The Top Causes of Early Morning Waking For Babies & Toddlers
Do you know the feeling? It happens when you first realise that what you are hearing is your baby or toddler awake way too early in the morning.
There’s a good chance you were in a deep sleep or perhaps enjoying a fantastic dream. You may wonder, “has she been awake for 10 minutes or 10 seconds?” Either way, you know that it’s way too early for her to wake up.
Real sounds and dreams can all blend at that time of day. When you manage to get one eye open and check the clock and gasp, seeing a “5” or even a “4” on the clock and realise (again) that you’re about to start your day at “o’dark hundred”.
“It’s a good thing he’s cute, and I love him so much,” you may mutter to yourself or say “, how on earth can he be up SOOO early when he had such an exhausting day yesterday?”
Your day begins slightly on autopilot until you can find the toothpicks to keep your eyes open or get that strong coffee brewed ASAP.
I know this because I’ve been there.
Also, I hear from parents ALL-THE-TIME saying the same thing. Please find comfort knowing that you’re not alone. It doesn’t mean that it needs to stay this way. Quite the contrary!
There’s a lot you can do to help your baby or toddler sleep later.
Look For The Cause!
One of the most critical steps to a solution is finding the cause of the early wake-ups. The reason for the early waking needs addressing to find the most effective (and long-term) solution. It’s the same process that goes for all sleep challenges.
As an example, if your baby struggles with a sore tummy, you’d be disappointed if your GP or paediatrician didn’t ask questions about other signs and symptoms and just advised you to give pain relief, right? The cause of the tummy pain could be reflux, silent reflux, a milk protein intolerance or allergy, or one of a million possibilities of a physical problem or illness. The solution is based on the cause of the problem.
Check The Sleep Environment
An environment conducive to great sleep is essential. It’s the most crucial place to start, especially if your little one is waking earlier because the sun rises earlier. The room needs to be dark, really dark. Little rays of sunshine shouldn’t be creeping into the room at 4:30 or 5 am.
Your toddler likely can’t tell time, but when he sees the sunshine, he may think, “Yay! Let’s go to the park!” and can’t understand why Mummy and Daddy aren’t as keen on a park visit at 4:45 am!
✅ Is The Room Too Quiet or Too Loud?
Many noises can wake up babies and toddlers. Chances are, you tune the noises out yourself, but a toddler with “FOMO” (Fear Of Missing Out) may not!
Whether it’s a neighbour leaving early for work, a nearby train, the heating coming on, or cheerful birds starting their day, The sounds can trigger early waking.
Consider using white (or pink) noise for the duration of your little one’s sleep. The consistent sound in their sleep environment through the night can be extremely helpful in preventing early morning wake-ups.
There are many free apps for an old smartphone, or you can download some white noise tracks or even use a fan.
The volume may work best at a similar level as being in a room with a shower running.
✅ Too Hot? Too Cold?
Check the room temperature. Most sleep better in a cooler room (between 16-21C), the ideal temperature for safer sleep.
The room is likely coldest at 4 am. Sometimes, an extra layer may be needed at that time.
If the room is too hot or too cold, make some adjustments to ensure your baby or toddler is comfortable and not waking up because he’s too hot or too cold.
✅ Too Light?
Your baby or toddler likely can’t tell the time yet, so if the light is coming into the room, it may feel like it’s time to play. (And we’re sure going to the park at 4:30 am isn’t part of your plan.) The bedroom needs to be dark, really dark. Little rays of sunshine shouldn’t be creeping into the room at 4:30 or 5 am. Be sure to check the hallway to ensure the light isn’t beaming under the door.
✅ Is Your Little One Getting Enough Sleep?
The total amount of sleep is essential, and the range is vast. If your baby or toddler is getting enough sleep, she’s likely waking up content, talking to herself and rarely appears overtired in the day.
If your little one is getting enough sleep, you may need to shift their schedule AND their body clock to prevent early morning wake-ups.
✅ What Time Is Bedtime?
Believe it or not, many babies and toddlers aren’t getting to bed early enough.
If you have a little one who is waking up early, an earlier bedtime may seem counterintuitive because you think if you put her to bed later, she should sleep later, right?
Well, that’s not the case. Frequently an earlier bedtime can help your child sleep later, especially if your baby or toddler is overtired at bedtime.
✅ Is It a Habit?
Habits can form after only a few days, so illness, time change, or travel can be enough to start an early morning habit.
It’s also easy to reinforce the habit. Some ways include making the early wake-up worthwhile. Playtime, television, starting the day as you would as if it was later, can all reinforce the early-rising habit.
Depending on the age of your baby or child, and the time of morning consider keeping breakfast or morning feeds for an appropriate wake-up time (typically between 6–7:30 am). This advice only applies to older babies, toddlers and children, not younger babies or newborns.
Like most things related to infant and toddler sleep, suggestions can be confusing. Put him to bed later? Put him to bed earlier? Tire him out more? It can be a bit frustrating to figure it out… and well, a lot of the advice is true but depends entirely on what’s going on with your little one.
✅ Could you be making it worse? (inadvertently)
✅ Is your little one waking up to play?
What’s going on in your house so early in the morning? Does your little one get a lot of interaction or play? Sometimes, out of sheer exhaustion, it’s easy to put your sweet, wide-awake baby on the floor with a few toys for quiet play while you close your eyes right next to them for an extra minute or three (EVERY minute is greatly appreciated at that time of day). I have memories of dozing off while my baby played with my face while I lay on the floor. He was safe and enjoyed pulling on my lips, pinching my nose and I managed a few moments of light level of sleep. It seemed essential at the time. Well, that interaction, as exciting as it can be, is enough to encourage some little ones to keep waking up early. So, ideally, keep it a no play zone until it’s after 6 am or the reasonable wake-up time.
✅ Early morning TV fan?
Similar to the previous example, putting the TV on to entertain your little one while you get a few extra moments of sleep can have a similar effect but, if you want to discontinue the habit, keeping the TV off can eventually discourage early wake-ups as well.
✅ Is your little one uncomfortable?
Sometimes babies wake up early due to the discomfort of a bowel movement and need a change. It’s hard to sleep if you feel uncomfortable and, by that point, if your baby is awake, the drive to sleep is significantly reduced. If your baby is on solid food, try adding something with extra fibre into their diet earlier in the day. Pears, prunes, higher fibre grains can all help change their pattern and reduce the chance of an early morning wake-up. Even if it happens at midnight, the drive to sleep is much stronger then than it is at 5 am.
✅ Is your little one truly hungry or is it “learned” hunger?
Nutrition is VERY important but sometimes, when a baby or toddler little one wakes up early, parents assume it’s out of hunger and automatically feed. Because they calmed down, it becomes a habit but in actual fact, they may not actually need the feed and they get used to it after just a few days. If you have an older baby or toddler, you can try slowly weaning the feed down to reduce the habit. For babies, a dream feed at 10 or 11 pm can sometimes stretch them out until a more reasonable wake-up time. Making sure toddlers have a bedtime snack with a combination of protein and carbs can help too.
✅ What’s happening with naps?
What do daytime naps have to do with early morning waking? Sometimes a lot! Babies who nap well in the day tend to sleep later in the morning. Counterintuitive, isn’t it? It’s true. A good balance of daytime sleep can make a big difference. Keeping the gap between the last nap of the day too long and bedtime can make a difference. Overall, preventing your child from becoming overtired in the day can really improve sleep at night! Sleep begets sleep!
Okay, what next? Finding the cause often leads into the solution, but not always. If addressing the cause doesn’t work, there are many options to help your little one break the habit. If you need help, one of our incredible sleep consultants can support you with bespoke options or our Sleepy Lambs Sleep Academy has tools to help.
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