What to do About Early Wakings

A common problem for many parents is that their baby wakes up in the early morning -- seemingly for no reason! There are several different possibilities for why your child is waking early, so take a look to see if any of these might be the cause of your sleepless mornings.

What Counts as Early?

First off, we need to establish what counts as an "early waking." Although many of us would love to sleep in until 8 or 9am, that doesn't mean we can say it's an early waking if Baby wakes before then. Baby sleep (and all sleep) is driven by biology, and babies on age-appropriate schedules typically wake between 6 and 7am. Some babies have a slightly shifted schedule and wake between 7 and 8am.

So although you may not want to wake up at 6am, a 6am waketime is fair game for babies and toddlers. But if Baby is regularly waking earlier than 6am, ask yourself the following questions.

Is your child waking you up in the wee hours of the morning? Check out this blog post to find out WHY and to see what you can do to sleep past 6am again!

Is Baby Hungry?

If your baby is under 9 months, they just might be waking in the early morning for a feeding. Just because you know other people whose babies slept through the night at 12 weeks old (or earlier) doesn't mean that your baby is capable of going that long between feeds. Babies 4-6 months old may require two feeds in the night, generally around midnight and 4am. Babies 6-9 months old may still require one feed in the night, generally around 4am. If you feed your baby and put him right back to bed, does he return to sleep easily? If so, the waking is likely due to hunger. If, however, he seems ready to start his day or is insistent on more help to return to sleep, it's likely one of the other issues below.

Is Baby's Bedtime Too Late?

Some babies wake too early because their bedtime is too late. Many parents push bedtime later in an attempt to make the morning waketime later, but this plan actually backfires. Overtired babies wake more often in the night and wake in the early morning, so pushing the bedtime later usually just leads to more overtiredness and continued early wake-ups. 

If you push bedtime very late, say 10pm, Baby may start sleeping in later, but he won't be getting enough sleep overall, which can contribute to chronic overtiredness and behavioral issues. Babies and toddlers generally need 11-12 hours of nightsleep; babies who go to 10pm still generally wake up by 7 or 8am, which gives them only 9-10 hours of sleep. Not enough!

I encourage using waketimes to determine bedtime, which means that bedtime depends on how naps went that day. If Baby naps from 1-3pm and has a 4-hour waketime, bedtime will be at 7pm (4 hours after last nap ends). If, however, Baby only naps from 1-2:30pm, bedtime will be at 6:30pm. Doing bedtime this way ensures that Baby stays well rested and doesn't get pushed to that overtired state.

I'll do a future blog post on waketimes for different ages, but for now, just know that bedtime for children ages 4 months through about 3 years generally ranges between 5:00pm and 8:00pm (5-7:30pm for younger kids and 5:30-8pm for older kids), so if you're putting your child down on the late end of the spectrum, it may be too late for your child, and therefore the cause of your early wakeups.

Is Baby Awake for Enough Time Throughout the Day?

A less common reason for early wakings is that Baby is not getting enough overall awake time throughout the day. Although babies have high sleep needs, they also need to be awake enough, and if they're not awake enough throughout the day, they may take their waking hours in the middle of the night or in the early morning.

Baby may need his nap(s) to start a bit later (9am & 1pm are my recommendations), he may need his naps to have a time limit, or he may need a longer waketime between his last nap and bedtime.

Does Baby have a Sleep Association?

If Baby falls asleep one way and wakes to find that conditions have changed, he's likely to stay awake until the conditions are re-instated. Check out this blog post for full details on sleep associations, but the gist is that if he falls asleep with a pacifier or bottle, he's going to want that again if he wakes up (and everyone wakes briefly between sleep cycles all throughout the night). Some babies seem to make it from sleep cycle to sleep cycle in the first part of the night, but then as they get to the early morning, they no longer have enough sleep pressure to return to sleep without their prop/association.

Are You Consistent in the Treatment of Baby's Early Wakings?

Finally, Baby may just be waking because he's gotten intermittent reinforcement of the behavior. Say Baby starts crying at 4:30am and you go cuddle him or otherwise aid him in returning back to sleep. When Baby wakes at 5am the next day, he's determined to cry until you come in and help him again -- except this time you've decided to wait it out. If you go back and forth between helping him or leaving him, he won't know whether or not you plan to come, so he'll keep trying to get you there. And why wouldn't he? Any baby would like to spend more time with Mom or Dad.

As long as you're sure the waking is not due to hunger, here's what I recommend to consistently treat the early wakeups: Leave Baby in bed until 6am using your chosen sleep training method. This gives him a chance to return to sleep if he's still tired; it keeps him at least resting from visual and tactile stimulation even if he doesn't return to sleep, and that rest will help him make it all the way to nap 1; and it teaches him about appropriate waking times.

Nobody wants to wake up too early in the morning, so see if working on one of these underlying issues helps fix your early wakeup problem! Let's get everyone sleeping in past 6am! :)