Combatting Early Morning Waking

Heidi Skudder Baby Sleep, Parenting, Toddler Behaviour

After my super successful recent Instagram Live on Early Morning Waking, I promised I would run through some of the most useful tips and techniques I use, all trialled and tested with many clients over the years. The way in which you approach the early waking of your child will, of course, depend on their age so, below, I have split some tips into two categories: babies and toddlers!

Babies aged 3-18 months

Overtiredness

One of the most common myths in baby sleep is that keeping your baby up later will help them sleep longer. The opposite is in fact true – an earlier bedtime will improve your baby’s chances of sleeping later on. Why?

The hormones responsible for our sleep are at play here…If we go to bed overtired (perhaps too late), then we enter sleep with higher levels of our day time hormone cortisol. As our cortisol starts to rise and get us ready for the day (from 3/4am onwards), if our cortisol level is already high then we are more likely to be wide awake earlier than if we went to bed with a more well rested level of cortisol. So putting your baby to bed when they are less tired gives them more chance of sleeping longer! This goes against what you might expect but, honestly, works 90% of the time – give it a try and see!

Day time Napping

Making sure that your baby is napping for long enough in the day time will also increase their likelihood of reaching a 7am wake up! I know for a fact that if my son has had a busy day, he will sleep better overnight (and later in the morning) if I give him a longer day time nap, rather than deprive him of sleep. Again, it seems to make little sense but it is all wrapped up, again, in hormones. An overtired baby will not only wake more but wake earlier.

Hunger

I often work with clients who are keen to drop down their night feeds, which we work towards if baby is developmentally ready to do so. However, in doing this it can often cause some temporary early waking. If your baby has been sleeping through and then is starting to wake early again, think about calories – is baby getting enough during the day time? Can you increase their calories at all? This will only apply to babies who are on milk and have only just started on solids. Once baby is well established on solids, early waking is much less likely to be down to hunger.

Nap Transitions

Often when your baby needs to drop a nap or has just dropped a nap you may experience some early morning waking. If your nap has already been dropped, the most likely cause of this is overtiredness so an earlier bedtime will usually suffice. If your baby is still napping several times a day, think about whether it might be time to drop a nap – the late afternoon nap often drops around 6-8 months of age and the morning nap at 12-16 months.

Teething and Illness

It is really normal for your baby to go through stages of waking early, even if they used to be a later sleeper. This is particularly obvious during periods of illness and teething. If the early waking has only just started, my advice would be to give it 7-10 days and see how it goes. We have lighter sleep in the early hours of the morning, so anything that can affect their sleep (such as pain or discomfort) will cause earlier waking. Teething generally comes in bouts of 4-5 days so should be on and off and not cause longer term early waking. Illness-waking depends on what sort of waking it is, but ultimately will fix itself once your baby gets better.

Toddlers aged 18 months plus

Light Levels

One of the most obvious reasons for early waking in toddlers is the room getting lighter in the earlier hours, particularly in summertime. Toddlers are more alert and active overall than babies, so it only takes a flash of sunlight across their bedroom to excite them enough to start the day. Try, where possible, to keep their room dark until your set wake up time – whatever you have chosen that to be. I recommend the sticky Gro-Blind as my go-to product, especially in those summer months.

Early Waking Associations

If your toddler knows that they can come into your bed, have milk or something else that comforts them when they wake in the early hours, they are much more likely to wake early and, sometimes, this waking can even begin to get earlier and earlier until it turns into night time waking, too! As with any sleep association, if you are happy doing it then it is not a problem. However, if you are getting tired of the 4/5am wakings and your child is used to coming into bed with you or, perhaps, for example getting milk, then it may be time to kick that habit so that longer term they are more likely to sleep later.

Habit

What started as illness, teething or a nap transition can very easily become a habit. If your toddler’s early waking has gone on for several weeks or months then, although it is not impossible to break, it becomes a lot more difficult. On a 7pm bedtime, we class anything past 6am as an “ok” wake up time but anything before as early morning waking. So what can you do about it?

  • Stay consistent – choose your wake up time realistically e.g. 6.30am and just never let your toddler get out of bed until then. Even if this means sitting with them quietly or returning them to bed several times. If you give in and start the day, they are more likely to start waking earlier and earlier.
  • Use a Gro-Clock – these are sleep training clocks that show your toddler whether it is day time or night time. They tend to be able to understand them from around 18 months to 2 years of age. You can reinforce the waking with this clock and really praise your child for staying in bed until the sun comes out. This allows them to understand what is expected of them, therefore reducing the likelihood of waking early. Be warned though, they will only work if reinforced and aren’t just a cure on their own!
  • Try an earlier bedtime or change in nap patterns – as with babies, much early waking is caused by sleep and hormone levels in the day. If your toddler is waking earlier, putting them to bed half an hour earlier may well help. Don’t expect this to happen overnight, get started and continue for a good week before deciding whether it has made things better or not!

As with everything in parenting, consistency is key and the best tip I can give is to just never get your child up until your set/ideal wake up time. The more consistent you are as a parent, the more consistently your child will respond.

Best of luck! For more information on early waking and dealing with your baby’s sleep pattern why not try out the Online Baby Sleep and Routine Course.

Heidi x