Is your child waking too early in the morning?

It’s the end of April as I write this and personally, I LOVE the longer days. But if you have a baby or toddler, the brighter mornings can definitely lead to your child waking too early in the morning! So today I’m giving you my top tips for stopping early rising.

Tired parents trying to sleep in bed while their baby sits awake between them

Why is your child waking too early?

First… some sleep biology facts to explain why you may have a persistent early riser, even in the depths of Winter:

  • Babies and toddlers are just programmed to wake earlier than adults. It’s what is known as a “chronotype”, Some adults have a “lark chronotype” and wake easily when their child wakes early. However, quite a few adults have an “owl chronotype” and their body clocks are programmed to go to bed late and wake later. So if you have an “owl” parent and a “lark” child, there is a mismatch in body clocks.
  • Most babies and toddlers can’t sleep for 12 hours in bed. We’re obsessed with early bedtimes in the West! So if you’re planning to get your child to sleep at 7 pm every night and they only need 10 hours of sleep overnight… well… 5 am is a perfectly reasonable time for them to be waking! (Sorry)
  • Our sleep cycles get lighter and shorter as the night progresses. As the night goes on, it gets harder and harder to get back to sleep. This is because our sleep pressure falls as the night goes on. Your melatonin levels are at their lowest, and your body is starting to produce some cortisol to kick start the day for you.

Top tips for helping your child sleep later

Black out blinds

These will help to reduce the light getting to your child early in the morning. Honestly, when my persistent lark child was waking earlier than 5 am, black out blinds made a HUGE difference. They may also help at bedtime too to help your child fall asleep easier, but that’s the subject of my next blog!

Sun rising over a beach

Exposure to natural light 

Get out early in the morning, ideally before 10 am, as this helps to strengthen your child’s circadian rhythm. I’d also recommend that you get out in the evening, perhaps after dinner. Our body clocks are most sensitive to the spectrum of light present in the rising and setting sun. Therefore, a walk after dinner when the sun is lower on the horizon often helps to rebalance a child’s circadian rhythm. It’s also a great way of getting some exercise and family time, which often leads to an easier bedtime. If your child takes long naps, it’s probably best if these happen in a normally lit room, rather than a dark bedtime. This is because exposure to darkness can trigger the production of melatonin, and we only want this to happen at bedtime, not during the day.

Toddler walking along a path. The sun is setting

Adjust your bedtime

Yep, I know this means that you may have to put your child to bed a bit later. However, if you want them to wake up after 6 am, then you may find that your bedtime has to be closer to 8 pm or later. My chart below shows you the average length of night time sleep according to the different ages. So, for example, if your child is 13 months old, I’d work with 10-11 hours in bed overnight. That means that a bedtime of 8 pm will result in a wake up (hopefully) somewhere between 6 am and 7 am.

Sleep chart with averages from newborn to 18 months

Make sure they aren’t getting too much day sleep 

Toddlers especially can get an imbalance in day sleep. So if you find that your toddler sleeps loads during the day, you may need to reduce the length of their naps! You can refer to my chart above to give you some idea of the averages for younger babies. The chart below is for older children.  

Could they be overtired? 

I say this cautiously because most children are NOT waking up early because they are overtired. In most cases, shifting bedtime later or reducing day sleep are the fixes that are needed. Occasionally, there will be an increase in early rising if children are overtired, usually if they are adjusting to dropping a nap. So, if you’ve just dropped a nap, then this might explain why your child is waking up too early. 

Would co-sleeping help? 

Often, babies and toddlers will go to bed pretty happily on their own at bedtime. As the night goes on, their need for connection for you increases because they’ve been separate from you for a while. This, coupled with lower sleep pressure, means that your child may wake in the early hours of the morning. If you can co-sleep safely, then this may help all of you get another hour or two of sleep.

White woman lies sleeping in bed. Her baby is lying next to her asleep

Don’t “reward” their body clocks for getting up early 

The TV

I get it! If you’re exhausted at 4-5 am, you’ll do anything for an easier life. However, try to avoid anything that is going to stimulate or reward them for being awake. For example, if you’re sticking the TV on to keep a toddler quiet, and that’s the only time they get to watch tv, then there is no doubt that they’ll wake up early to watch TV! While we no longer think that the blue light emitted by screens has a significant impact on sleep, TV’s are stimulating. Perhaps put out some quiet toys for them to play with instead, while you snooze on the sofa. 

Snacks and food 

If your toddler or older child is waking up at 4-5 am and you give them breakfast, then their body will get used to food at that time. They they are more likely to wake up hungry! Don’t give them food until the time that they normally get breakfast. Please note: This is not the same principle for babies – a lot of babies will absolutely need a milk feed at 4-5 am so it’s not about restricting feeds for them. In fact, a milk feed may actually help them go back to sleep again! 

Naps

Don’t give them an early nap! Often, when they wake up early, they end up going for a super-early nap. Try to push that first nap as late as possible, and as close to the time that they would normally nap. Otherwise, you will end up in a cycle of early wake ups, and then an early nap that just gives them their “catch up” sleep that they didn’t get at night. 

Toddler looking over his shoulder. The TV is on in the background.

Making sure they are warm enough 

The early hours of the morning are often when children feel the coldest. Colder rooms at that time of the night/morning, plus a drop in core temperature can lead to waking. You could try putting a pair of socks on them at bedtime as this helps to regulate their core temperature. Alternatively, safe co-sleeping is often a really good way of keeping everyone toasty warm!

Picture of a baby's feet. They are wearing brown woolen socks.

Rouse to sleep 

If you’ve tried all the previous tips, and your child is still persistently waking up early then there is another option: rouse them just before the time they normally would wake, and then help them get back to sleep again. It sounds weird, but if you disrupt their sleep in the middle of a sleep cycle, you may just be able to get them to go back to sleep for another few sleep cycles. Do this for around a week, and then hopefully they’ll sleep a bit later on their own. So, for example, if your baby is waking around 5 am, I’d set an alarm for around 4:45. Give them a nudge, or lift them, so that they open their eyes and come round a bit, then resettle them back to sleep.

Need some support with your child's sleep?

I offer one to one consultations to families who want a gentle, responsive approach to sleep without sleep training. These consultations are particularly helpful for breastfeeding families. I also offer sleep courses for newborns right up to the age of 5. You can find out more here: www.rebeccascottpillai.co.uk/sleep

Published by Rebecca Scott-Pillai

Rebecca Scott-Pillai is a paediatric sleep consultant and lactaction consultant (IBCLC) based in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. She lives there with her two kids, two cats and dog! With over 20 years experience working with families, Rebecca uses her knowledge and experience to provide collaborative flexible plans for gentle, responsive families.