Early rising is a common concern amongst parents. In the sleep world, early rising is generally considered waking up for the day before 6AM. But it might look different for your family depending on your rhythms.
As I write this, it’s been a couple of weeks since ‘Fall Back’ daylight savings time so many parents are struggling with early wakes as their little ones adjust to their new routine. If this is the case, give it a couple of weeks before you try to troubleshoot too much- your child will likely adjust on their own. But if early wakes are a regular occurrence, let’s get explore some possible reasons:
But first, is it a problem?
Before we dive into possible reasons, let me make this clear: early rising is not likely a problem to your child’s health and wellbeing. If your child is chronically overtired, you’ll know. You might see more fussiness, lasting less time between naps, looking pale, etc. These are rarely caused by a scheduling problem but rather a health problem such as low iron or sleep apnea. It’s really important to rule those out before assuming our children are overtired.
Of course, early rising can be a problem for US. And that’s fair. It might impact how we show up as parents so if there’s something we can do it’s certainly worth a shot. What I never recommend is leaving your baby to cry alone in order to ‘teach’ them to sleep.
When a parent is struggling with early rising, one of the first things I look at is the sleep environment. Mostly because it’s one of the simplest things to change should it be the cause. By the time early morning rolls around, your baby has much less sleep drive than they did at the start of the night. So something simple that wakes them up could be the reason they can’t get back to sleep. Some things to consider:
- Light. Is there sunlight filtering in the room in the early morning? If so, try installing blackout blinds to help.
- Sound. Is a parent getting up early in the morning to go to work? Is a fan kicking on? The coffee machine starting up? Maybe the sound machine turns off at a certain time?
- Temperature. Is your baby waking up cold? Perhaps the temperature changes throughout the night or your toddler kicks off their sheets?
Most parents I work with have already investigated these items but it doesn’t hurt to take another look just to make sure as it is much easier to change a blind then try and correct a whole schedule.
Similar to sleep environment, this is something we want to take a look at. Often we’re expecting our little ones to go more than 12 hours without a meal and that’s just a long time! In the first year of life there’s a lot of ebbs and flows with feeding, especially if you’re body feeding. Please continue to nurse your infant on demand! You have not failed because your child needs to feed at night, even if they were previously able to sleep through.
In toddlers, I often see this with kids who are recently weaned. It’s not just that we’ve taken away their milk at night, it’s that we don’t often consider how long they’re going without a meal. For example, a toddler goes to bed at 8PM and wakes up at 7AM on a good day. Dinner is at 6 and breakfast is not until 730. That means they’re going 13.5 hours without a meal! If this is the case, consider:
- A bedtime snack high in proteins and fats. The idea is to cut down the amount of time they’re going between meals so if dinner is at 6 and bedtime is at 8, consider a simple snack right before they brush their teeth.
- Have a snack ready to go first thing in the morning. Could be just a fruit or a cereal bar.
This is by far the most common reason I see for early wakes: the disconnect between our expectations and how much sleep our children really need. The following chart is based on research and compiled by the National Sleep Foundation:
As you can see, the ranges are really wide! Which is why sample routines per age group make no sense. Now, the key is figuring out how much sleep YOUR unique child needs. First look at your child and assess their behavior. If they seem chronically tired let’s look into that further. If they don’t, proceed to get their sleep averages. To do this, track your child’s sleep for 3 days and count how many hours they are actually asleep for. Then add it all together and divide by 3. That should give you an average of their daily sleep needs. Now you want to look at their schedule and compare their actual sleep needs vs how many hours you’re expecting them to sleep.
For example, Lily is 13 months old and needs an average of 12 hours of sleep in a 24hr period. She takes a 1.5hr nap every day and her bedtime is 7PM. She is waking at 530AM every morning and her parents are getting so frustrated.
Well, Lily is getting 10.5hrs overnight and 1.5 during the day, totalling the 12 hrs that she needs. It’s not her sleep that’s the problem but the expectations.
Understanding this, her parents decide to cap Lily’s nap at 1hr and move her bedtime to 8PM. She now wakes at 700AM totalling 11 hrs overnight plus 1 hr during the day. She’s not sleeping any MORE than she was before, but this new schedule works best for Lily’s family.
You might have heard, however, that going to bed later means kids wake up earlier. This can happen with abrupt changes. If you are going to push your child’s bedtime later, do it slowly and give it a couple of weeks for them to adjust.
Sometimes frequent early wakes happen when your child is going through a major developmental milestone. It could be gross motor skills, brain development, growth spurt, teething… so many causes for potential sleep disruptions. If that’s the case, give it a couple of weeks before trying to change anything.
Is early rising an issue in your house? Let me know! And if you are having a hard time navigating sleep with your infant or toddler and you know sleep training isn’t for you? Check out my 1:1 support options here or peruse my on demand offers. Be sure to follow me on Instagram as well for tons of free support and an amazing community.