Waking up before the rooster crows is not for everyone. In my experience, most parents who have been waking up with a baby throughout the night don’t want to hang with their bright-eyed baby at 5:30 a.m. I mean, even if your baby is sleeping through the night, any waking before 6:00 a.m. is too darn early.
Early rising is one of the most common sleep disruptions that parents report in my business. “I would love for my baby to sleep until 7:00 a.m.” “Is waking up at 5:00 a.m. even healthy?” “Can I die from exhaustion because my baby wakes up at 5:30 a.m. every day?” It is no doubt that waking up before the sun is hard when you are already exhausted.
So, what is early rising?
In my opinion, any waking before 6:00 a.m. is considered an early rising. If your little one is waking up between 6:00 and 8:00 a.m., you are on the right track for healthy and restful sleep. Babies four months old and older seem to be on an early-to-rise and early-to-bed cycle naturally. In the first three months, newborns don’t follow much of a rhythm yet. It is normal to see a late bedtime and more sleep around the clock.
What if your baby is waking up before 6:00 a.m.?
Many factors play into when your baby sleeps and how restorative that sleep period is. You always want to look at sleep from a 24-hour perspective versus thinking there is only one issue, such as short naps or an early morning waking. All the sleep periods in a full day impact each other, and looking at the bigger picture is always a good idea. Let’s look at some causes of early mornings and strategies to work on them.
Causes of Early Rising in Babies
1. The room environment is signaling a wake-up.
In so many cases, the room environment is signaling baby to wake up. Remember, your baby can’t tell time, so environmental cues have a huge impact.
What to do?
Have a room that is nice and DARK! Light levels are a natural cue that signals the brain to either release sleep hormones or awake hormones. A dark room, especially when the sun is coming up, is the best way to help signal your baby that it is still sleep time.
2. The first nap of the day is too early.
This is one of the most important things to look at if you have an early riser. When a baby wakes up before 6:00 a.m., it means they will be ready for their first nap at an earlier time. I know it makes sense, but we accidentally reinforce the early morning wake-up if the nap is too early. Here is an example:
Your 6-month-old wakes up at 5:30 a.m. You aim to use a 2-hour awake window before their first nap, so they don’t get overtired. This brings you to a 7:30 a.m. first nap. We now have a nap happening close to when we want baby to wake up in the morning. The schedule is now shifted earlier and creating an early habit.
What to do?
We want to push the first nap later to stop reinforcing the early mornings. Yes, this means your baby may be awake longer than their recommended awake time, but in this situation, that is okay. These are the times I would start with:
- 3-nap schedule: Push the first nap to 8:15-8:30 a.m. earliest.
- 2-nap schedule: Push the first nap to 9:15-9:30 a.m. earliest.
- 1-nap schedule: Push the nap to 11:30 a.m. earliest.
3. Too much daytime sleep.
Sleep is all about balance. We need healthy sleep and healthy amounts of time awake to build up sleep drive. One thing that is common with early risers is they may be great nappers. Essentially, they “catch up” during nap time. We can control daytime sleep to help shift the morning wake-up later.
What to do #1?
Cap longer naps! I know you may have heard the statement “never wake a sleeping baby,” but trust me, wake ’em up if what you are doing now isn’t working. Capping naps helps to create the balance between sleep time and awake time during the day.
- 2 & 3 nap schedules: Cap individual naps at 2-hours most. This means if your baby is still sleeping at the 2-hour mark, wake them up to preserve more good naps and a good night’s sleep.
- 1 nap schedule: Cap the nap at 3-hours most.
What to do #2?
The first tip is to make sure each nap does not go too long. Now we want to make sure all the naps added up together are not too much. There is only so much time in a day. We need to control daytime sleep to ensure we have enough sleep hours left for nighttime and during those early morning hours. Add up all the naps and try to follow these guidelines:
- 4 months: No more than 5 hours total nap time.
- 5 months: No more than 4.75 hours total nap time.
- 6 months: No more than 3.75 hours total nap time.
- 7 months: No more than 3.5 hours total nap time.
- 8-24 months: No more than 3 hours total nap time.
4. Not enough awake time during the day.
We come back to the balance of sleep and awake time in a 24-hour period. If your baby does not get enough awake hours during the day, their body will try and make up for it during the night. This presents as long periods of time awake in the night or those lovely early morning wakings.
What to do?
Make sure your awake times are long enough to help build up sleep drive for individual naps and enough nighttime sleep. It is normal for a baby who wakes up early to want shorter awake times during the day. But this reinforces the pattern you are stuck in. Here are some approximate awake time schedules you could try:
- 4 months: 1.25/1.5/1.75/1.75/1.75-2
- 5 months: 1.75/2/2.25/2.25
- 6 months: 2/2.25/2.5/2.5
- 7 months: 2.25/2.5/2.75/2.75
- 8-9 months: 3/3.25/3.25
- 10-11 months: 3.25/3.5-3.75/3.5
- 12-14 months: 3.5/4/3.75
- 1-nap schedule: Nap no earlier than 11:30 and cap at 3 hours in length.
** Awake times are the length of time your baby is awake between waking up and being asleep. If an awake time was 3 hours and they woke at 7:00 a.m., this would mean a goal asleep time of 10:00 a.m., for example.
Change won’t happen overnight (pun intended)!
It is always good to give it 7-10 days to see a shift when making changes. We are not just working on something simple. You are shifting a whole schedule! With consistency, scheduling changes like the ones above can really help.
If your baby seems tired during some of those stretches, use sunlight to your advantage! Sunlight tells the brain it is time to be awake and can suppress sleep hormones. Go outside for 10-15 minutes about a half-hour before their next nap and see if this perks them up if they are grumpy.