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Early Morning Wakings: Why They Happen & How to Solve Them


baby early morning waking

Do you often find yourself daydreaming at 5:30 a.m. about all the years you took for granted the simple art of sleeping in?


If you answered “yes,” you are likely a parent whose little one woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at this ridiculous hour, ready to take on their day!


One of the most popular questions I receive in my comments and DMs is: “why is my child waking so early?!?!”



This is a common topic because it is the most challenging sleep issue to resolve. When I work with families to get their child’s sleep in order, the last thing to usually fall into place is an appropriate wake-up time of 6:00 a.m. or later. But why?!


Let’s explore causes of early morning wakings and the best way to resolve them.

 

Causes of Early Morning Wakings


Too-Late Bedtime



Sleep is complex and takes some time and analysis to understand the true root of underlying issues. However, more often than not, an early morning waking can be directly attributed to a too-late bedtime. You can stop rolling your eyes now, because while the theory sounds backwards, it is rooted in science. Let me explain.


After the age of 4 months, babies develop their circadian rhythms, or their body’s biological clock.


They will begin to take naps around the same predictable time each day and bedtime will be between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., give or take 30 minutes. Night feedings will start to consolidate to 1 or 2 after 12:00 a.m. or they will drop night feedings altogether.


What science tells us is that babies and young children enter a NREM, or deep, sleep state


starting at around 7:00 p.m. and ending around 1:00 a.m.


Science also tells us that the more NREM sleep their bodies get, the more peacefully they will be able to sleep in the second half of the night when they cycle between light (REM) and deep (NREM) sleep. Therefore, if their bodies do not have enough deep, NREM sleep under their belts, it will not be restored enough to successfully transition between sleep cycles, causing more night wakings in the second half of the night as well as early morning wakings.


Let’s put this theory into practice, especially if your child is sleeping through the night.



Total up the amount of rest they have received in one night.


Let’s say they went to bed at 8:00 p.m. and entered into a transition between NREM to REM sleep around 5:00 a.m. Although they know how to fall asleep independently, they’ve already slept 9 hours and now find it hard in the early morning to go back to sleep.


While 9 hours is not enough sleep (10 is the minimum), their bodies did not have that extra hour in the beginning of the night to restore its awake hormones and refresh the body, which prep them for longer stretches of sleep in the morning.


Therefore, they turned the sleep transition into a full morning waking and cannot put themselves back to sleep. This is perpetuated when we start our day at this hour by feeding them and napping them too early.


Overtired and Wired



Culprit number 2 of early morning wakings is an overtired child.


Being overtired can be a result of many things, most commonly too-short naps.


Babies taking 3 naps should have at least 2 naps that are 1 hour in length each. Babies taking 2 naps should be sleeping for at least 1.5 hours each nap. Finally, little ones who are on 1 nap should be sleeping for at least 2-3 hours during the day.


If your child is much below these averages, it might be the right time to start nap training!


Another cause of overtiredness are too-frequent night wakings.


Always follow your pediatrician’s advice regarding night feeding. However, if your baby is over


4 months old and still waking every 3 hours for a night feeding or if they’ve dropped night feedings and still have yet to sleep through the night, then you are likely dealing with a chronically overtired child.


Too-Early Bedtime



I would seriously air on the side of caution before pegging this as the foundation of your early morning wakings, however it is an important point to discuss. Let’s say you’ve consistently put your child down for bedtime at 6:30 p.m. and are continually seeing 5:30 a.m. wakings.


If they do not wake up in the middle of the night (except for scheduled feedings) and have slept 11 hours, then bedtime might need to slowly shift later in order to accommodate.


Conversely, if bedtime is at 8:30 p.m. and they are waking at 5:30 a.m., their total nighttime sleep only amounts to 9 hours.


They have not hit the minimum of 10 hours and pushing bedtime any later will reduce the amount of NREM sleep their body will receive. In this case, they are going to bed too late and bedtime needs to be shifted at least 1 hour earlier.

 


How to Resolve Early Morning Wakings


  • Put them to bed earlier! Even 30 minutes can make a difference in helping their body take advantage of NREM sleep that will stretch their nighttime and morning sleep. An ideal bedtime for most children under age 7 is between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. Falling asleep any later than 8:00 p.m. will likely cause more frequent night wakings and early morning wakings.


  • Check out my article on nap refusals to help stretch out your child’s daytime sleep and prevent them from being overtired and hard to settle at bedtime.



As long as bedtime is no later than 8:00 p.m. and they are receiving at least 10 hours of sleep, try shifting bedtime slightly later by 15-30 minutes and see if this helps stretch morning sleep. This should be the last option after trying #1-3.


  • Alter your expectations! A typical wake-up time for young children is between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. If they are waking consistently within this hour, then you’re golden (although you won’t feel like it for some time!!!)



Be patient and consistent. You should see improvement after a few weeks of consistently trying one of these methods.


  • Reflect on your sleep goals in terms of their night-time sleep. If your child is over 4 months old and is waking more than twice to feed or wakes frequently throughout the night without the need for a feeding, it may be time to start sleep training.



Getting long stretches of consolidated sleep throughout the night will help their body sleep longer in the morning. Give me a call by booking an appointment to learn more about personalized help with sleep training.


Rest Well,

Sarah


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