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Why is your baby or toddler waking up too early and how can you help?

If you've been frantically Googling "how to stop my baby waking at 5am" and you've landed here, the you need search no more! As a baby sleep consultant, I understand the challenges of early waking all too well. In this comprehensive guide, I'll share expert tips and advice to help you tackle early waking to help you get precious more sleep, and if you stick around to the end you can download my free gift.


Baby lying in their crib happy

What counts as an early wake up?


Early waking, is defined as waking for the day before 6 am. Typically it's babies, toddlers and children waking anywhere between 4am and 6am. To you 6:30am may still feel like an early wake, but if your little one is waking after 6am, it isn't technically early rising. This is because 6am is a developmentally appropriate wake-up time for a baby or child.


Early waking can sometimes be more exhausting for parents than multiple night wakes. At least with a standard night wake, they will go back to sleep, but in the case of early rising, that's it. They are up for the day. You get no more chance for extra sleep.


While some babies are natural early birds, consistently allowing your child to get up for the day before 6am can really have an impact on their circadian rhythm (their internal body clock) and can often throw their routine out of alignment. It can mean you base their nap routine and bedtime around an early wake up which can then serve to reinforce the habit.


This article will give you strategies to try to eliminate the wake ups so they don't happen, and give you strategies to manage them when they do happen.


In this article:


Why is your baby or toddler waking early?


Early rising is one of the most common and the most challenging sleep problems amongst babies and toddlers. This is all because of sleep pressure. Sleep pressure is our biological drive to sleep. When your child goes to bed at bedtime sleep pressure will be highest, and sleep pressure will drop throughout the night. By the time it gets to 4am, sleep pressure is often so low that if your child wakes at this time, it can be a real challenge to get them back to sleep and they require far more support to get back to sleep than they do if they wake earlier in the night.


To this end, this is why it's important to work out the cause of your child's wake so you can eliminate or mitigate the cause of that wake. But beyond that, because the time your child wakes has such an impact on their body clock, it's important to know how you manage those wakes if they do happen so you can keep your day on track and make those early wakes less likely going forward.


How to stop your baby waking at 5am


Optimise Your Child's Sleep Environment


Black out the room


It can often really help to make sure your baby's room is dark and free from distractions that could stimulate wakefulness. Not all babies are sensitive to light, of course, but for many early risers, any amount of light that creeps in during the early hours can send a signal to the body that it's time to wake up. One way to tell if this is the cause of your little one's wake-ups is to look at the daily sunrise times here. If they roughly line up with when your child is waking, you can be fairly sure this is the reason.


Invest in blackout blinds - I often suggest families undertake a 'light audit' where they go into their child's bedroom during the brightest part of the day and close the blinds. Adjust your eyes to the light. If you can see any light at all then it might not be dark enough for your little sleep thief. Work one by one to eliminate each source of light. Below are some really cost effective options to black out your baby's room.


TommeeTippee portable blackout blinds

Cut to size blackout blinds


LED Light Blocking Stickers


Cut to size blackout film

Tommee Tippee Portable Blackout Blind

Easy Night Cut-to-Size Blackout Blind

LED Light Blocking Stickers

Cut to size blackout film

This is helpful if you already have blackout curtains or a roller blind, but there's still light creeping through. It's great because you can also take it with you if you travel.

The problem with the tommee tippee blind it that it's not cut to size, so often light will get around the sides, but for this option, the product can be completely cut to size and either suctioned to the window, or velcroed to the window frame.

Do you have any digital devices with LED lights that let out a lot of light? These handy stickers can be used to cover these lights.

This is not something I would recommend for your main windows, but these are handy for things like lightwells that are above internal doors, or internal doors with glass panels. You cut to size and then stick on with a spray of water. They come off easily with no residue.

Night Lights


You may have seen some pretty convincing marketing that suggests red night lights help children to sleep better as they help to produce melatonin. This simply isn't true. If you need to use a night light because your child is scared of the dark, for example, then a night light with a red hue is the best to use because red light does not inhibit the body's ability to produce melatonin (the sleepy hormone). But for most children, the best environment for sleep is pitch black.


If your child really doesn't like the dark, then I do still suggest the room is completely blacked out to prevent the change in ambient light in the room in the early hours. But I suggest you either use a red or amber-hued light on a dim setting. The Hatch night light* is fantastic as it can be used as a white noise machine, a sleep training clock and a night light.


Hatch night light

Noise


Lots of families say they have tried white noise, but it didn't make their little one sleep better. On its own white noise will not help your baby to sleep through the night. But what white noise is helpful for is to mask noises inside or outside the home.


You, or someone else in your household, might get up early for work, or you might even have a noisy neighbour who decides to do weightlifting at 5am. Even if you think you’re being quiet, often babies can be more sensitive to noise than you might expect.


Some things to think about:

  • Is someone in your household awake at that point getting ready for work - having a shower, drying their hair, slamming the door as they leave the house, etc?

  • Does a neighbour make any noise at this time?

  • Are there any noises around the house, like the heating coming on at a specific time making lots of banging?

  • Are there vehicles outside on the street at this time making noise?


Temperature


When we are in the colder months temperature is especially problematic. As humans our core body temperature drops throughout the night as we sleep, and also so does the temperature in our home. Often our homes might be toasty and warm in the evening, but in the early hours we don't see the need to have the heating on. But feeling the cold can really wake your little one up, and it's hard for them to warm up and get back to sleep.


Some signs that your little one is cold is that when they wake at this time they are curled up or they might have their hands tucked in or under their tummy, they might also seem very restless - tossing and turning.


During the winter months, it's helpful to make sure their feet are covered so they don't get cold feet. If you can afford it, you might choose to set a timer so your heating comes on for a couple of hours from around 3:30am or you might choose to layer over an extra blanket at that time (depending on your child's age).


Your child is too tired at bedtime


Our circadian rhythm is regulated by two hormones: melatonin is the sleepy hormone and cortisol is the hormone associated with wakefulness. The level of melatonin raises throughout the day and the level of cortisol should decrease, whereas the level of melatonin falls throughout the night as we sleep, while the level of cortisol simultaneously rises. Cortisol's job is to wake us up.


However, cortisol levels can also be increased by other things – such as stress. This is the reason that when you are stressed as an adult, you may find yourself waking up on the dot at 4 or 5am every morning and the reason this is happening, is that your cortisol levels were too high (from stress) when you went to bed – so the melatonin/cortisol cross over point was earlier than it should have been in the morning.


In children, one reason cortisol levels can be too high at bedtime, is from sleep deprivation, as I outlined above, when we've reached maximum sleep pressure our body then starts to produce cortisol.


If your child hasn't napped well, or they are chronically getting less sleep this means they will be going to sleep at night with higher than normal cortisol – and therefore waking too early in the morning. This begins a cycle of overtiredness that can start very easily in babies and children.


Putting them to bed later, to try to get them to sleep longer, will make the problem worse. It seems counterintuitive, but they need to go to sleep earlier (sometimes MUCH earlier) and have the proper amount of naps throughout the day, in order to sleep longer at night.

So, if your child is regularly waking up early, and not napping well through the day it can mean their cortisol levels are too high when they are going to bed. To reduce this, it's important to find ways to break this cycle, bringing forward bedtime can help as well as trying to elongate naps, particularly the afternoon nap. If your child will only have short naps in a cot, it can be helpful to temporarily try to get them to sleep longer by using other tools such as a contact nap or a nap in a pram.


Your child is not tired enough at bedtime


This one seems obvious, but if your baby or toddler is napping SO well during the day then they may just not have enough sleep pressure to sleep through until your desired wake-up time.


This might be due to letting your child simply nap for too long during the day. I always recommend capping individual naps to two hours in length, this ensures they get a nice period of restorative deep sleep, but doesn't mean they lose too much sleep pressure. It can also help if your child is having two naps to cap the morning nap, this is so that it can help to extend the second nap. If they are on 3 or more naps it can also help to cap the final nap of the day at half an hour.


Adjust Nap Times


Review your baby's nap schedule and consider making adjustments to promote better sleep balance throughout the day. Gradually transition to later nap times or shorten nap durations to discourage early waking.


Evaluate Bedtime


Experiment with adjusting your baby's bedtime to find the optimal sleep window. While an earlier bedtime can prevent overtiredness, a bedtime that's too early may contribute to early waking. Aim for a bedtime that allows for sufficient nighttime sleep without promoting early waking.


Your baby is waking up early because they are hungry


If your child is under 6 months of age, they will usually still need one or more feeds every night - this is biologically normal. Sure, you may have a friend with a perfect newborn who has slept right through since birth, but those babies are the exception and not the rule.


It's worth saying there are studies to show that even at 6 months of age, studies have shown that around 70% of babies will still wake for at least 1-3 feeds a night.


Between the ages of 6-9 months, many babies are able to have a 12 hour stretch of sleep without a feed - but this is not every child. If your child is underweight or has a medical condition such as reflux, you might need to be patient about dropping those night feeds.

The key thing to encourage this is to make sure they are meeting their daily calorie needs within daylight hours. If your child is not eating enough in the day, the chances are any feeds in the night will be to compensate for that.


Developmental Milestones


Sometimes, our baby's early waking in the morning isn't within our control. Often, it can be linked to significant cognitive and physical developmental milestones. Babies undergo tremendous growth and development in their early years, with their minds constantly buzzing with new skills and abilities.


How parents respond to these developmental changes plays a crucial role in determining whether these early wakings are short-lived or become ingrained habits. It's not uncommon for parents to inadvertently reinforce early waking habits by getting their little one up for breakfast and playtime. This can kick-start the metabolism and signal to the body that it's morning, leading to a cycle of early waking.


Discomfort


It's very possible that your baby could be in discomfort at this time. As sleep pressure is low during the early hours of the morning it can become harder and harder for them to ignore any pain or discomfort. Things to consider:


  • Eczema - as the night progresses our body temperature drops, and for people with eczema this can make it more and more uncomfortable

  • Congestion - if your child is congested either because of an allergy or a cold, then it makes it hard for them to breathe through their nose which can make it hard for them to sleep well

  • Gut issues - if your child has wind or constipation, this can cause them to wake in the early hours

  • Teething - if your child is in pain from teething then they are likely to be more wakeful


Your child is waking early out of habit!


In certain instances, despite families appearing to do everything 'right', children persist in waking up at 5:00 AM, eagerly bouncing out of bed and peering over you until you awaken. In such situations, it becomes necessary to establish boundaries and offer positive reinforcement to discourage these early morning rendezvous.


Your child needs lots of assistance to fall asleep and stay asleep


You might think this is a strange thing to focus on when the issue you're having is about how they are waking up and not how they are falling asleep. However, understanding their bedtime routine is crucial.


If at the moment you are feeding or rocking your little one to sleep in your arms and you wait to transfer them to their bed when they are fully asleep, this is an element in their environment that has changed. When they wake between sleep cycles and they realise they are not where they were when they fell asleep and they are instead now in a cold cot on their own and not in their parent's arms, their body will wake more fully and they will need help to get back to sleep.


I always think the first step is less about your baby being able to 'self' settle', but more about them being able to settle to sleep where you want them to sleep for the entire night.

Once you get them settling there, it's much easier to get them settling more and more independently from their own sleep space.


Once they are settling in their own sleep space, the aim might be to get them to fall asleep in their own bed from being WIDE AWAKE (none of this 'awake but drowsy' BS).


But how do you get them to do this? There are lots of options, the most popular of which are 'cry-based' sleep training methods known as 'cry-it-out' or 'controlled crying'. The former suggests you just kiss your child good night, you place them in the cot wide awake and you leave the room and shut the door until morning regardless of whether they cry or not and you do not return - this method has actually been cited in parenting books since the 1800s. The latter, controlled-crying, involves you placing your child in their cot wide awake and leaving the room, if your child cries or fusses then you would return at pre-determined timed intervals to comfort them and show you haven't left them. This is the most popular sleep training method used right now in the Western world.


I am not against this method - though it certainly isn't my 'go-to' method. But it's a method that can and does work very successfully for many families, but it's not a 'one and done' solution. If your child goes through bouts of illness and needs more support, it's a process you may need to repeat. I have details of how to use this method on my blog here.


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If you want to get your little one to fall asleep completely independently, but you don't want to try controlled crying, then my online course might just be for you. It's a really affordable price point and it walks you through step-by-step how to get your baby to go from being fed, rocked or comforted to sleep to falling asleep independently firstly at bedtime and then for naps. The course tackles how to create a well-balanced daytime routine that helps to promote healthy sleep and how to manage night wakes holistically.


It also sits alongside a supportive Facebook community for ongoing support and advice along with weekly Q&As.


If you're on the fence about whether the course can help you, please reach out and I am happy to answer any questions you might have. If you feel you need more support, you can also add on a one-off consultation with me to get advice tailored specifically to your child. You just need to select it as an add-on at the checkout.


What to do if and when your baby or toddler wakes early


  1. Set a consistent wake-up time: In my online course I suggest that this should be something you know your child is capable of so try to make it the earliest they have been awake in the last week as long as the time is after 6am. If your child is waking before 6am (which is the case!), then set your ideal wake up time as 6am.

  2. Keep your baby is the sleep environment until their set wake up time: this is a challenge, but keep your child in their bedroom in a dark environment until your set wake-up time (or 6am). If they are awake and happy, just leave them, if they are upset, try to resettle them.

  3. Have a wake-up routine: When you do get your Little One up try to have a wake up routine - open the blinds, change their nappy and take them into another room so they associate their bedroom with sleep and not play

  4. Try to delay the first feed of the day: If your Little One is very little (4 months or less) this is something you can disregard, but as your baby gets older it can be helpful to add some separation between the first feed of the day and their desired wake up time.

  5. Base the first nap of the day on the desired wake-up time: Rather than moving the first nap of the day earlier if your child wakes early, it can be helpful to hold out as long as possible. If your little one woke very early, it may not be possible to get all the way to their scheduled nap time, but try to get as close as you can.

  6. Base other naps and bedtime on wake windows: If you child has more than one nap a day, base the time of the second nap on when they woke from their first nap

  7. Put them to bed before they are overtired: Try not to push bedtime out too far in the hope that they will sleep in longer as this can sometimes makes early rising worse! Instead, keep a close eye on how tired you child seems to be in the last wake window and get them to bed before they become overtired. If you follow wake windows, start settling them to sleep 20 minutes before the end of the wake window.

  8. Try to get them settled to sleep at bedtime in their own bed: This part can sometimes be the hardest thing to work on. My online course can walk you through this process in a gentle way.

  9. Use a sleep training clock: If your child is older, consider using a sleep training clock which will turn on and alert your child when they are allowed to wake up for the day. I recommend the Hatch*. Reinforce the boundary with your child that they cannot come out of their room until the light changes colour.


If my baby wakes at 5am should I feed them?


Feeding is one of the most useful tools to resettle your baby when they wake in the night, and in the early hours, when sleep pressure is low, it can be one of the only things that works to get your baby back to sleep. In that scenario, it can often cause more stress to try to resettle without a feed.


As a rule, if your baby is happy leave them. Don't feed or attempt to resettle them unless they are upset. If they are upset, it really depends on their age and whether you want to have that battle at 5am. If feeding works to get your baby back to sleep and means they wake at a more human hour, why not?


But if you have a toddler and you feel these early feeds are just reinforcing the problem, then I would commit to resettling without a feed in any way you can.


*This article contains some affiliate links.


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Takeaways


If you're struggling with your baby waking up at 5am every morning, it can help to make you feel better to know this is a really common issue, and even if you have all the 'right' sleep habits in place, this can be a persistent issue because of the nature of there being such little sleep pressure in the early hours. Follow this guide or download my Early Rising printable guide here and walk through everything step by step.

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