Having a baby waking early, especially before 5:30 a.m. is probably the least fun part of being a parent.
The first few months of having a baby in the house typically pass in a blur of sleep-deprivation. Your focus is on getting your baby to sleep through the night or at the very least not wake up every hour or two.
Finally, your little one starts sleeping for longer stretches and you find yourself getting excited that you can finally get some much-needed sleep. Your little one has other plans and swaps their middle of the night waking for before the crack of dawn waking – and let’s face it when you are tired, they feel like the same thing.
Understanding Why Babies Wake So Early
Unfortunately, babies are early risers and despite your best intentions there is not too much you can do to change this. The reason is that in the morning their ‘sleep drive’ is at its lowest.
We all have a ‘sleep drive’ and without getting too technical or scientific – this ‘sleep drive’ builds over the day and is at its highest before we go to sleep. This drive then decreases as we sleep until wake time.
Falling asleep at bedtime is easy – our sleep drive is high, our bodies and brain need a rest, it is dark and cooler outside and our bodies naturally come to expect sleep at night.
The opposite of this is true first thing in the morning. Our bodies are rested, it is lighter outside, and we are entering our lighter sleep stage. Although we may still feel tired in these early hours of the morning, our ‘drive’ to sleep is very low making it more difficult to sleep. We may even find ourselves waking up several times, particularly between the very early hours of the morning before 6 a.m.
Whilst we have learned to go back to sleep reasonably quickly during this time, this is a skill that babies have not yet developed and this is the reason they often wake before 6 a.m.
What is an Early Wake-up?
So, what constitutes an early wake-up?
Firstly we need to accept (however difficult) that children naturally wake up earlier than adults. Children need earlier bedtimes and often wake up earlier than an adult would.
Please do not think that if you keep your baby or young child up late they will sleep later. This rarely works and results in an over-tired baby.
The below times are general guidelines for morning wake times up to around 12 years of age.
Tips for Improving Early Morning Wake Times
If your baby is waking up early there could be several reasons for this. The tips below will help you to navigate each of these possible reasons
Tip #1 – Block out light
Even a tiny bit of sun in the early hours of the morning can cause early waking. If you suspect that your baby’s room is too light you could try adding some blackout curtains. There are some excellent portable options which means you can use them at home and easily take them with you when you travel or if your baby is sleeping at a family member for the night.
Tip #2 – Keep bedtime early.
Instinctively, you may think that if you keep your baby or young child up later then they will sleep later in the morning. However the opposite is often true and babies who go to bed later wake up even earlier. Aim for bedtime between 7:00 – 7:30 p.m. If your baby goes to bed later than this, move their bedtime earlier in 15 min increments every few days until you are at the desired bedtime. You may not see a change in the early waking immediately. After a couple of weeks your little one should start to sleep later in the morning. These times do not apply to newborns (under three months of age), bedtimes of between 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. are typical at this age.
Tip #3 – Ensure the 1st nap of the day is not too early
If your little one’s 1st nap of the day is too close to wake-up time, your baby’s body will treat this nap as an extension of their night sleep, and they will continue to wake up early. Ensure you stick to appropriate wake windows based on your little one’s age.
4 – 12 weeks
60 – 90 minutes
3 – 4 months
75 – 120 minutes
5 – 6 months
2 – 3 hours
7 – 14 months
3 – 4 hours
15 – 24 months
4 – 6 hours
Although the 1st nap of the day usually has the shortest wake window it should still be within the appropriate wake window. If your little one is tired, try to stretch the wake window a little each day (always keeping to within the wake windows).
For example, say your three-month-old wakes up at 5:00 a.m. and you get them up for the day. By 6:00 a.m. you probably find your little one is already tired. Try to stretch their wake window till at least 75 minutes before putting them down for their first nap. The first few days may be challenging. As that 1st nap time gets later, so will the other naps during the day. Eventually early morning waking begins to resolve itself.
Tip #4 – Do not let your baby sleep too much during the day.
Although not a common cause, sometimes babies wake early in the morning because they have had enough sleep. Dependent on your baby’s age, they need a certain number of hours of sleep in 24 hours. If they have too much sleep during the day, it makes sense that they will sleep less at night as they do not need the sleep. Check out the number of hours sleep by age your baby should be getting.
If you are struggling to get all of your baby’s nap in, then it may be time to make some adjustment to their sleep schedule and possibly drop a nap.
Tip #5 – Make sure your baby has enough daytime sleep.
I know it can be confusing – too much sleep and they wake early, too little sleep and they wake early. However, too little daytime sleep can result in the same outcome as too much sleep – early waking. If your baby is overtired they will struggle to stay asleep even in the early hours of the morning once they have already had some sleep. Check your baby’s schedule and ensure that your little one is getting enough sleep.
Tip #6 – Fill your little one up during the day.
Ensure your baby has sufficient calories during the day; they will not wake up early due to hunger. I am not saying that if your baby wakes up early they are hungry, however, this can be one reason. If you suspect your little one may be hungry consider adding a few extra calories during the day.
Tip #7 – Make breakfast time a little later.
If your little one is used to eating the moment they wake up at say 5:30 a.m. Their bodies will soon get used to eating at this time and they will start to wake up for breakfast at this time every day. Gradually postpone the feed by a few minutes each day until you get to say 6:00 a.m. (remember this is an age-appropriate time for your little one to wake up). Please discuss any changes to your feeding schedule with your pediatrician first.
Tip #8 – Teach your baby how to fall asleep independently.
If your little one is not yet able to self-soothe, unfortunately when they wake in the early hours of the morning, they are looking for you to help them get back to sleep. If your little one has still not learned how to self-soothe you may want to consider sleep training to help your baby learn independent sleeping skills. You can check out our post on Sleep Training Methods here.
Tip #9 – Don’t go to your little one immediately.
When your little one wakes up early in the morning wait a few minutes before going to them and see if they go back to sleep independently.
Tip #10 – Consider a toddler clock.
Of course, this is only for toddlers. If your child is over the age of 2, investing in a toddler clock that glows different colours for day and nighttime can be great for keeping your little one in bed until morning. I know friends who have used these and swear by them. Check out these options:
Eventually your little one will be old enough to get up and make their breakfast. Until then, try the tips in this post and have realistic expectations about what time your baby is likely to sleep till in the mornings. Expecting a little one to sleep until 8 a.m. or later is unfortunately highly unlikely for most babies.