FAQ Series: Early Morning Wakes

One of the common issues I see when working with moms who are trying to improve their child’s sleep is early morning wake ups. Even if this isn’t a concern for you right now, at some point, early morning wakes tend to show up.

What do I mean when I say “early morning wake”? An early morning wake is when:

  • Your child wakes up between 4 am – 6 am ready to start their day (and you’re NOT ready to begin the day)
  • Your child is sleeping less than 11-12 hours at night
  • Early wakes have been happening for longer than 2 weeks

When I worked with Michelle, this was one of the issues she was experiencing. Her daughter woke up between 2 am – 6 am and insisted it was time to start the day. There were many factors we had to consider – there isn’t just one reason why children wake up early. And the reasoning can differ between babies and toddlers. If you’re unsure where to start and want a one-on-one evaluation and plan, one of our Rockabye Mama Packages may be right for you.

Common Factors at Play

#1: Check the Environment

The first thing I recommend you looking into when trying to solve early morning wakes is the room environment. The last cycle of sleep tends to be the lightest cycle, so any light or noise can wake your precious babe.

Make sure the room is DARK and no sunlight is creeping through. Depending on where you live, the sun may not be rising at 5 am, but streetlights, an outdoor patio light, or a neighbor’s lights could be sending in light through windows. Go into your child’s room, turn off all the lights and look around. If you can see the bed, the dresser, the door, etc., then the room isn’t dark enough. Consider black-out curtains to make sure the room is as dark as possible.

If anyone in your house wakes up early to get ready for work, having a sound machine will help drown out noise that may wake your child. It’s also not a bad idea to wake up around the time your child does and just listen. There’s a business behind my house that has its garbage picked up in the early morning hours, and the beeping, dumping, and setting the dumpster back down can be heard straight into my living room.

Other noises you may be unaware of could be your cat using the litter box and digging around, your dog barking at the runner at 5 a.m., or your sprinkler system turning on. So wake up, sit in or near your child’s room, and listen.

#2 Check the Schedule

Once the room is set, the next piece of the puzzle is looking at your child’s sleep schedule during the day. Are they getting too much sleep? Not enough? Both factors contribute to early morning wakes. Sometimes having an outsider analyze your child’s sleep schedule is easier and more efficient, but if you prefer to do it, keep a log of your child’s sleep for at least 3 days. On average, how much daytime sleep are they getting?

Children have different sleep needs depending on their age, so we want to make sure they’re getting the appropriate amount of sleep for their age. You can reference the chart below to see how much sleep your child should be getting.

Remember, all children are different. These ranges provide a guide, but you really need to tune in to your child and see what it is they need. Follow your mom gut, and if needed, partner with a sleep consultant to ensure your child is getting exactly what they need.

Next, check bedtime. Remember, we’re aiming for 11-12 hours of sleep. If your child’s bedtime is 5 pm and they’re waking at 4 am, technically, they got the sleep they need. Ideally, depending on your child’s age, a 6:30 – 7:00 pm bedtime is perfect.

Keep in mind, stretching bedtime to 8-9 p.m. will not result in your child sleeping in later. It just doesn’t work that way. By keeping your child up later, they become over-tired and, in turn, will wake up earlier. This cycle tends to repeat: they go to bed over-tired so they wake up early; then, they are tired throughout the day so they don’t nap well; then, when it’s bedtime, they are over-tired. And repeat.

By keeping bedtime to around 7 pm, you’re ensuring your child will get the rest they need.

#3: Check Your Child’s Expectations

When Michelle’s daughter was waking up early, she would walk into her mom’s room to wake her up. Michelle would get out of bed and walk her back to her room, often getting into a small debate about whether or not it was really time to wake up. Sometimes she’d give up and just let her daughter watch TV and eat a snack.

What happens when your child wakes up early?

Do they watch TV? Do they eat a snack? If so, they have come to expect that when they wake up. So once their eyes open, their brains begin to crave that “reward.” To combat this, change your child’s expectations of what will happen when they wake up.

Set clear expectations: they can stay in their room and play with a specific toy. They can read a book. But they shouldn’t be getting up and watching TV or eating. These activities alert their bodies that it’s time to wake up, and in the future, their internal clock begins to get used to that wake up time.

In Conclusion

The fun part of studying sleep is that there is always something to analyze. When Heather and I worked together, her little one was waking up early so we implemented all of the above steps. But he was experiencing developmental milestones like rolling and sitting up, so that also impacted his sleep.

And if there are other events in your life, like moving or big changes, that’s also something to consider. The analysis never ends. Start by putting the above steps into practice, and if you’re still experiencing early wakes after 2 weeks, consider booking a consultation.

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I’m Katie

certified pediatric sleep consultant

Fueled by equal parts caffeine and passion, I spend my days helping exhausted mamas get their babies the sleep they need. 

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