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Battling the Early Morning Wake Ups

It’s that time of year again when the sun starts to come up a little earlier each morning, and although I love waking up to a sunlit room, it also means my kiddos are waking up as soon as that light peers through their curtains. Even though these early sunrises take a little getting used to, it is nothing compared to the early mornings I used have with one of my babies. 

Sound Familiar?

Tell me if this scenario rings a little too close to home for you: you are in a deep sleep, dreaming of sugar plums and fairies, when all of a sudden you hear your baby’s first cry of the morning. You reach over and grab your phone to look at the time and it reads 5am! You then turn towards your spouse and with your half opened eyes, you both look at each other as if to telepathically say, “your turn to get up with him.” This particular scenario was a regular occurrence for us after having our second child, and it got really old really quickly. We did not want to be up during the 5am hour, but we weren’t sure how to go about fixing it.

Why is This Happening?

So, what is causing these early morning wake ups? Is baby getting too much daytime sleep? Is he going to bed too late? Too early? Is he not getting enough outside time? Is he hungry? To be honest, it could be any of these things or a combination of several of them that are contributing to an early wake up. All of these questions point to one obvious truth: that a baby’s sleep is extremely complicated and the solution to any sleep concern is not one-size fits all. A child’s sleep is constantly changing because of how quickly their bodies and brains are developing and growing. Once you think you have their sleep all figured out, a speed bump appears and once again throws you off track.  

Getting Sciency!

So why is this early wake up so common to see in babies? I will try to keep the sciency portion to a minimum, but in a nutshell here is what’s happening to their little bodies during those early hours in the morning. Everyone's bodies (even us adults) naturally start to secrete a hormone called cortisol (an awake hormone) around 3 hours before our circadian rhythm is set for morning time. So, if your circadian rhythm is naturally set for a 7am wake up, then cortisol starts trickling in around that 4am hour. Cortisol is a hormone that our bodies use in times of excitement or stress to help keep us awake. In contrast, melatonin is the “sleepy hormone” that helps our bodies relax and fall asleep. At that 4am hour baby is at the end of a sleep cycle, which puts him in lighter state of sleep, his melatonin has decreased and the cortisol is starting to make an entrance. This hormone exchange, along with the lack of self-soothing skills, allows baby to awaken and makes it that much more difficult for him to go back to sleep. 

What Do I Do?

So now that you know your baby is not the only one who wakes up in the wee hours of the morning, and we know that it could be a number of things contributing to his wake ups, and we know why this early wake up is happening, you’re probably asking what do I do about it? If your child has been waking up during these early hours (before 6am) for at least 2 weeks, here are a few suggestions you can try.

  1. Get your little one lots of natural light during the day by getting outside a couple of times a day. Getting at least 30-60 minutes of outside time a few times a day can help set your child’s body clock and increase melatonin at night.
  2. Make sure the room is as dark at 4:00 AM to 6:00 AM as it is at midnight. Darken up your child’s room as much as you can. If there is any light that comes through in those early morning hours, it can pull baby up out of a sleep cycle and make it hard for him to get back to sleep.
  3. Make sure your baby is not waking up because he is cold. The body temperature drops around 4:00 AM so some babies will wake up because they are cold. If this is the case for your baby, put socks on his feet under his jammies or a use a warmer sleep sack.
  4. Be sure that your child isn’t too drowsy going down at bedtime, sometimes this means leaving a light on through the entire routine and turning it off after he goes down into bed. 
  5. Make sure your child is getting the right amount of daytime sleep at the right times. Too much or too little daytime sleep can cause issues with wake up time.

 

Age

Number of Naps

Amount of Daytime Sleep

Newborn (0-3 months)

4-5

5-8 hours

4 Months

3-4

4 hours

5 Months

3

3-4 hours

6 Months

2-3

3-3.5 hours

7 & 8 Months

2-3

3 hours

9-12 Months

2

2-3 hours

13-18 Months

1

1.5-3      hours

 

  1. It is very helpful to keep your child in bed in the dark room until 6:00 AM, by either staying out of his room until 6:00 AM or going in there and sitting with him until 6:00 AM. If you don’t keep your child in the dark room it can make the child’s body clock and melatonin levels set to waking before 6:00 AM regularly which is usually too early for babies and young children to be waking to start the day. 
  2. If your baby is over 8-9 months old, make sure he is having 3 solid food meals a day and getting some healthy sources of fat and protein in his solid food diet.
  3. Move bedtime earlier by 30 minutes. I know that sounds like the opposite of what you should do but it often helps. This is not an overnight success, it usually takes about a week or so before you will start to see improvement.
  4. If you tried for at least one week to move bedtime earlier and that didn’t help, then try moving it later. I usually only recommend going 30 minutes later (than it was before you moved it earlier) and make sure your child is getting into bed before 8:00 PM-8:30 PM. Give this about a week to work.

However, the best way to help your baby sleep through the night and move past those early wake ups is to create a very consistent and predicable schedule and help him gain independent sleep skills! If you need guidance on how to do that, please feel free to reach out to us at sleepwellsleepspecialists@gmail.com to set up a free sleep evaluation!

 

About the author

Amanda Medley

Why didn’t we try this sooner?! As we speak he is sound asleep in his crib – and has been since 7:15 pm.

Karianne Wanggaard

Sleep Well Sleep Specialists

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Working with Shannon, I went from 2-3 wake ups every night to 1 or 0. She aligned the plan with my preferred sleep cycle. She was always coaching, never judging. Shannon was great, I have referred MANY people to her! That's the best testament to her work that I can give.

Laura

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