginning. I read a great quote somewhere that said, “start as you want to finish”. Those habits and expectations you introduce your baby to, will be the standards she lives by.

What can you do if your baby is now over the teething and the developmental changes and caught in a habitual wake up?

These can be really tough to tackle. The first method is called “wake to sleep.”    With this method you are trying to gently disrupt your baby’s sleep cycle so that the time of “surfacing” changes and allows a longer sleep in. Personally, I have had excellent success with this technique, but it can vary child to child.

If this isn’t working for you, then you’re in for a longer slog as you have to break this early wake up habit, and it probably won’t be very pretty.

First you need to ask yourself, I am rewarding this behavior in any way? For example, are you bringing baby into your bed when he wakes at 5:20 am so you can get more sleep?

Are you snuggling or watching TV with him in bed at that hour. In this case you are enabling and then rewarding him to have an early wake up. It will be very doubtful he will ever give this behavior up on his own if this reward continues.

Secondly, you will have to establish your plan for how you will communicate and set up the expectations and boundaries for your child that 5:00 am is not an acceptable wake up time.

I am a big fan of the GroClock that shows the starts and night and shows the sun coming up at 6:00 am or whenever you set it for. This helps establish boundaries for your child. You can start introducing the clock concept around 18 months. I am also a big fan of telling your child exactly what will be happening with advanced warning. At bedtime the night before you decide to start you can tell your child that he won’t be allowed to get up when he wakes up at 5:00 am and that he has to wait until the sun comes up to be able to get out of bed. There is a great book that comes with the clock that talks about morning starting with the sun come up.

At around 2.5 years, children start to understand consequences and rewards, so this is a great time to introduce rewards charts as part of this process as well.

A child will have varying responses to these methods. How you proceed from here after introducing the boundaries is based on your style and your child’s situation. In some of the toughest cases I’ve seen, toddler would just not respond to the clock by itself and needed some sleep training to break the habit. And at this age, that is related to changing baby’s expectations.

For example a 22 month old toddler who woke up every day at 5 am and then went into Moms room for cuddles and TV is not going to be motivated to put himself back to sleep. Perhaps he got in this rut because of molars, or the language burst, but now after 5 weeks this is a habitual wake up.

Mom tried the “wake to sleep’ technique for 3 days and it just didn’t work for their family. Toddler is waking up cranky and tired, and the entire house is now tired! Nobody wants to do sleep training at this hour, but how do you break this bad habit?

After introducing your boundaries, and communicating the changes, you have to choose a sleep training method that you would like to use where you are either in the room with your baby repeating your key phrase of its sleeping time, or you are doing interval checks (controlled responding), or you are leaving the room completely and not returning (extinction).  

You treat these early morning wake ups as you would a night waking – staying awake or getting out of bed at this hour is just NOT an option. This is where I advocate for keeping your baby in a crib as long as possible, as the challenges with breaking bad habits increase exponentially if you have a child that is younger than 2.5 in a toddler bed with free access to the floor.  You can read more about Sleep Training here..

In summary, if you’ve got a baby that just started waking up early, it is probably the result of being overtired, a developmental change or teething.

If it has been more than 3 weeks of early wake ups, then you are probably stuck in a habitual wake up that requires a plan and follow through.

If you’ve got a habitual wake up problem, you need to make a sleep training plan and really stick with it. There will probably be some crying, and it won’t be fun. You have to keep your eye on the prize, a baby who can sleep longer in the morning, and who will be much happier on wake up time and throughout the day.

There’s so much more I want to teach you about your baby’s sleep!  Don’t struggle alone, subscribe to my online class where I’ll teach you how to put your child on a flexible schedule.  No cookie cutter schedule or strict wake up times, learn how to guide your child to sleep with age appropriate timing and sleep need recognition.  This online class then allows you to connect directly with me to ask any follow up questions specific to your situation.  You don’t have to struggle alone.  What is a good night’s sleep worth to you?   Going down into the crib with minimal effort, cooing babbling herself to sleep and then waking up cooing and babbling happy to start the day – priceless!

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