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Early morning wake-ups happen even among the best of sleepers. But, when they’re happening consistently, it’s time to do some investigating! This episode gives you 5 things to consider when trying to solve your child’s early morning wakings.
You don’t want to miss:
Learn when early is too early
The common causes and fixes to early wakings
Ways to promote long, restful nights of sleep
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Early morning wake-ups are common, even among independent sleepers!
You’re finally thinking, “Yay! We’re sleeping all night!!!”
But now your little one thinks the night ends at 5:30am.
For the newly sleep-trained child, what’s happening is they’re getting used to having all that consolidated sleep! Once 5/5:30 am rolls around they’re like, “Man, I’m refreshed! It MUST be time to get up.”
No. No, it’s not.
Other common reasons for early morning waking-ups are being over- or under-tired, having help falling asleep at bedtime, instant gratification upon waking, food sensitivities or timing of when they’re eating before bed, and environmental factors.
Let’s dig into those here:
1. Being Over- or Under-tired
Being over- or under-tired is probably the most common reason for early morning wake-ups and finding your child’s age-appropriate wake window helps eliminate that.
DON'T KNOW YOUR CHILD'S WAKE WINDOWS?
The last wake window of the day should be the longest and even on a set nap schedule, it will determine bedtime.
In addition to watching the wake windows, keep in mind the daily sleep goal. If your little one had a poor day of naps or an overly stimulating day, there’s a good chance that over-tiredness will creep in by bedtime. Shortening the last wake window, even by just 15 minutes, can help deter nighttime sleep interruptions.
Here’s a quick reference for timings of an early bedtime:
15-30 minutes early: when your little one had an extra busy day, a restless and/or short nap or previous night’s sleep, extra fussy/irritable around 4pm, or recovering from a vacation.
30-60 minutes early: when your little one missed their nap completely, is unwell, has had a few rough nights of sleep, recovering from a long vacation or a vacation out of their usual time zone, or you just feel they need to get to bed much earlier (don’t doubt your gut).
Super early, 5:30pm bedtime: is usually used during nap transition times, but again, trust your gut.
On the flip side, if your little one is napping too long or too late in the day, this too can cause early morning wake-ups. This is a slightly easier fix of capping their nap(s) to not exceed their daytime sleep goals.
2. How they’re falling asleep at bedtime
If you’re assisting your little one to sleep at bedtime, there’s a chance that that assistance is causing their early wakings - even if they sleep the rest of the night through.
We have our lightest sleep (and sometimes most restless sleep) in the early morning and those that struggle to find sleep independently can especially struggle at this time. The frustrating part is even if at bedtime or at naps it’s not difficult to get them to sleep, these early morning hours are particularly hard to get them to fall back to sleep even with your help using the tactics that work at other times. Whether they’ve slept the night through or woke multiple times, in the early morning hours our body starts producing cortisol to “wake us up” and fights against the desire to sleep. Cortisol is at its highest in the morning and dwindles throughout the day.
So, if your little one is older than 4 months old and you’re ready to help them sleep more independently, now is the time to start sleep training! Find a method you’re most comfortable with and stay consistent in it.
If you’re wanting help in finding the best method for you and want support throughout the process - I’m your girl! We can chat about finding the right package for you during a free 15-minute call here.
3. Instant gratification upon waking
Do you remember the struggle to sleep on Christmas Eve as a kid? (Who am I kidding? I’m giddy just thinking about it now!) Knowing that as soon as you woke up you would come out to all those presents under the tree.
Is there a “present” that your little one is giddy about getting when they first wake up?
- food (bottle, nursing, solids)
- your bed
If there’s something that they’re used to getting when they first wake that they love, there’s a good chance they’ll start waking earlier and earlier to get that thing.
Obviously, they’ll need to eat in the morning, but they don’t have to eat the second they wake up. Putting even just a 10-minute buffer between getting them out of bed (not just waking up) and eating (or whatever the “present” is) can remove the “instant” from the “gratification” and deter them from waking earlier to get it. Might as well sleep if you’re going to have to wait anyway.
For little ones that don’t need to eat through the night, I suggest not feeding them any sooner than 6 am, even if it’s been 10 minutes since they woke up.
4. Food sensitivities and/or timing of when they last ate
This is something to pursue with your child’s pediatrician. It’s especially worth paying attention to if you’re noticing any other signs of food sensitivities or allergies in your little one.
After a year of age, there isn’t a need to have a bottle at bedtime, and at this point, milk should be given at mealtimes, not as a meal.
I’ve read mixed things about milk causing night wakings in toddlers. Some say a warm glass of milk can help us settle for sleep. Milk provides tryptophan and melatonin, which both are helpful with sleep. Others say that the sugar content from milk can cause a spike in blood sugar, causing hyperactivity. Then, when the spike crashes it causes a night waking.
I haven’t found the science on the latter, but, if you want to err on the side of caution - cut out cow’s milk before bed.
I will say, I have worked with a toddler that was dependent on cow’s milk for sleep and waking multiple times a night asking for it. When we cut it out he soon started to sleep through the night and his nap improved as well! I do believe he ended up having an allergy to cow’s milk, so between the prop of the bottle and the allergy, removing both helped him sleep better.
If there happens to be a significant time gap between dinner and bedtime, having a light, but hearty snack is ok - we just want to avoid heavy or sugary foods.
Some good bedtime snack ideas are:
Banana (optional: with peanut butter)
Apple (optional: with peanut butter)
Peanut butter toast
5. Environmental factors
Like I said earlier, we have our lightest sleep in the early morning. This can make even the slightest sound, light, or change in temperature interrupt our sleep.
Go through this sleep environment checklist to be sure your little’s room is set up for optimal sleep.
If that checks out, keep an extra eye and ear out for things or sounds going on around the time they’re waking, especially if they’re waking consistently at the same time.
Things like: the coffee machine, A/C or heat turning on, radiator rattling, the garage door opening, etc.
I found this to be the case with my oldest. When my husband, Kyle, would step out of our room (that’s directly across the hall from our son's room) in the morning at 5:30 to go to work, Copeland (our son) would wake up. It took a little investigating to figure out that the slight suction created in the hallway from Kyle opening our bedroom door caused Copeland's closed door to pop from the paint sticking. The day I figured it out I put masking tape around the edge of Copeland's door to prevent the pop and... it worked!!
He started sleeping closer to 6 am 😅🎉
Early morning wake-ups happen, even with independent sleepers. It takes a little investigating to figure out the root cause, but most of the time with these adjustments your little one will be sleeping in until at least 6. 😆
A few other things that will encourage a full night’s sleep are:
Exposure to the early morning light. This helps regulate the body’s internal clock and promotes melatonin production come nighttime. (yes, please!)
Plenty of exercise. Even if your little one isn’t mobile yet, still give them plenty of opportunities to move around via floor time (and out of containers). For older children, that exercise will help burn off their energy and prepare them for sleep.
Nutrient-dense foods. I’m nowhere near as strict with food as I was before having children (thankfully!) and we enjoy dinner of Kraft Mac and Cheese like any other toddler family, but foods that pack more of a nutritional punch definitely promote better sleep!
Turn off the screens at least 2 hours before bedtime to promote good melatonin production. The blue light from screens hinders the release of melatonin.
If all the things are checked off the list, use a sleep training technique you’re comfortable with until at least 6 am. It can take a few days for you to see improvements, so stay consistent to see change!
And, as always, I’m here if you need me!