What to do when your toddler or baby wakes up too early
It can be roller coaster ride... but not the fun kindMost exhausted parents of babies and toddlers have their eyes fixed on one distinct goal: sleeping through the night. That’s understandable; after months (or sometimes years!) of night wakings, a full night’s sleep sounds about as good as winning the lottery! But as those of you with sleeping-through-the-night little ones can attest, sleep problems don’t miraculously disappear once you’ve reached that milestone. Your baby or toddler can master sleeping through the night, only to have another sleep issue rear it’s ugly, exhaustion-inducing head.
Case in point: the baby or toddler who is waking too early in the morning. Lots of parents contact The Baby Sleep Site with some variation of this story: “My baby/toddler is sleeping through the night just fine, but now he/she is waking way too early! Can you help?”
Fortunately, the answer is yes – we can!
Determine if you actually have an early-rising problemKeep in mind that ‘early’ is a relative term – for some parents, a 5:30 wake-up time is ideal, while for others, anything before 8:00 a.m. is considered “too early”! Take a good, hard look at your child’s wake-up time – is it after 6 a.m.? Also, think about how your child wakes up – are they happy and energized? If your child is waking at or after 6 a.m. and seems refreshed and ready to tackle the day, then (as much as it may pain you to hear this!) you probably don’t have an early rising problem. Developmentally, a wake-up time of 6:00 or later is reasonable for most babies and toddlers, provided they are getting adequate nighttime and naptime sleep. However, if your child is waking earlier than 6 a.m., and/or if your little one quickly wears out after morning wake-up and is tired and cranky, then you likely do have an early-rising issue on your hands.
Root out and address the cause of your little one's early-rising problem
Lots of things can cause intermittent, occasional early rising: illness, teething symptoms, developmental leaps, growth spurts, life transitions (like the birth of a new sibling, or moving to a new house), potty training, transitioning from crib to big kid bed…all of these can result in a few days or weeks of early-morning wake-up calls.
And this time of year, the long days may be a factor as well – if you’ve noticed that your child is waking progressively earlier, make sure there isn’t too much morning sunlight streaming into her room.
Fixable schedule problems that lead to early risingSo, what kinds of scheduling problems lead to waking up too early? There are three, specifically:
- Nap time sleep amounts are offIf your baby or toddler is not getting enough nap sleep, then he is likely over-tired by the time bedtime rolls around, and an over-tired child is more likely to wake too early than a well-rested one (this follows the ”sleep begets sleep idea). However, too much nap sleep is also a problem. You see, the total amount of sleep a child gets in a day is relatively constant, but our children will shift sleep from nights to naps, and vice versa. So a child who is napping too much during the day may very well sleep less at night, and wake too early. This can quickly become a pattern – your child sleeps 10 hours at night and 4 hours during the day, instead of 12 hours at night and 2 hours during the day, for example.
- The timing of naps is offTotal nap amounts matter; so does the timing of those naps. Specifically, look at the window of time between your child’s last nap of the day and bedtime. If that window of time is too long, your child may be overly-tired at bedtime, which can lead to early rising.
- Bedtime is too early/too lateIt seems counterintuitive, I know, but it’s true – keeping a baby or toddler up late usually will not lead to a later wake-up time in the morning! Instead, it can cause over-tiredness, which can, in turn, lead to even earlier wake-up times. So avoid a late bedtime. But you’ll also want to be careful not to put your little one to bed too early. Generally, we advise no bedtime before 6 p.m., and older babies and toddlers often do well with bedtimes at or after 7 p.m.
How to shift your early riser's schedule
Instead, when your child wakes up early, do your best to re-settle him. Offer some reassuring pats and kisses, say something like “It’s sleepy time – see you in the morning!” and then leave. Or, if leaving upsets your child too much, try staying in the room but remaining as quiet and boring as possible.