Hello, The Unlikely Mummy Community! I am really pleased to share this incredible blog from Sarah, Baby Sleep Well. She reached out to me a couple of months ago after seeing one of my stories around my issue with sleep. I have also done a LIVE on my journey with sleep. I talk about my experiences and the advice Sarah gave me. You can click on the word LIVE and watch it now.
Our relationship with early rising was never an issue until lockdown when 6 am became 4/5 am. Have a read of Early Rising by Sarah and get in touch if you need any support.
Disclaimer: This is not a paid post, no money is being made from this information. Free confidential advice available. My son is currently 2 years old.
Why Is My Baby Waking Up So Early?
Does your baby wake up so early in the morning that the television hasn’t even started yet!? Ugghhh. If you’re experiencing these early morning wakes EVERY.SINGLE.DAY then you aren’t alone as it’s actually a very common problem.
Now when I say early morning wakes, it’s important to know that this means between 4 am and 6 am. Anything, before 4 am, is considered night waking and should be dealt with differently. Anything, after 6 am, is, unfortunately, completely normal morning time for little ones – having said this you can still try to use the strategies I describe below if you would prefer to push morning out a little to suit your family’s lifestyle.
So let’s get down to business. There are 2 main causes of early morning wakes.
Cause #1: Environmental Factors
Your baby spends more time in REM, or dreaming sleep in the early hours, which is a lighter stage of sleep. This means that environmental factors, such as noise, cold, or light, are much more likely to stir them. And then when they do stir, it is very difficult for them to return to sleep easily because the hormones linked to their sleep/wake cycle and circadian rhythm, are preparing the brain and body to wake up. This means that levels of Melatonin, the sleepy hormone, are dropping and are almost undetectable, and levels of Cortisol, the hormone responsible for making them more alert, are beginning to rise to prepare them for the day ahead.
Something called the homeostatic sleep pressure is also playing a role. This is where pressure, and a chemical called Adenosine, gradually builds up in the brain when they are awake, and in high concentrations makes them feel sleepy. This pressure drains away with sleep and so by those early hours they simply don’t have enough pressure left to need or want to nod off again.
Solution: We need to remove any environmental reasons for them waking in the first place.
A little investigation work is required here. Think about all of the things that could be causing the wake and try to resolve it. Some ideas include:
- Put your child to bed with socks on. Your baby’s core body temperature starts to drop around the time they go to bed and is at its lowest in the early hours. It is therefore very common for babies to wake up around 4 am feeling cold.
- Block out any background noise by playing white noise (under 6 months) or pink noise (over 6 months) in the room constantly all night. This also relaxes children by replicating the sound of the womb.
- Use blackout blinds to block out all light in the room and remove night lights where possible. When the retina in the eye is exposed to light it will send a signal to the brain and begin the process of waking them up.
Cause #2 : Overestimation of Sleep Needs
The second cause of early morning waking is an overestimation of sleep needs. Babies have a total amount of sleep they need in 24 hours, and so if they are having too much of this sleep in the day, their nighttime sleep will either be very fragmented or they will be completely done by 4 or 5 am and will be ready to get up and start their day.
This early start will then cause problems for the following day and night, as they will either want additional daytime sleep to make it to bedtime or will need an earlier bedtime – causing a vicious cycle of early rising!
And so if your baby is waking up early, it is important not to let them compensate by having an early morning nap or by giving them an early bedtime.
Solution: Work out how much sleep your baby actually needs in 24 hours.
Unfortunately, following one size fits all sleep charts IS NOT a good indication of what your unique, individual little person needs. Robust studies conducted over the last 5 years show us that a child between 4 months and 12 months can need anywhere between 10 and 18 hours sleep, and a child over one can need anywhere between 9 and 16 hours sleep. Most sleep charts float somewhere around the middle, recommending closer to 14 hours, which isn’t that helpful for all those children that are on the lower end of the sleep needs spectrum (which is probably your child if you are here!!).
The only real way to know your child’s sleep needs is by observing their natural patterns and behaviours. Try keeping a sleep log and writing down how much sleep they have in 24 hours over 3 or 4 days. Remember not to count you trying to get them to sleep – just actual sleep. The likelihood is that they need a lot less than you think they do!
Having said the above there is one small caveat I want to add in about children who around 2 years old who are on 1 nap. If you are putting them to bed and they are taking longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep, and/or they are waking early, it is likely time to drop that nap. Now I can literally hear you shaking your head and saying no this is absolutely not my child – they go to sleep at nap time easily, they take a big 2-hour sleep, and if they don’t get it they are sooo grumpy – so they 100% still need it!! Thank you Sarah, but no!! OK hear me out. What is happening is that they are taking a 2-hour nap out of habit, but around this age their sleep needs reduce, and so they simply take this 2 hours off the sleep they have at night.
The nap also means the sleep pressure is too low at bedtime, que bedtime battles. And if you remove the nap, they WILL be grumpy and tired, and you will need to work to keep them up to bedtime because it is an ingrained habit. But after a few days or a week maximum, their little bodies will adjust, and their nighttime sleep will improve.
The Bigger Problem
So let’s talk about what is happening if you have done all of the above, and your baby is still waking at 5 am. This is because there is a bigger problem…. Once your baby starts to wake up early for one or more of the reasons we’ve already covered, the issue often self-perpetuates, and it may no longer be as simple as fixing the environmental factors and adapting sleep needs and expecting them to wake up a later time the next day.
What has happened is the circadian clock has shifted and locked in the new early start time. It basically becomes their new normal and it can take a few weeks of work to reset their sleep pattern to achieve a more sustainable and sensible morning time.
To reset their clock you need to control their exposure to light and dark. This is because the hormones that we talked about earlier, Melatonin and Cortisol, are heavily influenced by light and dark exposure. Melatonin is produced with darkness, and Cortisol is produced with light.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Decide on the time that you want your baby to wake up. Try to make this the earliest time that your family can cope with.
- Keep your baby up a few hours past their natural bedtime, to say 10 or 11 pm, and expose them to artificial or natural light.
- Carry out their calming bedtime routine as you usually would in a dimly lit room.
- When you put them to bed, make sure the room is very dark and be confident that no light will be able to seep in through the windows or doors in the early hours either. When you put your hand in front of your face, you should not see your hand. To achieve this you should definitely use blackout blinds and remove any night lights.
- It will take a few days for the light and dark exposure to reset their clock, and in the meantime, they will continue waking early. When this happens, keep them in their room in the quiet and dark for 15 to 20 minutes or until your desired morning time, whichever comes first. When you do start your day, dramatically open the curtains and announce that it’s ‘morning time’. You should then leave together, and take them into a brightly lit room, or ideally outside into the natural sunlight.
- If possible do not have breakfast until their desired morning time, as we know that eating times also strongly influence their circadian clock.
- Continue to allow them to sleep later in the evening until they reach your desired morning start time. You can then start to return bedtime back to a more appropriate time for them.
If you follow all of the advice above, then your little one will start waking up later within a few weeks. It’s simple, but I know it’s not easy because things like reducing naps and later bedtimes are real sticking points when you actually want more downtime, and this is initially giving you less. But unfortunately, you can’t have everything, so you will need a little short term pain for long term gain! But I have faith in you – I know you can do this!
Good Luck and Sleep Well!!
Sarah Mabbutt is a paediatric sleep educator and founder of Baby Sleep Well. She is passionate about introducing parents to a new way of improving children’s sleep without sleep training or crying. For free sleep tips and advice, follow her on Instagram @baby.sleep.well