Is your baby bright eyed, bushy tailed and eager to go…but it is only 5 a.m?
Early waking is tough, whether your early-riser is a big toddler or a wee baby, and definitely affects everything else in the day, including feeding and sleep schedule. Not to mention how the timing of your baby’s morning wake-up call actually sets the tone for the rest of the day and affects your energy levels and subsequently, your mood. So, what could have otherwise been a great day takes a different turn, distinguished by, well, exhaustion. There is no doubt, early rising is an issue that has to be fixed!
How Early is Too Early?
For some parents, anything before 9 a.m. is too early while for others a 6 a.m. wake-up is perfect. Since “early” is such a relative term, it is probably best to establish an objective “too early wake ups” standard against which you can judge what is going on in your house.
It all has to do with how the baby wakes up. If the little one wakes up between 6:00 and 8:00 a.m. and is fairly energised, refreshed and happy, chances are you don’t have an early morning wake up problem. Provided that your baby is getting enough nap time and nighttime sleep, a wake-up time of 6 a.m. is reasonable and developmentally appropriate for the majority of babies.
On the other hand, if your baby starts the day way before sunrise with a cranky mood, then you likely do have an early-waking thing there.
So, what do you do?
In theory, if you put children to bed later, you would expect them to wake up later. Although this idea is certainly worth a try, I wouldn’t keep my hopes up. Most of the times, this trick leaves parents with a grouchy and overtired child. That said, though, things can be slightly different with an older toddler that still takes an afternoon nap and is not tired enough by bedtime. Instead, he/she may bounce around the bed for a few hours before falling asleep (finally!). In this case, a later bedtime could actually benefit the child.
Don’t give up hope just yet. Even though every baby is different, there are tips to get him or her to stay asleep until a more sociable time. But, first, let’s dig in some whys.
Reasons a Baby May Wake Up Too early
During the night, children go through various stages of sleep and their sleep tends to be much lighter the more it gets towards morning. This means that they wake up more easily and have a hard time getting back to sleep. Sometimes, there is rational explanation behind this early waking pattern.
These often include:
- Noise – Perhaps there is a noise that disturbs the baby at the same time every day (i.e. the heating clicks on or a noisy milkman). If this noise is out of your reach to control, you can try using white noise to screen out the disturbing sounds (you may download one of the many great apps available).
- Getting cold – The early morning hours (between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m.) is when the body’s temperature is at its lowest levels. If the baby is getting cold, try using an age appropriate baby/toddler sleeping bag, which is a safe alternative to blankets and duvets. Sleep bags eliminate the risk of baby kicking of their blankets and help regulate body temperature.
- Light – Light initiates a process that wakes up the brain. So, if the baby’s bedroom becomes light, he/she will definitely wake up when the sun rises. This is easily tackled with a set of blackout curtains/blinds or even some thicker versions of the window treatment you already have.
- Unfamiliar setting – So, you have decided to spend a few days at your parent’s house, with the baby, of course. The unfamiliar setting will not help the baby settle down and sleep when he/she needs to. Although you can’t exactly pack the entire nursing room and haul it on holiday with you, you can certainly make the place the baby sleeps feel more familiar and homey. So, feel free to bring along comfort items (i.e. favourite stuffed animal), his/her crib bedding and sheets, or a lullaby CD you play for your child at naptime.
- Nap timing – If the baby’s nap schedule builds in too much awake time during the day (is either getting too short naps or no naps at all), the you will most likely have an overtired baby at bedtime that will wake too early or sleep very poorly. Refer to my earlier article on Naps.
There are some other reasons that may cause your baby to wake up early which take some time to handle appropriately, such as:
Sometimes, a sick baby or toddler sleeps more that she/he usually does. It is the normal response of the body to help fight the invader. Unfortunately, being ill also means that he/she will also probably wake up more often than usual, which is particularly true for stomach bugs. The only thing you can do is just give the child the medication your paediatrician has prescribed and patiently wait for it to pass.
Having a baby that was sleeping well suddenly starting to wake at night is definitely a test of your patience and a phase in the baby’s life that can drain on your energy. The good news is that it is a temporary situation and often means that your baby is simply developing just as he/she should.
At around four months old, the baby’s sleeping patterns start to become more like that of an adult (cycling between deep and light sleep). If the baby is still unable to settle him/herself back to sleep, you can expect more frequent wake ups as the child moves between these sleep stages. The same can occur every time the baby is learning a new skill (i.e. around 8 months when the baby is crawling) or during potty training.
Try to maintain your naptime and bedtime routine and avoid using props (i.e. rocking or feeding) to help the child sleep. Also, be patient and give the baby the chance to settle him/herself to sleep.
Intermittent and occasional early waking should not raise any red flags or concerns that there is something wrong with the baby. If the cause can be traced to something temporary, then all you need to do is work on getting back on track the soonest possible. Nevertheless, if the baby has made it a habit to wake too early, it is highly likely you are having a scheduling issue to solve.
Setting a Sound Sleep Schedule
Treat Early Wakes ups as Night Waking
First of all, treat the baby’s early morning wake ups as night waking. This means that you may get up and offer the child reassurance and comfort, but try not to get him/her up as if the day has just begun. Otherwise, you will be reinforcing that this early morning wake -up is a normal part of the regular routine. If you do this for a week or two, your problem could be over. Now, if, after two weeks the baby is still waking up too early, you can consider the following:
- Would the baby benefit from an extra nap during the day?
- Is the bedtime too late or too early?
- Are you leaving the baby until 6:30 a.m.?
Watch Out What The Toddler Eats
Research has shown that a lack of one of the omega-3 fatty acids called DHA (found in oily fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel) is linked to sleep problems. Including one portion of these fish in a toddler’s weekly diet could make a difference.
Foods like soft drinks and biscuits that contain certain additives can trigger sleep issues and affect a child’s mood and sleep. The same applies to sweets, chocolate, and sugar that give the child a swift energy boost which is quickly followed by a plummet in glucose levels. To help stabilise the child’s mood, try to give him/her honey, a banana or other foods that boost the levels of serotonin and prevent the sudden drop in blood sugar levels.
There are also foods with a sedative effect on a child. For example, a naturally occurring amino acid called tryptophan is found to help the body produce the sleep hormone (aka melatonin). So, make sure you include foods like the following in your child’s last meal of the day:
- Dairy products
- Kidney beans
- Soya products
Tip: Serving some carbohydrates (i.e. rice, bread, or pasta) along with these foods will boost the effects of tryptophan.
Finally, having some protein a couple of hours before bedtime (in the evening meal) can keep the child feeling full at night. And, let us not forget that some exercise and fresh air can work wonders on a child’s quality of sleep (and quantity). Even if it just for a run around your backyard, do try to get out and about during the day.
Reset the Baby’s Clock
This may be difficult to do but trying to wake up an early riser earlier could indeed be a solution to early morning wake ups. Scheduled waking involves setting your alarm clock to wake up 10-15 minutes before the baby usually wakes. Then, try to rouse the child gently. The idea is to make the baby stir not be fully awake - no getting him/her out of the bed. This will interrupt the little one’s sleep cycle so when you settle him/her back to sleep, you actually put him/her into a deep sleep.
If after all that you are still struggling, you may require expert sleep consulting services. Don’t be heart-broken with early morning wakes ups, though. It may just mean that your baby needs less sleep than others!