How to Tackle Early Waking

Most babies and young children are naturally early risers and to a large extent it is something that you have to accept and go along with.

Early waking problems are notoriously difficult to tackle, as when they have had a long block of sleep [even if it is not technically enough] they will find it very difficult to re settle – especially as after 4am sleep is at its lightest phase.

Putting them to bed later in the evening rarely makes any difference to the time that they wake in the morning. This is because they are often “programmed” to wake by both internal and external triggers.

Parents vary in the opinions about what constitutes an acceptable getting up time for their baby, but generally, provided they wake up happy, any time after 6am can be considered normal.

kid, baby bed, cot

So when might early waking be considered a problem?

  1. If your baby wakes before 6am and is crying and still looking tired.
  2. If your baby has a ritual of a dawn waking and crying, followed by a milk feed and/or transfer to your bed – and then back to sleep.
  3. If your baby is tired and grumpy on waking and then takes an early, lengthy daytime nap.

If any of the above factors sound familiar to you, then it is well worth considering some gentle sleep training in the early mornings to extend your baby’s sleep.

First of all, you need to take an honest look at their over all sleep ability. If early waking is part of a picture of generally poor settling and night waking, you need to address what happens at the beginning of the night and during the night first of all. You will get nowhere with morning sleep training if you do not have good bedtime settling practices.

If your baby’s early waking is part of generally poor sleeping skills, you should concentrate on teaching them how to fall asleep independently at the start of the night and on removing any incentives for night time waking. These include:

  • Giving an unnecessary night or dawn feed. If your baby is over 6 months or over 7kg, they are more than likely capable of going 12 hours without feeding in the night.
  • Moving your baby into bed with you during the night or at dawn.
  • You going to sleep in your baby’s room during the night.

You should then treat the early waking just as if it were a night waking; offering the same consistent response as you did at settling and night waking times. If you approach it in this way, you have a great chance of successfully stopping the problem.

You also need to make sure that they are not compensating for the early wake up by taking a very early day time nap. This is often just an extension of the night’s sleep and allowing it to continue will merely “set” the early waking in place. So although it might be tough to push their nap later, you need to do your best to keep them going until they are napping at a reasonable time for their age. So for example, if your 9 month old wakes at 5 am and wants to nap at 7am, you need to gradually push that nap later until they can last until 10am. When you first start to do this, you might have to allow a tiny “cat nap” of just 20 -30 min at 7am, but then establish the proper nap at 10am. Generally speaking, good napping in the middle part of the day encourages a later wake up time.

When your child wakes very early, it is not a good idea to leave them alone for a long period to cry, before going in to them. You run the risk of teaching them that in order for the day to begin they have to cry for you. This is not good start to the day for either them or you. It is better to go to them before they become really upset, and tell or indicate that it is still sleep time. Then you should either remain beside them or keep popping in and out to them until you reach an acceptable getting up time. When you reach this time, you should open the curtains [even if it is still dark outside] before getting them out of the cot, just to give a visual prompt/signifier that it is now getting up time. They will soon come to realise that when the curtains are closed it means that it is sleep time. If at the beginning of the night, you incorporate closing the curtains before they go into the cot as a part of the settling routine, you will further reinforce this message. These visual time clues and routines are very important for babies, who obviously are not yet able to tell the time.
For the over 2 year olds, you can use a special training clock which at a time pre set by you, will “wake up” and let your child know that it is time to get up.

Whether you are introducing a sleep training clock or just simply opening the curtains as a daytime signifier you should:

  • For the first morning, use the “getting up” prompt very close to the time that your child normally wakes up. This is so that they get the hang of what is going on have a pleasant experience of the day time trigger.
  • Expecting your baby to remain in bed for too long in the very early days will mean that they may lose heart, laying in the cot or bed waiting for the day time signal.
  • It is better to start at an achievable time and then move it forward by 5 minutes every morning until you reach an acceptable getting up time.
  • When you do get them up, you need to change your voice and body language to “bright day time mode” rather than using your hushed night time tones. Always praise an older child for waiting/staying in bed.
  • To avoid any confusion, if your baby is still having milk, you need to give it in the living room rather than in their [or your] bedroom.
  • Once early waking is no longer a problem, then you can bring your child or baby into bed with you for a morning cuddle. Be cautious however, because if you do this and they fall back to sleep, they are very likely to wake earlier and earlier in anticipation of the ritual of the transfer to your bed.

There is no doubt that early waking is one of the most tricky childhood sleep problems to overcome, but with patience, confidence and resolve – you will get there in the end.