It’s summer, and the days are getting longer and longer. In the Midwest, where we are, our longest day of the year lands on June 20th. So that means, we have another 20+ days of 5:30 a.m. sunrises! It almost seems impossible to sleep in anymore.
How do I get extra Z’s in the morning? An eye mask. Yep. It’s my prized possession! Even though we have beautiful plantation shutters in our bedroom, they don’t do squat about blocking out the sun. So, I have a light blocking mask, and until my alarm goes off or I wake naturally, I seriously don’t know what time it is! But maybe you’ve been waking even before the sun is up for as long as you can remember, because that’s just how you and your child or children are now wired. Getting your baby and toddler to sleep later might seem like an impossible task, on top of it being frustrating and exhausting.
What’s considered an early wake-up? Early morning wake ups are considered any time before 6:00 a.m. or less than 10 hours of total sleep at night. Early wake-ups are a sign that your child is not getting enough sleep (yes, you heard me right!). Chronic over-tiredness hinders the body from achieving long, restorative sleep and only repeats the cycle unless something is done about it. This is even true in adults.
Want to start your day later? Or better yet, start your day with a cup of coffee or workout sans kids? Keep reading to find out the common culprits of early morning wakings!
1. Late bedtime: Was the wake window before bed too long for your little one? This means bedtime happened too late, and you missed your child's sleep window. Chances are they are going down fussy or crying at the end of the day. These are tell-tale signs that the window has been missed and cortisol levels have already started to spike. On top of that, this supports the idea that a later bedtime does NOT equal a later wakeup. Chronically overtired babies and toddlers will not accept sleep easily, which in turn accumulates more debt. See below for suggested wake times for each age.
Newborn: Less than 1 hour
8-12 weeks: 1 hour - 1hr 15 min
3-4 months: 1hr 15min - 1hr 30 min
4-5 months: 2 hours
5-6 months: 2hr 15 min
6-8 months: 2hr 30 min - 3 hours
9-12 months: 3hr 30 min - 4 hours
13-18 months: 4 hours
18 months+: By the clock (nap around 12:30 p.m., bedtime at 7/7:30 p.m.)
*These are averages and will vary by child
2. Morning nap: The time between morning wakeup and first nap is TOO SHORT. This is a tricky one because many children get stuck in an "early nap time" due to the 5AM wakeup, but in reality, this is what could be causing the wakeup. Depending on their age, they need a set number of wakeful hours before the next sleep onset. By stretching that morning nap later, and also by practicing the crib rule in the morning, you will be able to welcome a later sleep in. Expect that your child will be fussy and crabby around their normal sleep time. To help, offer a new activity, food or outside time to keep them from getting drowsy. Avoid car and stroller rides to avoid accidental napping! The transition to the new nap time should only take 3-5 days.
3. Nap transitions: Your child may be at the crossroads of having one too many naps, and because of this, the early mornings are a result of needed schedule shift. The body will adjust and wake at unwanted hours to compensate for the needed change. Dropping a nap can be confusing and drawn out. And because our brains process day sleep differently than night sleep, sometimes it’s not always apparent what your child needs.. Let an expert like me walk you through the transition, because let's be honest, transitions are HARD! When dropping a nap, always, always utilize early bedtime. This will be crucial in a successful nap transition by moving bedtime 45-minutes to 1-hour earlier for several weeks.
4. Environment: Outside factors can also be the culprit. In this case, I suggest looking for other things that could be causing the wake ups. For example: birds outside the window, light coming in, dogs barking, or family members leaving for work to name a few. To ensure these outside disturbances aren’t an issue, make sure you are using a sound machine (loud, white noise!) and that you have completely blocked the light from the windows. I have a cheap and easy way to blackout a window using items you probably have in your home; items like black plastic tablecloths and blue painters’ tape. Layer the tablecloths over the window and hold up with the tape. Then, put your blinds or curtains back up to hide it!
When we rule out these environmental factors, we can be confident that the early wakings are a result of a habit or result of a poor schedule. Keep in mind that early wakings are the last and hardest thing to fix for some families, especially now when the sun is up so early and melatonin production is lowest at that time of day.
While you are working towards shifting the wakeup time, use a toddler clock to help exhibit patience and autonomy with your child. Set the bar very low in the beginning; making them wait only 10-15 minutes at first. Reward the behavior immediately with kind words or special time together.
5. Habits: And lastly, look at what habits are formed. Is your child waking for a bottle or cup of milk that they always receive as soon as they wake up? Did their paci fall out and now they are awake looking for it? Props can cause early morning wakings even if middle of the night wakings aren’t happening. If the last thing they remember is drinking a bottle, they will wake early in the morning when sleep pressure is low and expect that bottle back to return to sleep. You can help them sleep in by delaying any instant gratification for at least 15-20 minutes to eliminate those associations. Changing up the bedtime routine is crucial too. Look at what your child needs to fall asleep, and if there are props there as well, change things up. If your child needs milk or a feeding close to bedtime, do that as the first step in the routine! Many times, when early wakings have been happening out of habit, they will continue into toddlerhood and preschool years. Rest assured that you can get things back on track at any time and it’s never too late.
6. Catch-All: If everything is on point per the above, then it very well could be a milestone, leap or wonky few days for your child. Not the answer you were hoping for? Take a step back, and if you feel like it, log your child’s sleep for 5 days to make sure they aren’t maxing out on their sleep needs in a 24-hour period. For babies and kids who are rested and don’t have any accumulated sleep debt, this DOES happen. Think about a slightly later bedtime or a shortened nap. Doing this can help them redistribute their sleep.
Newborn – 2 months: 16-20 hours
3 months: 15.5-18 hours
4 months: 15.5 hours
5 months: 15 hours
6 months: 14.5 hours
7 months: 14-14.5 hours
8 months: 14-14.5 hours
9 months: 14 hours
10-11 months: 14 hours
12-14 months: 13.5-13.75
15-18 months: 13-13.5 hours
19-23 months: 12-12.5 hours
2 years: 12-12.5 hours
3 years: 11-12 hours
*These are averages and will vary by child
Maybe after reading this, you had an “Ah-ha!” moment, and that’s great! But maybe you are still scratching your head. Try not to get overwhelmed, and instead, go down the list of contributors I have laid out for you and try each one for 1-week to see what changes happen with your routine. I always tell my clients that progress is not linear, so getting one “sleep-in” will be a huge reason to celebrate! Then, keep pushing forward and expect to see more as time goes on,
When it does start to happen, take that extra time for yourself: sleep-in, take a shower, enjoy a HOT cup of coffee, read, journal or whatever you need in that moment.
Common culprits to cause early morning wakings:
- Late bedtime
- Morning nap
- Nap transition
- Catch-All or sleep is maxed out