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How to Troubleshoot Early Morning Wakings

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Do you ever feel like your child is an early bird, waking to start the day when it's only 4:30 a.m.?? If so, you are not alone. I've been doing this long enough where I know early mornings can be semi-normal for certain age groups (5-8 months, I'm looking at YOU!), but let me tell you my hard and fast rule. 4:30 a.m. IS STILL NIGHT TIME! Actually, anything before 6:00 a.m. is not morning.

A developmentally appropriate time to wake for the day is anywhere between 6:00 & 8:00 a.m.

So, let's troubleshoot these early mornings together. This is a quick list of strategies and checks that I go through with my clients to overcome these early mornings.

  • Does your child have independent sleep skills?

    • If your child is dependent upon anything besides themselves when it comes to falling asleep, they are not yet an independent sleeper. And for some babies, that's okay! Until it's not...

    • If it's not okay with you, then it's time to consider making some changes and helping your child learn how to sleep independently. There are multiple methods to choose from, and I recommend having a plan in place that is developmentally appropriate and one you can be 100% consistent with. If you need or want help with this, let's chat.

  • Is your child drowsy when going into bed?

    • I'm sure you've heard the term "drowsy but awake" - it's thrown around in the sleep world all the time. However, if your child is over 16 weeks of age, and you're putting them down drowsy, this can actually prolong night wakings and make early mornings a thing. When your child wakes at night, if they aren't being laid down fully awake at bedtime or for their nap, they are then looking for your help to get them to that certain point of drowsiness again before they can fall back to sleep. Some babies who go into the crib drowsy aren't truly independent sleepers because of this.

  • Is the environment conducive to falling and staying asleep?

    • Is it dark? It needs to be DARK. DARK DARK DARK. Like, so dark you-cannot-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark. No sunlight creeping in anywhere. If sunlight is streaming in during those early morning hours, it will go through the eyelid and enter the retina, stimulating a release of cortisol, the hormone that tells us to wake up! It's incredibly difficult to fall back asleep after this has happened. Also, make sure any small lights on appliances (monitors, cameras, humidifiers, etc.) are off or covered with black electrical tape.

    • Is it calm? No toys in the crib. Night time is a time for sleep, not for playing. If your child is 12 months or older, they may benefit from having a lovey item to cuddle with and provide comfort during an early morning waking.

    • Is there white noise? If there is anyone else up that early getting ready for work, the air kicks on, or the noise from traffic or birds chirping is starting up, a baby can be easily aroused from these environmental noises. Use white noise to help drown out other sounds.

    • How is the temperature? An ideal temperature in a nursery is between 68 and 72 degrees. Make sure your child is dressed appropriately for the temperature in their bedroom. A child who is too hot or too cold will sleep restlessly, or have more wakings than normal. If your child's hands or feet are cold but the room temperature is appropriate, they are fine - babies' extremities don't have as good of circulation as adult ones do! Instead, measure the temperature from the center of their does their head feel? Their neck? Their chest? If these areas are warm or cool to the touch, that is a more quality indicator as to whether your baby is too hot or too cold.

  • Is your child getting the right amount of sleep in a 24 hour period? Too little sleep? Perhaps too much sleep?

    • Make sure your child is on an age-appropriate schedule!

      • For babies 0-7 months, download and use my free guide all about awake windows.

      • If your child is older than 7/8 months, they are probably on a two-nap schedule. If they're between 14-36 months, they're likely on a one-nap schedule.

      • Refer to the chart below to help you figure out the appropriate amount of sleep your child should be getting (these are just averages - your child may need slightly more or slightly less...I can help figure it out if you need it!). Too much or too little sleep in a 24 hour period can result in early morning wakings too!

      • Consider: Is it time for a nap transition?

  • Are they going through a developmental milestone?

    • If your baby has recently started rolling, sitting, scooting, crawling, cruising, walking, or had a language burst, give it time and consistency. These skills can all affect sleep.

  • Do they have an adequate amount of sleep pressure built up?

    • I want you to think of your child having a "sleep tank" - similar to a gas tank. The tank needs to be almost full to get quality sleep for both naps and nights. If your child doesn't have enough sleep pressure built up before bedtime, they may not be able to stay asleep through those early morning hours. If they're getting too much sleep during the day it will also be more difficult to stay asleep when the early morning comes.

  • Is your child hungry?

    • Your baby can still have night feeds and be an independent sleeper! Things to consider with night feeds:

      • Are they staying awake through the feed and falling back to sleep easily when you put them back in their crib - not falling asleep at the breast or bottle?

      • Are they taking a full feed?

      • Are you having a letdown if breastfeeding?

      • Have they slept through the night before?

      • Are they waking out of habit or are they actually hungry?

  • Is there an incentive for them to wake up for? What are you doing when they first wake up? How do you respond?

    • When baby wakes, are you giving some time before your respond? Are you immediately assisting your child without giving an opportunity to go back to sleep? Are you feeding right away? Are you letting them watch cartoons or giving them the iPad? All of these things can inadvertently incentivise the early morning wakings.

  • Is feeding separated from all sleep (bedtime/naps) by at least 15 minutes?

    • Some children have an incredibly strong feeding and sleep association. We want our children to learn that while nourishment and sleep are both basic needs, they do not occur simultaneously. Daytime is for feeding, and night time is for sleep! Separating these activities will help your child disassociate these two things. Moving the bedtime feed to the beginning of the bedtime routine is sometimes an easy answer.

  • Are you keeping them in bed until their ideal wake time?

    • Getting your child earlier than what your goal is will train their circadian rhythm that yes, in fact, they can be up for the day, because, well, you're getting them up to start their day. If your ideal wake time is 6:30, don't get them until 6:30. Then, make a really big deal about it being morning - go in singing and dancing and thrilled to see them and to start another day! Open the blinds and let the sunlight stream in.

    • As long as you know they're okay, this is the one and only time (early mornings) I actually recommend leaving your child in their room and monitoring from a distance. The sleep pressure is too light at this time of day, and they will be easily stimulated by you if you're going in and out of their room doing check-ins.

  • If all of these other things check out, and your child is waking consistently around the same time every day, have you tried the "wake-to-sleep" strategy?

    • This is a strategy that I've personally only ever used and recommended a few times. Essentially we are interrupting your child's sleep cycle and "resetting" it by going in and gently rousing them. If your child wakes daily at 4:45, you'd want to go in their room about 3:45/4:00 a.m. All it takes is a gentle touch (most of the time) until you hear or feel them take a deep breath or roll over - you don't actually want to wake them - you're just helping them move from one cycle into another with the hope that you're resetting their rhythm at that time of day, resulting in an additional 45 minutes or so of sleep.

    • This works well for some children and not for others. It may take a few tries to get it right.

    • Try this strategy for 7-10 days and see if it helps.

I KNOW, it's a lot to consider. If you find that you need help with any of these items, I'm here for you! My 60-minute Ask-Erin-Anything call would be a great option to go through this list together to make sure everything is where it needs to be for YOUR child.

For other sleep education, tips, and tricks, check out the rest of the blog and our Instagram.

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