When your baby or toddler wakes up and wants to start the day before 6am, it is called early rising. Having a child who is an early riser can be exhausting for a parent and take a toll on the whole family. All of my children would get up- and stay up- between 4-4:30am. Well meaning family and friends would suggest, why don’t you just put them to bed later so they’ll sleep later? Summoning all my willpower, I would NOT roll my eyes and I would NOT scream, if it was that simple don’t you think I would be doing that already? I would just smile and say, that doesn’t work.
My children’s tendency to start their day at ungodly hours was the reason I became certified as a pediatric sleep consultant. I am happy to report that although early rising is a tricky issue and can’t be solved overnight, it is absolutely possible to help your child to learn to stay asleep until 6am. There are three main factors that may be contributing to your child’s early rising.
- OVERTIREDNESS. When your baby is awake for too long her brain releases cortisol and adrenaline. It’s as if she thinks, ‘if I can’t go to sleep now, there must be something wrong’, so her brain releases stress hormones to help her to stay awake. Those hormones are detrimental to the release of melatonin, the hormone that helps your baby to fall asleep and stay asleep. If your baby is awake for too long before their bedtime and is overtired when she falls asleep at bedtime, she will have those stress hormones in her brain all night long. It is common for babies who are overtired at bedtime to experience more night time wake ups and to wake up too early in the morning when it is the hardest to stay asleep. Have you ever woken up an hour before your alarm went off and had a hard time falling back asleep? In those early morning hours, your baby has already clocked several hours of rest and simply isn’t as tired anymore, which makes it harder to connect sleep cycles and stay asleep. Now imagine you have a test that day or a project due at work, or a stressful social event coming up. There is a good chance that you will have a hard time falling back asleep because not only have you already slept almost as much as you needed to, but your brain is also releasing cortisone and adrenaline in response to the stressful events you are anticipating. This is exactly what happens when your baby wakes up early due to overtiredness, except that in her case she stress hormones are in her brain from the previous bedtime, when she went to sleep too tired.
- NEGATIVE SLEEP ASSOCIATIONS. Negative sleep associations, sometimes referred to as sleep crutches, are things that your baby needs to fall asleep that she can’t provide for herself. It can be tricky for parents to determine what their child’s sleep crutches are. A helpful trick is to look at how your child falls asleep at bedtime. Does she tend to nurse or bottle right before you place her in her sleep space? Does she fall asleep holding your finger, or with your hand on her chest? Do you tend to cuddle her in the dark for a few minutes before placing her in her sleep space? If she is accustomed to your help falling asleep, she will not be able to sleep without that help when she has already slept for several hours and isn’t as tired in the early morning hours.
- INTERMITTENT REINFORCEMENT. Imagine your child wakes at 4am one morning and you think, she’s only been asleep for ten hours. I’ll let her cry and maybe she’ll go back to sleep. So you stay in bed and she cries for 20 minutes before you give up and go get her. Now your baby has learned that if she cries for 20 minutes, you will come in and pick her up. Next time she wakes up, she will be motivated to cry for at least twenty minutes before considering going back to sleep. Now imagine you turn on the lights and start your day at 4:30am with your cranky baby. This is also rewarding her for waking up too early. Additionally, it is confusing her developing circadian rhythms and internal clock. If she knows she can get out of her sleep space and do stimulating activities with you, she might start waking up earlier and earlier because sleep is hard and boring and getting up is easy and fun.
So, how do you help your baby to learn to sleep longer?
There are two sides of the coin to consider as you work in shaping your baby’s sleep. The first thing to consider is the physiological side of sleep. As mentioned above, overtiredness is a significant contributing factor to early rising. Please see the diagram below to visualize how your baby’s stress hormones are impacting her ability to stay asleep until the end of the night.
How do you tackle your baby’s overtiredness?
Step one is to learn your baby’s early sleepy cues. Early sleepy cues signal the onset of the ideal window when your baby’s body is naturally down regulating to prepare for sleep. Early sleepy cues include yawning, slowing down and spacing out, becoming more quiet and less interactive, eyelids may appear slightly pink or red, and your baby may become slightly fussy. If you haven’t already, this is the time to start your baby’s brief (5-10 minute) sleep routine and place them in their sleep space.
Step two is to become familiar with average wakeful windows for your baby’s age. Please see the infographic below to determine how long you can expect your baby to be awake before needing to go back to sleep. Bear in mind, if your baby is chronically not sleeping for as long as they need to, her wakeful windows will likely be on the short end of the average. As you watch your baby for sleepy cues, you may even find that she is preparing for sleep before she has been awake for the shortest average wakeful window time. Be prepared to subtract an additional fifteen to thirty minutes from the minimum wakeful window if your baby seems ready to sleep.
Step three is practice. If you feel like you constantly have one eye on your baby watching for sleep cues and the other on the clock timing her wakeful windows, you are doing it right! As you get to know your baby, you will see what sleepy cues she is prone to and you will get a better idea of how long her wakeful windows are. As you become the expert of your baby, you and she will become more insync you can expect her sleep to begin to improve.
Step four is the trickiest one. You will need to balance your child’s need to be awake for shorter intervals with how many naps she is able to take in a day and how early you can reasonably put her down at bedtime. The general rule of thumb is that the earliest you should put your baby down for bedtime is 6pm. It is common to see your baby start to sleep for a longer night stretch as soon as you move her bedtime earlier. Once she is getting the sleep she needs and is no longer overtired, you can start pushing her bedtime later by fifteen to thirty minutes every two days until you achieve your desired bedtime, as long as it is not too late to be developmentally appropriate for your baby.
Steps one through four address the physiological side of sleep. However, in many cases, and especially for babies older than six months of age, it is necessary to also consider the behavioral side of sleep. It won’t matter how perfectly timed your baby’s sleep intervals are if your baby does not know how to stay asleep. If your baby receives intermittent reinforcement for waking up early, or has a negative sleep association that she cannot fall asleep without, she will need to improve her sleep skills before she will be able to sleep through the night. Read more about sleep training methods here.
Remember, even if all of your friends’ babies are sleeping well into the morning, you are not alone in the struggle of early rising, and you can beat it and come out of it knowing your baby even better than if she was born a natural sleeper. You can do it! And if you have any questions or need personalized support, please don’t hesitate to reach out.