Updated: Feb 12
So your little one is finally sleeping through the night and you’re getting long stretches of sleep for the first time in a long time. The only problem now is the early morning wake-ups. Starting your day as early as 5 am is a challenge and you desperately wish for a 7 am start time.
Know you are not alone in this and there are some strategies you can try to move your child’s wake up time to later in the morning. Fixing early morning wake-ups is not an easy feat and can take 3 weeks of consistency to resolve.
Further, some babies have lower sleep needs than others and the only strategy with a lower sleep needs baby is often to move bedtime a little bit later. Just know you don’t have to live with a 5 am start forever.
Biology of sleep
The hormone Cortisol starts to rise from midnight to morning and the sleep hormone melatonin starts to lower, meaning that from the later part of the night towards morning there is a lot more light sleep and dreaming. This means that your little one can wake up quite easily in the early morning hours and when they do, their sleep pressure is quite low so going back to sleep can be difficult.
Keeping an ideal sleep environment is an important factor to help with early morning wake-ups. Ensure that your little one’s sleep space is completely dark and make sure that no light can shine into the room, especially in the early morning hours. The sleep hormone melatonin is only produced in the absence of light so the darker the room the better.
To avoid your little one waking up from external noise, using white noise the entire night is a great strategy. White noise will cover up any household noises and is an excellent cue for sleep for younger babies as well.
Also, make sure that your baby is not too hot or cold, the ideal temperature for sleep is 18-20 degrees. In winter you can use a swaddle or a sleeping bag once your baby starts to roll over. Blankets are not safe to use and can be kicked off quite easily. In summer dress your baby in thin cotton pajamas as cotton is breathable and will not overheat your little one.
Finally ensuring your little one is not waking up from hunger is also important. From about 9 months of age, your baby should not wake up from hunger anymore, so ensure that your child gets enough calories during the day and sufficient protein as this helps to stabilise their blood sugar levels. If your baby is younger than 9 months and keeps waking up early in the morning, they might still need a milk feed during the night.
Zeitgeber are environmental cues that help regulate the cycles of our biological clocks such as temperature, light, and food. This means that having your little one exposed to light, social interaction, or food in the early morning hours will make early morning wake-ups more likely. In other words, going into your baby’s room at 5 am every day to feed them will entrain their biological clock to wake them up at this time and since sleep pressure is very low at this time, going back to sleep will be difficult. This is also why it is so important to ensure no light can shine into your little one’s room in the early morning hours.
Going to bed overtired because of bad naps or a late bedtime, can also cause early morning wake-ups. When your little one is overtired at bedtime they produce the hormone cortisol and adrenaline which makes it difficult for them to enter into a deep restorative sleep. As a result, they are in much lighter sleep and wake up a lot more easily in the early morning hours.
A continuation of night sleep
If the first nap of the day occurs too early in the morning, it can be seen as a continuation of night sleep and thus encourage your little one to wake up early. It is important not to offer a nap before 8.30 am with babies older than 6 months. Ideally, the first nap of the day should start between 9-9.30 am in order not to promote early morning wake-ups. Should your baby wake up really early and cannot wait until 9 am to nap, you can offer a brief bridging nap (10-15 min) around 7.30/8 am. This should only be used as a short term solution while teaching your baby to sleep longer in the morning and bridging naps are no longer effective from 6 months of age.
A long nap in the morning can also result in early morning wake-ups and it is important to restrict the morning nap to ensure that your little one knows they will not get a long nap until midday so sleep pressure will be higher at 5 am.
If your little one relies on you to go to sleep at the start of the night and throughout the night, they will also need you early in the morning. It is best to work on self-settling first while also creating a good sleep environment. Once your little one can self-settle and the sleep environment is spot on, you can use the same sleep-settling strategy in the morning to move the wake up time later.
It is important to note that when using a gentle in the room method, progress will be quite slow as social interaction in the early morning can reinforce the early morning wake-up (see zeitgeber). As an alternative, you can try to wait 15 minutes before intervening and extend this by 15 minutes every three days. Your little one should then start to sleep a little longer each day until desired wake-up time is achieved.
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