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Why Your Baby Wakes Up Early: Preventing Early Morning Wakings

(baby not sleeping, dark outside). Early morning wakings in babies can be related to a number of factors and we talk about them here.

As a sleep coach, one of the most common questions I encounter is, “Why is my baby waking up so early?” It’s a question that leads to a cascade of others: How early is too early? Will a later bedtime mean a later wake-up time? Rest assured, if you’re asking these questions, you’re not alone. Early morning wakings are a widespread challenge for parents. There are a number of common reasons why they happen, and in this blog, we’ll explore these and offer practical solutions to help both you and your baby get the rest you need.

What Are Early Morning Wakings?

Early morning wakings can throw a wrench in the ideal sleep schedule you’ve planned for your baby (and let’s face it—yourself). Understanding what’s typical can really set the stage for more realistic expectations and a better plan. Most babies wake up for the day between 6 AM and 7 AM; anything before that might be considered an early morning waking. It’s a bummer, but a leisurely wake-up at 8 AM or later on weekends isn’t a realistic expectation for young babies.

At the same time, every baby is unique. Some might be early risers, waking up with the sun, while others might snooze peacefully until 7 AM. Tuning into your baby’s natural habits and working with them, not against them, is the trick. As your baby grows, their wake-up times may shift slightly, which is why being flexible and observant is key to managing those early morning wake-ups, making mornings a pleasant experience for both baby and parents.

Why Do Early Morning Wakings Happen for Babies?

There are many possible reasons your baby wakes before the sun is up and we’re going to discuss them below. First, let’s talk about how babies sleep and wake because uncovering the reasons behind early morning wakings involves understanding more about baby sleep mechanics.

There are two factors that influence your baby’s sleep and waking throughout the day:

  • Homeostatic Sleep Drive (Sleep Pressure): This is the body’s natural need for sleep. The longer your baby stays awake, the stronger the sleep pressure becomes, making them feel increasingly sleepy. After sleep the pressure is relieved, resetting the process.
  • Circadian Rhythm: This is an internal 24-hour clock that controls when your baby feels alert and when they feel sleepy. It can be influenced by external cues like light and temperature.  

The interaction between sleep pressure and circadian rhythm, as well as other factors, is a crucial reason why your baby might be waking up too early in the morning. Let’s now jump into the specifics of how to prevent or stop early morning wakings.   

Optimize Baby’s Sleep Environment to Tackle Early Morning Wakings

When it comes to ensuring your baby stays asleep, creating the right sleep environment is crucial. A room that’s too bright, too noisy, or has an uncomfortable temperature can interrupt your baby’s sleep cycles. During the early morning, when sleep pressure is lowest and sleep is lightest, these factors might be enough to wake your baby too early.

What to do

  • Ensure the room is sufficiently dark. Invest in blackout curtains to block any external light that might be disturbing your baby’s sleep. Download the room darkness scale to make sure. 
  • Maintain a cool and comfortable room temperature. The ideal temperature for a baby’s room is between 68-72°F. Body temperature drops around 4 AM which can cause your baby to wake up. If you’re worried about your baby being too cold or too hot check out our dressing guide for reference.
  • To ensure your baby sleeps soundly, it’s important to minimize noise, especially the sudden kind. In those cases, a white noise machine can help. It creates a steady, soothing sound that can mask other disruptive noises.

Set an Appropriate Bedtime to Prevent Early Morning Wakings

Putting your baby to bed too late or too early can both contribute to early wake-ups. An overly late bedtime might push your baby into overtiredness, which paradoxically makes it harder for them to stay asleep. Conversely, too early a bedtime might mean they’ve had enough sleep and naturally wake earlier. Balancing bedtime is key to preventing these early morning disruptions.

How can you tell whether your baby is going to bed too early or too late? Here are some signs to watch for to decide:

  • Too Late: The baby might show signs of overtiredness, such as being hyperactive, cranky, or having a second wind close to their usual bedtime. They might struggle to settle down or wake frequently throughout the night. They are more likely to wake up cranky since they didn’t get enough sleep.
  • Too Early: The baby seems not as tired at bedtime and takes a long time to fall asleep. They wake up early and seem rested and happy (unlike their parents).

What to do

If your baby’s early morning wake-ups are due to a bedtime that’s too late, gently move it earlier in 10 to 15-minute increments every 3-5 days until bedtime is 20-30 minutes earlier than before. This gradual shift allows your baby to adjust smoothly and increases the likelihood of them sleeping through the night without the disruption of waking up too early.

On the other hand, if an early bedtime seems to be the culprit behind those early morning wakings, you’ll want to push bedtime back by the same amount. Incremental adjustments of about 10 to 15 minutes later can help retrain their internal clock to a more suitable schedule, potentially extending their sleep into a more desirable morning wake-up time. Keep an eye on their responses to these changes to strike the perfect bedtime balance.

As you adjust bedtime gradually, this can assist in resetting your baby’s internal clock. Over a period, you should notice a shift in when your baby wakes up in the morning. It can take a while though, so don’t assume it didn’t work if you don’t notice a change in a day or two. Stick with it for at least a week.

Too Much or Too Little Daytime Sleep as Cause of Early Morning Wakings

Babies tend to need a certain amount of sleep within a 24-hour period, and the balance between nighttime sleep and daytime naps is delicate. If they nap too long during the day, they might not need as much sleep at night, which can lead to early morning awakenings. 

On the other hand, insufficient napping can lead to overtiredness, making it difficult for them to sleep through the night. Parents should monitor and adjust nap lengths to ensure babies get just the right amount of total daily sleep. This might mean shortening daytime naps or moving bedtime earlier to compensate for a nap deficit.

What to do

When it comes to balancing your baby’s sleep, it’s helpful to know that infants between 4 to 11 months old typically need about 12 to 15 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period. With this benchmark in mind, you can distribute sleep to ensure they’re not getting too much or too little during the day. If your baby is short on daytime sleep, an earlier bedtime may help make up the deficit.

On the flip side, if they’re napping too much during the day, you may need to adjust their schedule to shorten nap times, helping to preserve the bulk of sleep for nighttime and prevent early wake-ups. When adjusting naps, always keep your baby’s optimal wake window in mind to prevent overtiredness. 

Schedule and Routine Changes

Adjustments in your baby’s routine can often lead to early morning awakenings. Here are a few common changes and their impact:

  • Daylight Saving Time: The clocks going back can result in an hour earlier wake-up.
  • New Daycare Routine: Adapting to a new daytime schedule may affect night sleep.
  • Travel: Different sleep environments and time zones can disrupt their usual sleep routine.
  • Illness: When sick, babies may struggle to sleep and need extra comfort, altering their sleep habits.

Addressing early wakings amid these changes takes time. The most important step is resuming the routine and schedule that used to work as soon as possible. 

If after a week, early risings continue, it might be worth reviewing other potential causes. For example, as your child grows, their sleep needs evolve, and what worked previously may no longer suffice. Additionally, during periods of illness or travel, new sleep associations may form as you comfort your baby more than usual. It’s essential to assess if these temporary measures have become unexpected habits

With time and consistency, your baby’s sleep should gradually align with their adjusted schedule, helping to restore peaceful mornings. 

What Do Sleep Associations (Props) Have to Do with Early Morning Wakings?

When little ones rely on something specific to fall asleep, like feeding or rocking, it’s called a sleep association. These are cues that tell your baby it’s time to sleep. But here’s the thing: If they wake up overnight and that cue isn’t there, they don’t know how to go back to sleep on their own. This can lead to early wake-ups.

What to do

Breaking these associations is about teaching your baby new ways to fall asleep—ones that don’t involve your direct help. Sleep training can be a game-changer here. It’s about guiding your baby toward self-soothing techniques so they can settle themselves back to sleep without your intervention. This doesn’t mean letting your baby cry it out if that’s not your style—there are many methods to explore.

The key is consistency and a little patience. Start by putting your baby down to sleep while they’re sleepy but still awake. This way, they get the chance to self-soothe. It might take some practice, but with time, your baby will likely learn to fall asleep—and stay asleep—without needing to be rocked or fed. This skill not only helps with early morning wake-ups but also improves overall sleep quality for your baby (and, let’s be honest, for you too!). 

Final Thoughts on Preventing Early Morning Wakings

Navigating early morning wakings is a journey many parents know well. While several factors can contribute to this challenge, the cornerstone solution is fostering your baby’s ability to fall asleep and return to sleep independently. This skill is the bedrock of healthy sleep habits and the ultimate remedy for early wake-ups. With patience, consistency, and a touch of know-how, you can guide your baby towards a full night’s sleep that stretches into a reasonable morning hour, ensuring restful nights and joyful mornings for your entire family.

If you’re struggling not only with the time change, but figuring out how to set your baby’s sleep routine, schedule a call. We’d love to help your family have more peaceful nights.

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