Early Waking in Babies and Toddlers

When we become parents we expect to give up our 9am leisurely weekend lie-ins but many of us aren’t prepared for 5.30am morning starts. Early waking is one of the most common sleep problems that I help families with. So why do so many babies and toddlers wake so early and is there anything that we can do to change it?

Does my child have an early waking problem?

As parents lots of us dream of 7am or even 8am morning starts. Lots of baby books work on a 7am – 7pm schedule which can lead parents to think that a 7am wake up is normal. In reality the majority of babies and toddlers will wake somewhere between 6am and 7am. There are so many hours a child can spend in bed a day and if you child has gone to bed at 7am then a 6am morning start is perfectly acceptable. It may feel a little early but we wouldn’t class this as an early waking ‘problem’. In general a morning that starts before 6am would be classed as an early waking. In some situations a 5.45am or 5.30am morning start suits a family. If thats not the case for you then read on!

Things to consider if your child is waking early

Is there any light creeping in the room?

Daylight sends a signal to our brains to produce the wakeful hormone Cortisol. Even the smallest crack of light creeping into your child’s room will mean that cortisol starts to be produced. I like the blackout blinds that velcro onto the frame of the window and stop any light from entering the room. 

Is your child cold?

Our body temperature dips in the early hours of the morning. Our homes are often at their coldest at this time. The combination of both can cause your child to wake and being cold can make it hard to fall back asleep. This can be a tricky one to solve. Our body temperatures are at their highest in the evening and putting your child in warmer clothes or adding more blankets can cause them to become too hot, making it hard for them to fall asleep. There is also a risk of overheating which can increase the risk of SIDS. Dressing your child in cotton pyjamas can help them to regulate their temperature throughout the night. Putting socks on can also help prevent them from feeling the cold. When are feet are cold we often feel cold. Using a thermometer to check the temperature of the room throughout the night can be useful. The temperature should be between 16-20 degrees. 

Is your child hungry?

It could well be that your child is waking out of hunger. If your baby is waking at this time and hungry then it’s important to give them a feed as if it was a night time feed with minimal lighting and interaction. If your child is established on a diet of solid food then it’s important to ensure that they are getting a balanced diet with enough carbohydrates and protein in their last meal to sustain them throughout the night.

Has your child just had enough sleep?

There is only so much sleep that your child needs in 24 hours. If your 6 month old has already had 5 hours sleep during the day then its unlikely that they will need 12 hours overnight. To fix early waking you will either need to reduce the amount of day time sleep or move bedtime back a bit. In some cases it can be a combination of both.

  • Infants 4–12 months: 12–16 hours total in 24 hours

  • Children 1–2 years: 11–14 hours total in 24 hours

  • Children 3–5 years: 10–13 hours total in 24 hours

Are naps happening at the optimal time?

This is a tricky one as it varies so much from child to child! A nap too early in the morning will solidify early waking.I do not suggest giving your child a morning nap before 8.30am. Equally a nap too late in the day will not allow enough sleep pressure to build and your child will either find it hard to fall asleep, wake for a middle of the night party or wake very early the next morning. If your child’s longest period of wakefulness during the day is 2 hours then they will need to be awake for around 2 – 2.5 hours before bed. If your child’s normal wakeful period is 2 hours then being awake for 4 hours before bed will probably cause for them to be overtired and that can be just as troublesome. More on that next. 

Is your child overtired?

With early waking the temptation can be to reduce naps or move bedtime back so that your child sleeps longer overnight and doesn’t wake so early the next morning. Whilst this can work, if your child isn’t getting enough sleep during the day or if their bedtime is too late they  produce a hormone called Cortisol, the wakeful hormone. Monitoring your child’s behaviour can help parents to understand their child’s overtired signs. 

Is your child getting enough physical activity?

Babies and children need to burn energy. A baby who spends all day in a pushchair or a child who spends all day on the sofa isn’t going to sleep well. Mobile babies and children need to be given the freedom to crawl, run and jump. Babies and younger toddlers can really benefit from Baby Yoga. 45 minutes of Baby Yoga is the equivalent of a full days physical activity for a non mobile baby. 

Expose your child to sunlight

Daylight helps to set our body clock. Exposing your child to daylight during the day can help to send signals to the brain that now is the time to be awake. Keeping their room dark when you would like for them to sleep will also help to send the signal that now is the time for sleep. 

Don't expect miracle fixes

If your child has been waking for a while at 5am then it’s going to take a while for their body clock to start to make changes. Consistency is key. I do not recommend leaving a baby or child to cry for any period of time.  

Would you like some more help?

I offer Gentle Sleep consultancy plans from only £25. My advice is family centred and does not involve leaving your child to cry in any way. I work with families remotely over the phone and email so your location isn’t important. If you would like to chat further then please send me an email kayleigh@thenurturednest.co.uk

Kayleigh x