Why Your Child is Waking Too Early & How To Fix It
I can’t even count the number of calls and emails I’ve received recently from exhausted parents whose baby or child is suddenly waking way too early every morning. So let’s talk about it! First let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing. Babies and children are programmed to be early to bed and early to rise so typically waking at 6 or later is considered normal. I define early rising as regularly waking before 6 am or at a time that is unusually early compared to your child’s normal wake time. So what causes a child to suddenly begin waking too early?
*Bedtime is too late or too long after the end of nap
The most common cause is too late of a bedtime or, similarly, too long of a wakeful period from the end of nap to bedtime. Our little ones have an internal clock that tells them when to feel sleepy and when to wake up as well as how long they can comfortably manage being awake. Going to bed after their ideal time actually causes them to pop awake earlier the next morning. As counterintuitive as it may be, going to bed even a tad too late or too tired often results in less sleep rather than more. Many parents fall into this trap in the summer months as it stays light out later and we are extra busy with traveling and socializing. Your child’s clock, however, does not shift later with the daylight. So if bedtime has recently shifted in your home or naps have been hit or miss that is the likely culprit for the early wake up call. Take a close look at your recent family schedule and aim as often as possible to shift back or at least closer to the previous one.
*The Room is Too Bright
The level of light in your child’s room can interfere with sleep year round but especially during those extra-long summer days. Daylight has a big impact on sleep as the reduction of daylight in the evening causes our bodies to release the sleep helping hormone, Melatonin and the rising of the sun signals our brain to wake up. So if the summer sunlight is streaming into your child’s room at bedtime and the crack of dawn the next morning sleep struggles may ensue. Blackout curtains can be a lifesaver or, in a pinch, thick black trash bags and tape around the window frames. For some very sensitive children even the light that streams in the sides of the curtains is enough to trigger a wake up. For these little ones wrap around curtain rods may be necessary or a product like the ones available at BlackoutEZ.com.
If your little one is approaching or mastering a new cognitive or motor skill this leap can cause temporary early rising. For example if she is learning to roll, crawl, about to take her first steps or acquiring new vocabulary very quickly her brain and body may be so revved up that she pops awake bright and early wanting to practice. Naps often suffer during leaps too which can compound the problem. Your best bet during a leap is to try to keep your child as rested as possible until normal sleep patterns resume. If she has a back-up sleep method such as the car or stroller use that to your advantage to tank her up on sleep. If not, a temporary earlier bedtime can help offset the early rising.
Whatever the cause of your child’s early rising you’ll want to be cautious to avoid reinforcing it as the new time to start the day. While it is much easier to just let them get upwhenever they wake, that will reinforce this as the new wake time making it much harder to correct. Instead, aim to have a set time when it is okay to start the day (you can use 6 am or after 11 hours of sleep or whatever was normal for your child) and treat anything before that time as you would a middle of the night waking. That may mean responding with a quick check in, helping back to sleep or ignoring depending on what you are comfortable with. The goal would be to persist with that response either until your child returns to sleep or until the clock strikes the set time at which point you can get them up to start the day. While it will feel frustrating to leave your child in their room and not have them return to sleep, it will accomplish the goal of not reinforcing the early waking time which can pave the way for correcting the habit. For children 18 months and older you can consider introducing a toddler clock such as the KidSleep or the OK to Wake clocks. These can help a child to understand when it is and isn’t time to get up (without relying on sunlight) and make your responses seem much less arbitrary.
These are just a few of the reasons mornings may have crept earlier for your family. Whatever the cause, you can take steps to reclaim your mornings! And if you can’t sort out the cause or solution on your own, Confident Parenting can help.