Sleep advice for babies, toddlers and preschooler who wake up too early in the morning

Avoiding dawn rituals

If your baby or child is expecting to come into your bed, have a bottle, have you come and lay next to their cot etc. at dawn, they are likely to be wakeful earlier in the night, expecting this ritual to happen. Once they are old enough to go through the night without a feed, and provided that they’re ok and have just woken naturally with their sleep cycle, it is good to keep them in their own bed until morning and give them a reassuring but minimal response when they wake either during the night or at dawn.

Responding when they wake up early

When your baby or child wakes very early, it is fine to leave them alone if they are not upset. They may just be taking a bit longer than earlier in the night, to transition to their next sleep cycle. As dawn approaches, falling back to sleep can sometimes take an hour or more, and as long as they are not seriously crying, and you’re confident that they are safe and well, you can give them as long as they need. There is no need to intervene if they are merely awake and not upset.

If your baby is actually crying, it’s not good to leave them for a long time before going to them. It’s possible that they won’t manage to go back to sleep, and this is not a good start to the day for either them or you. It is far better to go to them before they become actually 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. 

Managing their naps

When it comes to their naps after a very early start, you need to avoid a very early or long morning nap, as getting into a pattern like this can “secure” or enable the early waking to continue

By all means, give them an early cat nap if they are struggling to stay awake, but keep in your mind that when babies are more than a few months old, good napping in the middle part of the day or early afternoon encourages better nighttime and early morning sleep.

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 so that you’ve got the energy to deal with it and also to protect your own mental and physical health.

For babies and little children, the deepest sleep of the night is before midnight. After this time, they sleep in recurring cycles of light sleep – deep sleep – light sleep – wake up. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes.

As the night progresses, there is much more light sleep within the cycles, and the sleep cycles themselves become more fragile. There is little, if any deep sleep after about 4 am. 

This sleep “architecture” is normal for all of us, but it can be more problematic for little ones who are excited to get up and start the day, and who don’t understand that it is still too early!

The good news is that there are some very helpful things that you can do to help them sleep in for longer. These are:

  • Make sure that they are generally well-rested and not over-tired at bedtime.
  • Give them the skills to put themselves to sleep at bedtime and join their nighttime sleep cycles.
  • Give them clear time clues for daytime and nighttime.
  • Keep their sleep space dark and cool.
  • Avoid setting up any dawn rituals such as coming into your bed or giving unneeded feeds.
  • Respond in the most helpful way when they wake up too soon.
  • Manage their naps so that you are not accidentally enabling the early waking to happen.

Avoiding overtiredness

The reason why this can help is 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!

Building up their 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 – by helping them fall asleep as independently as possible at bedtime, when they’re full of sleep hormones and they have a lovely build-up of sleep pressure.

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.

Giving time clues

It’s important to be aware that little ones have no sense of how long they’ve been asleep for 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, then in the morning, you should open the curtains, and if it’s still dark outside, put the light on as well 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 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 2s, a sleep training clock can be really helpful at demonstrating time cues, provided that you follow these 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, and 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 mustobey the clock if you expect your child to! It’s no good setting it for 7am 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! In so many cases, children run into their parents’ room at ridiculous o’clock, holding the device which is now on day mode, because they have altered the wake-up time.

Their sleep environment

Keep their sleep space as dark as possible, as this helps them to keep producing sleep hormones. If you need a night light, use one with a red or orange glow, 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 you] 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. 

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