Is there anything worse than your baby waking early in the morning? Day after day can lead to some dreadful feelings of sleep deprivation and overwhelm - especially if you've also been awake throughout the night!
It's an hour before your alarm is to go off, but you and your baby have been battling going back to sleep for what feels like eternity. No matter what you try, they just won't settle back down into sleep. And you're so exhausted you find yourself dozing while rocking or feeding. Does this sound familiar?
If so, know that you are not alone. In fact, early waking is something I hear about SO often. And it can also be one of the most challenging baby sleep struggles to actually fix. That’s because there are many many things that go into an early waking - and they truly all need to be tackled at once in order to truly change your baby’s patterns. Let's take a closer look:
First, it's important to note that some babies are just early risers. They may wake naturally around 6-6:30am and will go to bed early too. For some families - especially parents who don’t mind waking early (or have to get up for work anyway) and prefer earlier bedtimes so they have more time to themselves - this actually works perfectly. For those families, I say rock on! It truly is my belief that if it’s working for your family then it doesn’t need to be fixed.
But for other families, having their baby wake that early is unmanageable. Maybe it affects everyone else’s morning routine because Mom or Dad haven’t showered yet, the noise wakes the toddler, or everyone else just prefers to sleep a bit later. Or, it could be that your baby is waking extra early (what I would define as anything before 6am). If this is the case in your home, then stay with me. I’m going to tackle all of the reasons (big and small!) why your baby may be waking early - and more importantly, show you how to help your baby sleep later.
So, first things first. As I said before, early wakings are one of the most challenging baby sleep struggles to tackle (right up there with short naps). It may be challenging, but don't lose hope yet. Having a clear understanding why this is can help you wrap your brain around how to fix it.
So why do so many families find early waking to be a stubborn bad habit? The short answer is that your baby has already slept long enough and that they’re no longer tired. Of course, it's much more complicated than that (which I will cover in detail below), but the period of sleep between 4-6am is the lightest sleep of the whole night. And this is true for everyone - babies and adults. And so, if your baby does wake during this window, it can be downright impossible to get them back down (this is true even if they fall to sleep on their own at bedtime and sleep well the whole rest of the night). Again, this is also true for adults and is the biggest reason why parents suffer so much when their babies are waking early. I know that if I wake anywhere in that 1-2 hour window before my normal wake time, it is SO much harder to roll back over and go back to sleep (and then when I do I am groggy and feel exhausted when my alarm actually goes off). This can be how your baby feels too, which is just one of the many reasons why helping them to sleep later can be helpful for everyone (not just you!)
So, what are the typical reasons why early wakings happen. Let's take a closer look:
Noise from the house
So, one of the more obvious reasons why your baby may be waking early is that noise from within the house is causing them to stir. I mentioned this in one of my podcast episodes, but I worked with a family once who could not figure out why their baby kept waking early in the morning (truly everything else was “in place”). That was, until Mom sat in her baby’s room and heard the garage door go up when Dad left for work. Seems obvious, right? But this actually happens more often that you would think!
So, it could be that your baby is stirring and unable to go back to sleep if anyone gets up early for work in the house, if your pre-teen leaves for school at the crack of dawn, if your neighbor takes his trash cans out at 5am, whatever... Remember, the 4-6am window is the lightest sleep of the WHOLE night so even if there is a noise they can sleep through before, they may not be able to do so during these hours. Is there a clinking noise in your bathroom pipes? Traffic on the street? For this possibility - and just because I think it helps so much - I recommend using white noise throughout the night. This is my favorite (and very affordable) white noise machine - everyone in my house uses it!
Too much light in their room - even just a sliver!
A similar type of disturbance, but also a very common one. Many babies will wake early because they're being exposed to sunlight (or street lights). This light actually has a direct effect on their sleep by changing their circadian rhythms. Our circadian rhythms are designed to be set by the presence of light. So you’ll find this one to be particularly true in the summer months, when the sun begins to rise well before it’s time for everyone to wake up.
In this case, it’s not necessarily even the light that is waking your baby up, but rather that they are in a lighter stage of sleep already and thus much more likely to be stirred in their sleep. If they do wake when being exposed to light, then their bodies will automatically accept the presence of the light as being a sign that it’s time to get up - and to begin to adjust the circadian rhythms to the light (making it that much harder to fall back to sleep).
I find this to often be the case when parents say that their baby wakes early no matter what they do. If your baby’s body has been exposed to light at that early stage of the morning, then their rhythms likely have re-set so that it feels like it’s their natural pattern. But, take note - it’s often adjustable (if you want it to be).
The best way to fix this particular trouble spot is to add black out blinds/curtains to your baby’s room - and to cover every possible sliver of light coming through (seriously, do it!). There are a lot of options when it comes to adding black outs to your room, you should be able to do this fairly easily, no matter what your budget or situation (even an apartment or temporary housing where adding blinds or holes in the wall are not an option). These are my favorite black out curtains but you can also just buy cheap paper black out blinds from just about anywhere.
But, just like with anything else, this addition takes time and consistency to see results. You can’t just hang up black out blinds and expect your baby to sleep later the next morning. Our circadian rhythms are strong, so we also have to adjust other things throughout their day (like their schedule and exposing them to brighter light in the evening) to help their circadian rhythms begin to shift later over time.
Your baby (or toddler) is hungry
As with sounds and light, it’s harder to sleep through tummy rumbling when you’re in the lightest stage of sleep for the night. This one is a bit trickier because the approach to address the early waking due to hunger depends on where your baby is developmentally.
If your baby is still at the age where night feedings are developmentally appropriate, then you can try to break this cycle by doing a feeding (or dream-feed) an hour or so earlier than they typically wake (for instance around 3am) or even trying a dream-feed right before you go to bed if that’s the only feeding they’re waking for. The goal here is to simply keep your baby from being hungry during the 4-6am time range.
If your baby is older or a toddler, then it’s likely a habit to wake to feed during this hour. In this case, there are a few things you can do to address the habitual waking. First, would be to add a bedtime snack and ensure your toddler’s tummy is full before bed. Second would be to stop feeding at that early morning waking. You can do this by slowly pushing the feeding back or by cutting it out altogether.
It's schedule related
Ok, there you have it! These are the most common reasons why your baby may be waking early.
One last thought to consider is that early wakings can be super stubborn. For this reason, it’s SO important that you don’t take one of the pieces of advice discussed in this article and then try it for a day or two before tossing it aside. It can often take a week or two to really see results from any changes you put into place - and this is especially true for something as challenging as early morning wakings. So, make the changes and then stick with it!
It will pay off, I promise!
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As a maternal mental health and pediatric sleep expert, I am passionate about helping tired mamas thrive throughout the many seasons of motherhood. I'm a Nationally Certified Professional Life Coach and Masters Level Therapist specializing in parental mental wellness, marriage/partnership strength and pediatric sleep and soothing.
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