The 5:00 AM (or earlier) early morning wake ups with our children are THE. WORST. I truly don’t consider 5:00 AM morning yet, and I know a lot of the parents I talk to don’t either (or at least they don’t want to).
Even as a Sleep Consultant helping many, many families with early morning wake ups I don’t like them. ‘Why?’ you ask. Because they are really challenging to deal with. That doesn’t mean they are impossible or that there is no hope, but there usually isn’t a quick solution, especially when these early morning wake ups have been going on for a while.
Our circadian rhythm (our body’s internal clock) controls the time we wake up. This is why on those days you have the opportunity to sleep in (those unicorn-mornings) you are still awake and ready to go at your normal time. *sigh.* It is also why when you put your child to bed late, they are still up at the same time.
Making shifts to our body’s internal clock isn’t a quick process, it takes time and consistency. The first step is identifying factors that may be contributing to the wake ups and work to adjust them.
Here are some causes of early morning wake ups
If your child is waking up before dawn, one or more of these factors is likely involved. Making adjustments based on the factors that are involved can help resolve the before dawn risings.
Environmental factors contributing to early morning wake ups
This is a big one, but also a fairly easy fix. So it is always the first place I like to start. It is still going to take some time to see the results but it will help.
In my opinion and especially during the summer, the sun gets up way too early. I’m not a fan. But it is also why I am a fan of really, really good black out curtains and blinds. Keeping the sun out of your child’s room in those early morning hours is crucial to keep them snoozing and helping to resolve early morning wake ups.
Some people are genetically more susceptible to the darkness to light transition so blocking light out of the room critical.
Our sleep is lighter in the early morning hours. Typically REM sleep and light sleep make up the majority of the sleep we get in the early morning hours[i]. It can be easier to wake up from these lighter stages of sleep so noises that happen routinely around this time can trigger wake ups.
Common culprits are the heat or AC kicking on, someone’s alarm clock, a pet waking up for the day, and more. There is only so much you can do about these noises, sometimes it is inevitable but being aware and being able to try to minimize these noises can help. Additionally, having white noise playing all night long in your child’s room can help keep a consistent sound environment and helps to mask other external noises.
Our body temperature drops in preparation for sleep. It is at its lowest point around 4:00 – 5:00 AM.[ii] A wake up may be triggered if your little one is dressed too lightly. Check and see if your little one’s chest or body are very cool or cold when you pick them up at this time. If they are, you should look at how they are dressed to keep them a bit warmer or adjust the room temperature around that time. Be cautious and only make small, gradual adjustments because being too warm can also cause sleep fragmentation.
Bedtime too early
Kids need between 10-12 hours of sleep a night typically all the way through age 5. Sleep needs within this range are very individual. So, if you’ve got a 10 hour per night sleeper, too early of a bedtime can create too early of a wake up.
Bedtime too late
If your child’s bedtime is too late and they are past their ideal sleep window when they go to bed, they are likely overtired. A stress response is triggered by going past their ideal sleep window. Then stimulating hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. This overtiredness not only makes it harder to go to sleep but also to stay asleep and contributes to early morning wake ups.
Looking at the total amount of sleep your child is getting between nights and naps can also help you solve the timing of bedtime issue.
First nap too early
If your child’s first nap is too early, it can reinforce the early wake up because they get to go back to sleep and ‘finish’ their night at that first early nap. Ideally, once babies are 6 months old, their first nap should not start before 8:30 AM.
Too much daytime sleep
If your child is sleeping too much during the day, then can be waking up early in the morning once they have reached their total sleep needed. You can refer to the total sleep needs by age chart above to understand the average range of sleep needed based on your child’s age. Sleep needs are individual but this can give you a starting point.
Too little daytime sleep
If your little one isn’t getting enough nap sleep during the day, it can cause them to be overtired when they go to bed. Being overtired when they go to bed can lead to early morning wake ups and an increasing sleep debt. This creates a cycle of overtiredness which then perpetuates fragmented sleep and sleep challenges.
The chart below shows how much total nap sleep a child needs on average by age. If your child is outside of this range, making some adjustments may help. Not all children fall in these ranges because sleep needs are individual. However, the majority of children are within this range.
Reinforcement of early morning wake ups
If something fun or desirable is happening as soon as they get up for the day, it can perpetuate the early morning wake up. Kids will continue to wake up early in anticipation of something. Some common culprits are watching a show or getting to get into mommy and daddy’s bed to go back to sleep.
The problem with early morning wake ups
Early morning wake ups are a challenging puzzle. There are lots of different factors that contribute to these wake ups and once they are happening consistently your baby’s body becomes used to waking early. Hormones such as cortisol are released to help us wake up in the morning[iii] so if our body is used to waking up early the release of these stimulating hormones starts to routinely happen at this time. This perpetuates the early wake ups. It can be a difficult pattern to break because it requires a body clock shift.
5:00 AM or earlier wake ups are not forever. However, it does take some time and patience to adjust your child’s wake up time. Make adjustments based on the factors above and if you aren’t seeing progress or want to chat through a specific action plan for you and your child, you can schedule 30-minute sleep support call to chat through early wake ups and areas to focus on in your specific situation!
Cheers to happy, healthy sleep,