"Early waking" is subjective, but most of us would prefer not to start the day at a time that begins with 5 or even, whisper it, 4. Early morning waking in babies and toddlers is a very common situation and one that many parents find themselves navigating.
It is helpful to know that in terms of sleep biology, by the early morning most of the helpful factors for inducing sleep have worn off (sleep pressure is reduced if the child has had most of a night’s sleep, and the hormonal balance shifts in the early morning away from sleep-inducing melatonin and towards hormones that support waking). This means that if there is anything bothering baby at this time when they wake from a sleep cycle, it can be much harder for their bodies to fall back to sleep. If you breastfeed, this is when you might fall into the situation of seemingly endless early morning feeds, as baby tries their hardest to fall asleep the best way they know how, but their sleep biology makes it very hard for them to drop off. Because it's so hard to get back to sleep in this situation, the best thing you can do is try to prevent the waking in the first place.
So, what could be causing these early wake-ups?
Baby has had enough sleep by the time they wake. For children with low sleep needs, this is where the balance between a later bedtime and a manageable waking time comes in. You will probably know if this is your baby because when they wake very early, they are full of beans and ready to start the day, and manage a normal amount of time until a nap or bedtime.
Causes of early waking
However if baby seems unsettled at this wake, and is obviously tired and emotional if you start the day at this point, it’s more likely that something else was waking them and ideally their body would prefer a bit more sleep. So what could be causing these wakes?
1) Hunger - during growth spurts in particular, some children are hungry by early morning. Including a bedtime snack (high protein and wholemeal carbs) for older babies and toddlers just before the bedtime routine can tide some children over until a later start.
2) Environmental discomfort - body temperature drops in the early morning, so could baby be cold? Is there anything else in the room or outside that could be bothering them (light, uncomfortable clothing or bedding, itchy skin, sounds from outside?)
3) Over tiredness/bed time too late - this can change the pattern of cortisol production in the body and often causes a higher cortisol rate in the early morning, which can wake the baby fully. This can also be a contributing factor to frequent night wakes and often causes wakes soon after going to sleep at night. This can also happen around the time of dropping naps, as the body is readjusting to a new rhythm. If this pattern sounds familiar, it might be worth experimenting with nudging bedtime forward 15 minutes at a time every few days over a period of a couple of weeks, noting any impact on night wakes and rising time.
Regular early waking can be a really tricky cycle to break out of, as the body begins to release cortisol in anticipation of the expected wake up time and the body clock becomes set to this earlier start and so generally also an earlier bedtime.
So what can you do?
Try to address any potential causes of the wakings: introduce a snack, assess environmental factors, and consider over-tiredness.
When they wake, keep the bedroom dark and quiet and signal that it is still night-time. Wait until what feels to you like a reasonable wake-up time (for me that’s something beginning with 6!) before opening the curtains and exposing their body to light.
If you suspect you have an early riser on your hands, look at your baby’s overall sleep in 24 hours and work out if perhaps nudging their bedtime later might make mornings more manageable.
And if you’ve tried the above and nothing seems to be making a difference... Sometimes letting go of trying to fix a problem and resting into acceptance and the knowledge that this too will pass can make things feel much easier. Can you find ways to make this season more manageable?
If you have a partner, take turns with the early start so the other can keep resting. If you always respond with feeding, perhaps the non-feeding partner can take over as soon as the feed is finished, so the feeding partner can catch up on rest?
Front load your own sleep by going to bed as early as you can
If baby is really up and ready to go, keep the bedroom dark and encourage them to play solo.
This is another situation where floor beds can feel life-saving. Resting in bed while baby plays beside you feels a lot more manageable than being up and fully engaged.
Is there anything else that you've found helpful, with addressing early starts or making them manageable for yourself?