Updated: Aug 4
More commonly know by parents as why the f@*^! is my baby awake so early. I consider an early morning waking as one before 6a. When we consider the science of sleep it helps to know that during the early morning hours between 4-6a, our child’s (and our own) drive to sleep is at its lowest. So if our child wakes, there is less drive and ‘sleep pressure’ to get back to sleep.
There are a number of reasons why this may be happening for your child. Let’s look at the easy ones to consider and cross off first, then get to the others that may take some trial and error.
Early morning light is peeking in. Light stimulates the brain to wake up. So if there is light making its way into your child’s room, it may be enough to wake them up and trigger the brain to kick into gear for the day. To solve for this, you want to block the morning light with solutions like blackout curtains, dark paper on the windows, etc.
Uncomfortably wet diaper. By the early morning, our child’s diaper may be very wet and uncomfortable from the night. A good sign is that they have leaked through their pajamas. Some kids are more sensitive to wet diapers than others. My best suggestion is to size up a diaper and make sure you have your child in night diapers.
So you may have crossed those ones off. Let’s go through the other common reasons for early morning wakings.
Over-tiredness. When our children are over-tired, it is harder for them to fall asleep and then go back to sleep when they wake. Your child may be over-tired from a bedtime that’s too late (8p and later), not getting enough daytime sleep, or a combination of both. As a first step, I suggest putting your child to sleep earlier (between 6-7p). While it may seem counter initiative that our child will sleep later if we put them to sleep earlier, it’s actually the case. Our children get their highest quality of sleep in the first half of the night which contributes to better sleep in the second half. Beyond bedtime, if your child is not getting enough daytime sleep, you may need to tweak their schedule. Don’t know where to start on nap schedules? Let’s connect.
Developmental milestones (sometimes referred to as regressions). When our babies are on the cusp of a big developmental milestone like sitting up, crawling, walking, as well as language, there’s a lot on their mind. Make sure you give them plenty of practice on these physical developments during the day so they have less to ‘practice’ when they should be sleeping. If your child is not crying in their crib but awake, I suggest just leaving them. Then enter the room after 6a with a bright and cheery hello to start the day. These milestones may take 1-3 weeks to pass, so stay consistent and leave them until your determined wake-up time.
Reinforced behavior. The way you respond during those early morning wake ups could in fact be creating a habit for your child. We want to signal to our children that it’s still night time and they should be sleeping too. Common reinforcing behaviors include pulling them into bed with you, letting your toddler watch shows, offering a feed, etc. And trust me, I get it. We are all just trying to get a little more sleep in any way possible. But if your response is perpetuating the wake-up you may need to consider changing your response. If you do feel the need to go into their room, keep your interaction very limited with the lights off to send the message that it’s time to be sleeping.
Sleep association to get to sleep. When you put your baby down to sleep at bedtime, how awake are they and do they actually fall asleep on their own? This is often a learnt skill - initiating their own sleep. If your child has not learnt this skill of how to self soothe themselves to fall asleep without you, then if they wake in the early morning, they will rely on whatever sleep associations are in place to get back to sleep. You may need to consider some sleep training - I have a number of approaches to help you foster this critical skill with your child. So let’s connect if you need the help!