It’s not even dawn yet, and your baby is wide awake! Hearing your baby’s coos become cries wouldn’t be so upsetting if it weren’t 4:45 a.m.!
In fact, any waking before 6:00 a.m. is considered a night waking — so, too early to start the day. What it means is that if your baby consistently wakes before 6:00 a.m., he’s probably not getting the 11–12 hours sleep he needs each night. So that means there are probably at least two cranky people in your family! You’re stumbling around blurry-eyed, feeling foggy, while your baby kicks and cries. What next?
The good news is once you determine why your baby wakes too early, you can cure the habit.
Here are 8 common reasons for early rising — with solutions.
Sleep associations, sometimes called “sleep crutches”, such as nursing or feeding a baby to sleep, or rocking and bouncing to sleep, are the number one cause for night or early wakings. Even requiring a pacifier replacement can be a sleep crutch. If your baby become accustomed to your helping him fall asleep, he will need you to fall back to sleep whenever he wakes. And it may be even harder to do between 4:00–6:00 a.m. because it’s when your baby is in the lightest stage of sleep. The cure is to help your baby fall asleep independently by creating consistent bedtime routines to serve as a cue that sleep is next — read a book, sing a song, and put your baby in the crib awake. Then, the key is to allow him to learn the valuable skill of self-soothing so he can fall asleep — or back to sleep later — on his own.
2. Bedtime is too late.
Going to sleep overtired is another leading cause of night and early wakings. For babies 4–9 months old, bedtime should be about 1 hour and 45 minutes after the 3rd nap, as long as the main two naps are at least 1–2 hours each. Bedtime should be earlier if naps are shorter. Don’t be afraid of a 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. bedtime. This earlier bedtime can lead to a more consolidated night’s sleep and therefore a later rising. Although it may seem counterintuitive, early bedtimes always translate into longer sleep periods at night. If your baby is 9–12 months-old, bedtime should be about 3 hours after the second nap. For a 12-month old, the interval to bedtime can increase to 3.5–4 hours after the second nap. So if the baby wakes from his last nap about 3:00 p.m., he can be put down about 7:00 p.m..
3. Bedtime is too early.
Although early bedtimes can be a cure for waking up before dawn, they can also be the reason for a perpetual early riser. Although a 5–6:00 p.m. bedtime can help temporarily on days when the naps are shorter or when you are helping your baby make up for a sleep deficit, an early bedtime can backfire. If your child usually gets 11–12 hours of sleep and you put her to bed at 5:30 pm, you can’t expect her to sleep until 7:00 am; more likely she may rise at 5:30 a.m. or earlier. Yes, there are times when you need to put baby to bed early (see above) when the naps are short or end too early in the afternoon as outlined above. But if your baby is getting the appropriate amount of night sleep, don’t try to put her to bed too early.
4. Nap times and lengths are erratic.
Are your baby’s naps less than one hour each? Does the last nap end too early so that the time to bedtime is too long for your baby to stay awake? If your answer is yes, then you know why your baby is waking too early. Naps that are less than an hour each are simply not restorative. As a result, your baby is accumulating a sleep deficit during the day that may cause night and early wakings. Also, too much time from the end of the last nap to bedtime can cause a very overtired baby by bedtime. Unfortunately, the more tired she is, the more likely she will wake during the night or too early in the morning. To cure the short nap habit, be sure to “allow” your baby to fall back to sleep if she wakes after less than an hour’s nap, without rushing in. Within a few days she will be taking longer, more restorative naps. Also on short nap days, don’t forget to shorten the time from the end of the last nap to bedtime. That may result in the baby being awake only an hour or an hour and a half from the end of the short nap to bedtime.
5. Your response to your early riser.
If you consistently respond to your early riser between 5:00–6:00 am, with smiles, snuggles, breakfast, and action, she will learn to continue to awaken at that time to get your attention! Resist the urge to start the day too early, just because she seems ready to rise, and leave her to learn to fall back to sleep on her own. Leaving her until 6:30 a.m. for several days in a row will teach her the appropriate time to wake; she will also gradually learn to fall back to sleep on her own. Generally, you should see a change in her sleep habits within days! Any time she wakes that is after 6:00 a.m. is a great time to start your good morning rituals!
6. Your baby is hungry.
If you haven’t fed your baby all night and he wakes at 5:00 am, he may indeed be hungry. If you think that is the case, it’s best to feed him and then let him drift back to dreamland on his own for another hour or two. Many babies still keep a night feeding until they are from 6–9 months old. By then they will be ready to learn to eliminate the night feeding — and early wake up time!
7. Your baby is gaining new skills, or popping a tooth.
Is she learning to roll or pull herself up or to crawl or even to walk? Is she transitioning to only 1 or 2 naps a day? Is she teething? Sometimes cutting a tooth or mastering a skill or reducing the number of naps can cause unwanted night and early wakings. Avoid a full- blown sleep regression by trying to isolate the cause of the waking and then respond accordingly. If she is learning a new skill that may take her a couple weeks, avoid over responding too eagerly to early wakings so you don’t encourage the habit. If your baby is teething, respond with comforting measures, like an ice cold washcloth or teething toy, but don’t over do it. Ride out these temporary changes as best you can, but beware of creating bad sleeping habits during the process.
8. The room isn’t dark enough.
Sure, the deep darkness of those winter mornings makes it easier for baby to snooze in complete darkness, but when spring arrives, the early morning light might register as a day glow neon sign over your little guy’s crib. Room darkening shades are a good antidote. I recommend these or, in a pinch, black garbage bags taped over the windows. Though less attractive, the garbage bags will do the trick to put the sun on hold for a few more hours which may help your baby sleep later.
Getting your baby to sleep even an hour later makes all the difference in how the whole family faces the day. With some sleep-time sleuthing and careful manipulation, you can cure early rising so that everyone starts the day energized and ready to go!
Originally published at medium.com