Baby waking up too early: Reasons and tips to handle early risersUpdated May 18, 2022
How often does your child wake you before 6:00 AM, ready to start their day? If it doesn’t happen too often, you have an extra cup of coffee and move forward. But if it’s a regular occurrence, all of that lost sleep can be tough on a family!
Here’s a look at the most common causes of habitual early waking, as well as the solutions we consider when helping families solve an early rising issue.
IN THIS ARTICLE:
10 reasons your baby is waking up too early
If your baby is waking earlier and earlier, there may be a number of contributing factors. Keep in mind that the wake-sleep cycle is controlled in large part by two biological forces: homeostatic sleep drive (aka sleep pressure — the level of tiredness that accumulates during awake periods, and dissipates during sleep periods) and the circadian rhythm (aka the 24-hour internal clock).
The circadian rhythm typically regulates the timing of bedtime by about 3 months of age, but it isn’t fully developed until about 6 months of age. That means that sleep pressure is the primary driver of sleep for very young babies, whereas the patterns of older babies and toddlers will also be impacted by their internal clocks. A variety of other factors can influence morning rise time as well.
1. Bedtime is too early
A bedtime that’s too early can contribute to early rising under two different scenarios. First, we see this when a child is getting enough sleep, but their entire schedule is shifted early. For example, if your baby is only able to sleep for 11 hours a night and bedtime is at 6:00 PM, your baby will wake at 5:00 AM, even if you do everything “right.” In that case, we’d need to shift the entire schedule later in order to move the wake up time later.
Second, we also see too-early bedtimes cause issues when the last (or only) nap is too close to bedtime. This leads to insufficient sleep pressure before bed, which can lead to shortened sleep.
2. Bedtime is too late
On the other hand, going to bed too late can contribute to early waking too. In fact, we find that overtiredness at bedtime is one of the most common reasons children wake too early the next morning. We often recommend earlier bedtimes to limit overtiredness and lengthen night sleep overall.
3. Too little day sleep
Likewise, poor napping can also lead to overtiredness. Techniques to lengthen the naps, or adding another nap if appropriate, can help ensure that a child makes it to bed before they reach a state of overtiredness.
4. Too much day sleep
When children take too many naps for their age, or sleep too much during the day, this can lead to shortened night sleep and an early wake up call.
5. Parent led sleep associations
Partial night wakings are a normal feature of sleep for both children and adults. We all wake up slightly as we transition between sleep cycles, but most of us will fall right back to sleep and never notice the wakings. However, a child who’s used to falling asleep with help at bedtime will be more likely to fully awaken between cycles and want help falling back to sleep when they wake throughout the night.
Babies that are rocked, fed, or otherwise helped to sleep at bedtime will be more likely to cry out for parental help when they wake — especially during the early morning hours when sleep tends to be very light. Once fully awake, it can be very difficult to fall back to sleep, since the sleep pressure that was present at bedtime is no longer helping to drive sleep.
Being hungry makes it hard to fall back to sleep. We see this contribute to early waking when dinner is too early, or when a child has night weaned but isn’t eating enough during the day to comfortably make it through the night without eating.
Light exposure is a key factor in habitual early waking patterns. Seeing light in the morning signals our internal clocks, so it’s important to keep it very dark until the desired wake up time so we don’t reinforce early waking. Household or neighborhood noises can also wake children too early.
We don’t see this one too often, but some children are just hard-wired to be early risers. In these cases, there’s usually a close relative with the same genetic tendencies to wake early.
Sometimes, families do everything “correct” and children still continue to wake at 5:00 AM, pop out of bed, stand over you, and stare until you wake up. (Can you tell we’ve been there?) In those cases, we often need to set limits and provide positive reinforcement to stop those early morning visits.
10. Unrealistic expectations
While this isn’t really a “cause” of early waking, expectations are something we consider when developing schedules for families. While many families would love a consistent 8:00 AM wake up call, it’s not always developmentally appropriate for children to wake this late. Occasionally, we need to adjust our expectations surrounding appropriate schedules based upon age.
7 Tips to get baby to sleep in later in morning
Truthfully, fixing an early waking cycle can be complicated! There are a lot of reasons babies wake early. Here are our top tips to break an early morning waking habit:
Tip 1: Follow an age appropriate schedule
You can help rule out sleep pressure issues by structuring your child’s sleep routines around age appropriate wake windows. It’s also important to consider whether the amount and duration of naps are right for your child’s age.
Ruling out scheduling issues can help ensure that your baby is tired enough to sleep all night — but not overtired. We warned you that it can be tricky! Use our in-app SweetSpot feature to determine optimal times for sleep, or check out sample schedules by age on our blog.
Tip 2: Help your baby learn to fall asleep without parental help
By 6 months old, most babies are physiologically able to learn to fall asleep without parental help, e.g. being held or fed to sleep, and can sleep throughout the night without parental intervention (unless they’re hungry).
If your baby is 6 months or older, and is waking too early, you can help them learn independent sleeping skills through sleep training. It’s important to note that there are a variety of sleep training methods, some of which include having the parent stay in the room to limit tears.
Tip 3: Rule out hunger
Since hunger can make it more difficult to sleep, consider whether there’s room for more food during the evening. Not all night-weaned children can comfortably sleep for 12 or more hours in between dinner and breakfast. Some parents find that moving dinner later, or adding a pre-bedtime snack, can help their child sleep later in the morning.
Tip 4: Manipulate light exposure
For children who get enough sleep overall, but wake too early for the family, it’s essential to shift the internal clock later by controlling light exposure.
Our circadian rhythms are governed by light, and research has shown that younger children are particularly sensitive to bright light exposure. Since bright lights suppress melatonin production (the hormone that controls the timing of bedtime), exposing children to bright light in the evening can help shift their entire schedule later.
Likewise, light exposure during the morning can set the internal clock to continue to wake at that time. Whether your child is getting enough sleep overall or not, it’s essential to keep the room very dark in the morning so we don’t reinforce the early waking cycle. Use blackout blinds to block sunlight and keep lamps off until your desired wake up time.
Tip 5: Consider white noise
Continual background noise is a great way to help muffle household or neighborhood sounds that may be waking your child during the early morning hours. Using white noise all night can be especially helpful for families with more than one child that need to block out sibling noises.
Since the maximum volume on white noise machines can exceed the recommended noise level for children, it’s important to keep the volume below the maximum level and maintain at least 7 feet between the noise machine and your child’s sleep space.
Tip 6: Maintain “sleep mode” until desired waking time
That means keep it dark, delay breakfast, and stay in bed until your desired morning wake up time. Just because your baby wakes too early doesn’t mean it’s time to start your day. In fact, beginning your day too early can reinforce habitual early waking patterns.
Do remember, however, that we want to be realistic when determining “desired waking time.” Most babies need 10 - 12 hours of sleep at night, meaning it’s appropriate for many to wake between 6:00 - 7:00 AM.
Tip 7: Use a toddler clock
It can be extra challenging to keep older toddlers and preschoolers in bed when they wake early. Toddler clocks -- like the Ok to Wake! -- can be helpful in providing extra incentive to stay in bed until it’s time to wake up.
Many parents find that the external visual cue, especially when coupled with positive reinforcement and schedule adjustments, can help break children out of early waking cycles. Positive reinforcement can include specific praise, like, “Great job for staying in bed until the light on your clock came on!” and small prizes, such as stickers.
We often say that solving early waking issues is akin to solving a puzzle. We need to make sure all of the pieces are in place and address each cause in the right order to move the morning rise time later. The maddening thing for many parents is that there are so many causes that it can be tough to figure out what to adjust, and the wrong move can backfire and increase sleep issues.
Baby waking up too early FAQ
Q: How do you break habitual early waking in babies?
Breaking a habitual early waking cycle can be complicated, as the solution depends on the cause(s), as well as the age of the child. The most common solutions include: following an age appropriate schedule, ensuring the child isn’t waking from hunger; and keeping the bedroom very dark until the desired wake time.
Q: How do you wean a baby from an early morning feeding?
If your child is ready to be fully night weaned, you can gradually wean that last feeding by offering it 30 minutes later each morning until it merges with breakfast time. Please speak with your medical provider if you’re unsure whether your child is ready to be fully night weaned.
Q: Should I shift the baby's bedtime if the baby is waking up too early?
If schedule issues are contributing to your baby’s early waking, then adjusting bedtime may help. Aim for an age-appropriate amount of wake time before bed to ensure that overtiredness and/or under-tiredness aren’t contributing causes of the early waking. Recommended wake times by age can be found in our sample schedules.
Q: Is 5:00 AM too early for a baby to wake up?
The best wake times are determined by the overall sleep needs of the child, along with the scheduling needs of the entire family. We find that most babies wake between 6:00 - 7:00 AM.
Q: Does the cry it out method work for early morning waking?
While the cry it out method can help solve early waking in some cases, it’s important to address all the contributing factors in a habitual early waking case. Many times we need to adjust the schedule, offer more food during the day, and change light exposure in order to move the wake up time.
Q: How do I know if a baby is waking from hunger?
Hungry babies have a harder time falling back to sleep, but it can be tricky to determine whether your baby is waking from hunger or a feed-to-sleep association. If your baby is able to fall back to sleep independently after a feeding, this is usually a good indication they are waking due to hunger, rather than habit. However, it’s common for babies to fall back to sleep during night feedings, even if they have strong independent sleeping skills. Please speak with your medical provider if you have questions regarding your child’s intake.
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Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.