Dr. Sarah Mitchell
About Author

Top 5 Reasons Your Baby Wakes Up Too Early!

If your baby or toddler is waking up too early in the morning, you're not alone. Early wake ups are one of the most common sleep struggles parents face. The frequent early mornings can leave you feeling exhausted and frustrated.  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? The good news since having young children, you don't need an alarm clock :)

With the right troubleshooting, you can get your little one (and yourself!) the sleep you need. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk through the top 5 reasons for early morning wakes ups and actionable solutions to help fix them. 

Read on to learn the root cause of those untimely early morning wakings and expert-backed sleep support tips to get your schedule back on track.

Reason 1: Being Overtired

Your baby is overtired.  This can be chronic or acute.    

Being chronically overtired occurs in a situation where your child has had many frequent night waking or no naps for weeks at a time.  Along with this early wake up you might have other sleep issues such as frequent night waking, short naps and taking a long time to fall asleep.  You want to go and read our blog post:  3 Reasons Your Baby Won't Sleep Through the Night.  Being overtired can often go hand in hand with having poor or unsustainable sleep associations. 

An acute overtired state occurs when your baby, who usually sleeps well and gets long age appropriate stretches of sleep at night and for naps, misses a nap or has an awake window before bed that is too long for her age.  This can cause a 5 am wake up. 

When a baby is overtired, he “surfaces” in the lighter stage of sleep of the early morning and realizes he’s awake – and cries out because he doesn’t feel great or is looking for that "thing" that helps him fall asleep, such as pacifier, breast or bottle.   An overtired baby will find it even more challenging to relax back down. 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, if that child has self soothing skills.   

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. A late bedtime can be the root cause of 5 am wake ups.  Bedtime should be based on when your child woke up from his last nap until at least 2 years of age.

Action Step:

* Adjust bedtime to see if an early bedtime can help with the early morning waking.  It may feel counter intuitive but if you're trying to get more sleep to help your baby be better rested, an earlier bedtime is one way to get more sleep, since they won't 'sleep-in."

* Log your baby's sleep time.  Notice when your child sleeps the most.  Note the nap timing, bedtime asleep and waking for the day.  Looking at your little one's amount of sleep in 24 hours can help you measure success once you implement new strategies.

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

Baby Sleep Consultant

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 4-8 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 middle of the 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.  Sleep Environment

Lately my own sleep has been disrupted at 5 am due to the garbage truck coming by!  Adult sleep can be similar to baby sleep in these early mornings. The environment can distract our little one from relaxing back down into sleep.   

Auditory:  Sounds such as garbage trucks or the birds can distract your little one from relaxing back into the neext sleep cycle.  An overtired baby will find it even more challenging to relax back down. 

Visual:  Blinking lights, toys, being too bright in general can make your baby think it's morning and time to get up.  Especially in the summer. 

Visceral/Hunger:  Needing to poop or being hungry can cause these early wake ups.  

Action Steps:

Temperature:  Being too cold at 5 am when the house furnace has been off for sometime.  In additions our body temperatures tend to be dropping at this time of the day as body temperature is linked to circadian rhythm or the internal clock. Its is more common to have an early wake-up associated with being cold versus being too hot.  This typically shows up with the change of seasons when you're not adapted to colder temperatures.  Your baby's room might be colder in the morning in the springtime when you're turned the furnace off, or in the fall when you have yet to turn the furnace on.  According to sleep experts at the National Sleep Foundation, the ideal room temperature to sleep is between 65–70°F (18–20°C).  

Action Steps:

What tools can you use to help mediate your little one's environment ?

White noise can be helpful to block out auditory distractions such as sudden noise, garbage trucks or the birds in the summer.  See my blog post here on why you don't need white noise machines to be playing all night long. If you do use white noise, my favorite sound machine is the Hatch Rest since it's easy to program and works from an app on your phone.  

Blackout Curtains or blackout blinds can be helpful in the summer when there's more light exposure first thing in the morning.   My favorite are the Sleepout Curtains.  These blackout shades really help create a dark room. 

​Hunger can cause early wake ups so you could consider doing a dreamfeed at 4 am or earlier to help remove the variable of hunger in those earlier wake ups. You can read more about how to dreamfeed in this blog post.

Temperature:  Its is more common to have an early wake-up associated with being cold versus being too hot.  Babies and toddlers tend to kick off blankets.  To keep them warm in the night, you might consider a sleeping bag or baby sleep sack made with natural fibres to keep them warm.  Natural fibers are best to help temperature regulate.  My favorite is the Woolino Sleep sack as it's wool and cotton and a nice weight for baby. 

5. 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 for 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.   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 and your long term goal.  A baby who can sleep longer in the morning, and get over these early morning wake-ups, will be much happier on wake up time and throughout the day.

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. This is especially true for toddlers who are early risers.

Second, you will have to establish your plan for how you will communicate to your toddler 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 Hatch Rest that turns  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..

Do early wake ups ever just go away on their own?  It's possible that this happens when the teeth appear or when the developmental leap passes.  Getting your early bird back on schedule can sometime take some tweaking or sometimes it's just time. 

More Posts

You Might Also Like

Read More

Colic in Babies: Baby Massage and Other Tactics for Quick Relief

Colic by definition is more than three hours of crying per day, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks. Researchers actually don't know the root cause however there are many working theories. Find more about Colic in Babies and its remedies.
May 2, 2022
Dr. Sarah Mitchell
Read More
Sleep Teaching

What is Cry It Out Sleep Training Method: Does It Work?

People have wildly different definitions of what cry it out means to them. For some people, cry it out means tears of any kind. But the true definition of cry it out, cried out, means extinction.
Apr 10, 2022
Dr. Sarah Mitchell
Read More

Nursing Baby To Sleep: Is It Good or Bad?

Nursing to sleep: is it bad? or For some people, they can nurse to sleep and have these beautiful, long stretches of nighttime sleep. Why is that?
Apr 9, 2022