Baby up at 5am? Reasons for Early Rising

I was planning on writing about early rising as I have had many families dealing with this in the last few weeks.  Coincidentally, the cutie in the picture above woke me up at 5:15 a.m. today – he went back down in about 20 minutes, but Mama was wide awake! I am trying to cope with more caffeine and the knowledge that one night does not make a habit.  Below are common reasons why babies and toddlers end up replacing our alarms in the early morning.  You’ll find that the reasons mostly revolve around timing and daytime sleep.

Going To Bed Too Late

A big misconception is that the later your child stays up, the later they will sleep in the morning – when in fact, the complete opposite is true!  Most children under the age of 7 will be up even earlier than normal if they go down past their bedtime.  The later bedtime causes them to become overtired and can trigger an early rising.  Having a bedtime routine that involves committing to getting your child down around the same time every night will help avoid the 5:00 a.m. wake up call.  Make sure you watch your child carefully for their sleepy cues (rubbing eyes/red eyes, blank stare, crankiness, yawning) and if you notice these before their typical bedtime, make sure you can start the routine as soon as possible to avoid going down overtired.

Going To Bed Too Drowsy

When working with families, a big focus of our plan is to work on putting your child down for all sleeping occasions “drowsy but awake”.  On a scale of sleepiness of 1-10 (10 being asleep),  you should shoot for around 7-8 on the scale. If your child falls asleep in under 5 minutes, they most likely went down too drowsy.  The early rising occurs because if they are not learning how to put themselves to sleep at bedtime, they are not going to know how to do it in the middle of the night or early in the morning. And 5:00 a.m. is the toughest time for a little one to get themselves back to sleep (along with adults!).  Again, watch their sleepy cues and make sure you are getting them to sleep as soon as you are able.  That might mean they are in bed 15-30 minutes earlier than what you initially thought was their optimal bedtime.

Timing Between Last Nap and Bedtime is Too Long

The “wakeful window” will vary by age – for example, if your child is 6 months old, the time between the end of their last nap and bedtime should be no longer than 3.5-4 hours. Kim West, LCSW-C, The Sleep Lady®, outlines these guidelines in her book, “Good Night, Sleep Tight” and following what is appropriate for the age of your child will prevent them going to bed overtired.

Nap Deprivation

Child not napping well? Or not napping at all? Not having enough sleep in the “sleep tank” from naps during the day can throw off nighttime sleep and cause early waking. Night sleep will be more difficult and if you notice that your child has not gotten enough sleep with their naps by 3pm, resort to the emergency back-up nap plan (car ride, stroller walk, etc.) that ensures that they get some rest to put them on the right path for bedtime.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Something that isn’t always considered as a cause of early rising is Obstructive Sleep Apnea, which is usually caused by enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Some signs of OSA include restless sleeping (in the morning, the sheets are all over the place, falling out of bed at night), loud breathing and/or snoring, and sweating while sleeping. Other symptoms might present themselves as ongoing congestion, frequent ear infections, reflux, allergies, or symptoms that interfere with breathing at night.  If you suspect that your child might have OSA, please contact your pediatrician as soon as possible.  They may refer you to an ENT for diagnosis, so start with them to figure out next steps.  Track their symptoms that you are noticing as well as this will help them understand what you are seeing.

So….What’s the Solution to Early Rising?

If underlying medical issues are ruled out, make sure you are targeting the correct bedtime as a majority of reasons for early rising are related to sleep deprivation. For older children (ages 2.5+), you can help modify their behavior by setting a simple automatic timer that turns on a dim light to indicate it’s okay to wake up (wake up time being between 6-7:30 a.m. to set their circadian rhythm for the day).  There are also fun wake-up clocks that use color to indicate the appropriate time to wake in the morning – and some even help start to learn how to tell time!

Stay consistent with your responses and closely follow your child’s sleepy cues.  Contact me if you are still struggling through early wakings and we can work together to identify what may be causing them to be up before dawn!


About Elizabeth Sarles

Elizabeth Sarles is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach and the owner of Nite & Day. She lives in Edina, Minnesota with her husband Lien, two little guys – Lien and Harrison, and her first baby (and bed-hog), Eddie the Yorkie.

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