Early Waking Advice

It is normal for babies and young children to wake from time to time during the night, and their sleep is more fragile and broken from about 4 am onwards.

So when your little one wakes up at the crack of dawn or before, don’t presume that something must be wrong.

Early waking can be one of the most tricky sleep problems to tackle, as most little ones are naturally early risers. But there are things that you can do to help them sleep for longer

1 – Prevent overtiredness (Expert advice for early waking)

One of the main reasons for babies and children waking up too early is over-tiredness.

Why? Because, when little ones become over-tired, they can produce extra cortisol which is an “awake” hormone.

When dawn approaches, there is a natural drop in melatonin [sleep hormone] levels and a rise in cortisol. Then because of the cortisol already in their system when they fall asleep, the process of melatonin/cortisol crossover can happen too soon.

You can help avoid over-tiredness by extending the day time nap[s] or putting them to bed a bit earlier – which may sound a bit counterintuitive but works for lots of little ones!

2 – Avoid dawn rituals

Does your baby or child come into your bed at dawn?

Do they have a bottle or breastfeed before getting up for the day?

Perhaps you go and lie next to their bed or cot etc. at dawn?

If any of these things are happening, your little one may be waking early expecting this ritual to happen. They may even wake earlier in the night looking for their ritual.

Once they are old enough to go through the night without a feed, give their morning milk in the living room. Make sure you’ve opened their curtains and said good morning first. These are very important daytime signifiers.

If you want to bring them to your bed for their morning milk and cuddle, open your curtains beforehand. When they come to you in the dark and you’re lying there trying to sleep, they will think it’s nighttime.

It is good to keep them in their own bed or cot until morning and give them a reassuring but minimal response when they wake either during the night or at dawn.

3 – Give the right response when they wake up early

When your baby or child wakes very early, leave them alone if they are not upset. They may just be taking time to transition to their next sleep cycle.

As dawn approaches, falling back to sleep can sometimes take an hour or more. As long as they are not upset, and you’re confident that they are safe and well, you can give them as long as they need.

If your little one is crying or calling for you, it’s not good to leave them. It’s possible that they won’t manage to go back to sleep, and this is not a good start to the day. It is far better to go to them before they become upset and tell or indicate that it is still sleep time. 

Then you can either remain beside them or keep popping in and out to them until they either go back to sleep or until you reach an acceptable getting up time. 

Giving them a feed, cuddling them back to sleep or bringing them into your bed etc. might help in the short term, but longer term, it might reinforce the early waking.

When you first start to keep your baby or child in their bed when they wake early, they might not go back to sleep. You will be merely teaching them that when they wake it doesn’t necessarily mean that they get up. Over time, though, when they learn to remain in their bed/cot, they will have a much better chance of going back to sleep.

If they have managed to go back to sleep after an early wake-up, it’s best to gently get them up an hour or so later. This is to keep them on a reasonable daytime schedule.

4 – Manage their naps

Avoid a very early or long morning nap, as getting into a pattern like this can “secure” or enable early waking to continue

Give them an early cat nap of about 15 minutes if they are struggling to stay awake in the early morning. , Keep in mind, however, that when babies are more than a few months old, good napping later in the morning, at midday or in the afternoon encourages better nighttime and early morning sleep.

Younger babies need a late afternoon nap, usually a short one to see them through to bedtime without becoming over-tired.

Check out the chart below and make sure that your child is getting enough [but not too much] daytime sleep.

5 – Give them time clues

Little ones have no sense of how long they’ve been asleep and how close it is to morning. They need you to provide these time clues. You can do this by offering them daytime and nighttime signifiers, such as darkness at bedtime and light in the morning.

Change your voice to a low and soothing tone when you want them to sleep and a brighter tone when it’s wake time.

In the morning, open the curtains, and if it’s still dark outside, put the light on too before you get them out of the cot. This will give them a visual prompt/signifier that it is now getting up time. 

If you do this every morning, 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 make closing the curtains before they go into the cot 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.

Over twos can be helped to recognise when it’s getting up time by the use of sleep training clocks/lights.

Sleep clock rules

Choose one that has a red or orange glow. Some sleep training clocks have a blue back light, which interferes with melatonin production.

Set the clock to “wake up” at a time just a few minutes after your child’s natural wake-up time, even if this is very early.

Then gradually move the time forward as your child understands the principle of waiting in their bed. If they learn to wait in their bed, they have the opportunity to fall back to sleep.

With a very young child, there is no need to explain the principle of how the clock works. They will learn it by experience.

You must obey the clock if you expect your child to! It’s no good setting it for 7 am and then getting your child up before then, while the clock is in sleep mode. If you do this, they will learn that waiting for the clock to wake up is optional.

Don’t let your child play with the clock! They may alter the wake-up time – which defeats the object!

Always praise your child for waiting for the clock to wake up.

6 – Get their sleep space right

Keep your child’s sleep space as dark as possible, as this helps them to keep producing sleep hormones. If you need a night light, use a red one, as this is more melatonin-friendly.

During sleep, the body temperature drops, slightly and this is a natural part of sleep. If a baby or child is kept too hot at sleep time, they will not sleep as well. It is also important from a safety point of view that their room is kept at a cool 16 – 20 degrees centigrade.

Here’s a guide to help you keep your little one cool and comfortable. 

7 – Build up your child’s general sleep skills

If your child is an early waker and is also struggling with settling at bedtime and waking during the night, you need to work on building better skills overall. You can do this by helping them fall asleep as independently as possible at bedtime. This is the time when they’re full of sleep hormones and they have a lovely build-up of sleep pressure.

Often, the key to solving early waking lies in how a child falls asleep at bedtime.

Sleep cycles get lighter and more broken as morning approaches and unless a baby or child has well-practised and secure sleeping skills, they can struggle to join these lighter sleep cycles.

If they wake up too early and can’t resettle, they miss the final one or two sleep cycles of the night. This isn’t because they’ve had enough sleep but because they don’t know how to get themselves back to sleep.

So if you’re rocking, nursing or sitting with them as they go to sleep at bedtime, you may be preventing them from learning these essential sleep skills.

My Gentle Sleep Course can help you get your baby or toddler to improve their sleeping, whether they have a simple early waking difficulty or difficulties with sleep generally.

Your own sleep matters

Early waking in babies and young children is a phase that most of them go through and it will pass.

Whilst it’s happening, you need to go to bed as early as possible. If you’re in a couple, share the early starts.

You need sleep so that you’ve got the energy to deal with this phase and also to protect your own mental and physical health.

Further Help

If you’re struggling with early waking or any other sleep problem, I am here to help you.

My Books

My bestselling books give you the tools to help your baby and yourself get a good night’s sleep. They are full of expert, practical advice and case studies. Each book teaches you to create your baby or child’s personal sleep plan and is written in a clear and accessible style.

They are available in all formats from Amazon and other booksellers.

My Courses

Expert advice for early waking

My courses are a mix of video, graphics and easy-to-read text. They are a great way to access my expert help – from your phone, tablet or laptop. The courses have no expiry date and are updated frequently. The Gentle Sleep Course is very comprehensive, easy to dip in and out of and is very empowering.

The Early Waking Course is concise and accessible – it takes around an hour to complete and it may be the best hour you’ve ever spent!

Both of the courses contain helpful schedules for day and night time sleep.

My 1:1 Consultations

Expert advice for early waking

If you choose to book a one-to-one consultation with me, you will receive my expert advice along with an individual sleep plan for your child. You will be in very safe, experienced hands and I treat every parent and child with kindness. As a qualified health professional, I can help families with medical and developmental issues. My success rate is outstanding, with over 15,000 face-to-face sleep consultations with families from all over the world.

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