The dreaded early wake ups - the mornings where your sweet-faced, vivacious little one wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 AM happily chirping away or start hollering for you through the baby monitor to let them come out of bed, because they are awake and ready to play! Since they've decided to wake up at this ungodly hour, this means you are begrudgingly, and very reluctantly, awake as well.
Unfortunately, because your child woke up so early, this can mean that you're in for a rough day because everyone is off schedule. When you're dealing with less sleep and feelings of being off-kilter, it's so hard to get anything accomplished. In addition, you are also likely dealing with a child who is cranky and fussy, or running in overdrive and leave you wishing that you could bottle up their energy and use some of it for yourself. As it is with most situations involving children, it is usually a story of extremes, especially when the early wake up is involved.
However, here are five different tips that you can try to help eliminate the early wake ups and help them become an event of the past.
1. Look At the Big Picture
Think about what's happening at night. Is your child just recently starting to sleep through the night - where they are sleeping longer and their night sleep is becoming more consolidated? If so, then consider giving your child more time to consolidate their sleep. If your child had been waking up multiple times a night, or just recently started going to bed a littler earlier, their body clock is going to need some time to adjust to the new schedule. This can take weeks to accomplish, and unfortunately, it's one of the few things that we just cannot manipulate into happening as fast as we'd prefer. If your child has recently made a huge improvement with their overall sleep, consider giving it a week or two before trying something different.
2. What's Happening Around You?
Another tip to try is to figure out what's happening around that early hour? If you live in a busy development, where your neighbors are getting up for the work day and leaving in their vehicles, it's possible that these environmental sounds are waking up your child. Or if you live in a farming town where the sounds of tractors and roosters are not at all uncommon, but not at all welcomed at 5:00 AM, these could be a culprit of the early wake ups. One thing to try is to use a sound machine, specifically a white noise machine. White noise machines are a great addition to your child's nursery. The consistent, static sound doesn't interfere with your child's sleep but does a great job of blocking out environmental sounds that happen during the day and at night. If a white noise machine isn't an option, then try to buffer sounds with thicker curtains on the windows and moving their beds away from the windows.
3. Make it Dark!
When kids sleep, their sleep drive is the strongest in the early nighttime hours, starting around 7 PM and usually spanning about 8-10 hours, depending on the melatonin production and the age of the child. What this means for your child is when the morning hours start to approach, the sleep drive is lessened, as the melatonin begins to wear off. This makes it harder for your child to stay asleep if light starts peeking into their room, making their body think that it's time to get ready to wake up. One of nature's surefire ways to wake up the body is to introduce light, via the sunrise. So make it dark! Help trick your child's body into thinking that it is still nighttime and time to sleep. Investing in blackout curtains is a great place to get started. But also consider using tape to tack down the sides of the curtains to the walls and covering the top of the window with a valance or blanket to block out all light and keep it from sneaking through the sides. If this is not something you are comfortable doing, then I would suggest you look into a blackout liner that sticks to your windowpane, so you don't have to go the whole mess of tacking curtain panels to your walls. The key with this tip is making sure that your child's room stays dark, so that it encourages the drive to sleep, even when the melatonin begins to wear off.
4. Have a Minimum
This can be tough to do, especially if you hear your little one babbling over the monitor or they start calling for you, or better yet, traipse their way into your bedroom in the wee hours of the morning. But one of the best ways to cap the early wake up times is to enact, and ENFORCE, a minimum wake up time. So if you decide that morning is going to be no earlier than 6:30 AM in your household, then that's when you let your child know that it'll be okay to get out of bed. If your child is still in a crib, and they wake up early, then it it is okay for them to hang out in their bed until you come and get them. By enforcing a minimum wake up time, you are letting your child (and its body) know that until you say so, it is still time to sleep. In addition, there is nothing wrong with letting your child occupy themselves in their crib for a little while in the early morning. You might find that they'll eventually doze back off to sleep if you let them be. With an older child, you can utilize a clock to help them know when it is okay for them to get out of bed. There are some clocks, such as Ok to Wake, out there that light up when it's time, and is okay, for the child to wake up and get out of bed. Also, with a minimum wake up time, you ensure that you are not as likely to be rudely awoken and expected to slap on the Parent Hat just yet.
5. Watch the First Nap
Another reason that early wake ups can be tough to beat is if you are putting your child down for their first nap too early. By doing this, you actually are inadvertently creating a scenario where your child's body will treat the first nap as finishing up their night sleep. Why not? Many times, the early wake up happens for various reasons, but the actuality is, their body still needs the last few hours of sleep. So if they wake up early and are allowed to get up and play for a bit and then take another snooze fairly quickly, then the body utilizes that nap as catch-up from the night before, and not allocating that nap for the day to come. As hard and frustrating as it can be, try to push your child to make it to as close to their normal nap time as they can. If nap is usually at 9:00, try to get at least within 30 minutes if you can. This will ensure that the nap isn't being treated as a holdover from the night before.
In the End, Consistency is Key
It's much easier said than done, but the key to ending the early wake ups lie with you. If you remain consistent and clear about your expectations for the early mornings, whether your child is 6 months, 18 months, or 3 years old, then it will be much easier to combat the early wake ups. While it may take some time for the early wake ups to resolve, they do resolve more quickly if you are consistent in how you address them, versus if you're not. If you become inconsistent in your response when early wake ups occur, then your child isn't sure of what to expect either, and early wake ups will persist. Keep in mind, consistency is a lifetime practice, not a few short weeks of practice, so hang onto your patience and ride it out. However, by employing these five tips, you can address the elements that could be attributing to the early wake ups that are within your control and easier to fix.
Katie is a pediatric sleep consultant and the owner of Sleeping Littles, a business that works with families to help them resolve their little’s sleep issues. She is passionate about making sure that everyone is getting enough sleep and teaching them how to get there. With customized plans, hands-on support, and passion for sleep, Sleeping Littles help their families start sleeping better in as little as two weeks.