We get it, your baby is waking up too early and you’re sick and tired of being so dang tired. The lack of sleep is starting to wear on you, and you’re worried your baby isn’t getting the rest he or she needs either. Some of you will have tried everything: changing schedules, moving bedtime, capping daytime sleep, white noise machines, etc. Others will just be getting started figuring out how to solve the issue. Wherever you are on this early waking journey, we are here to help.
Baby waking up too early is the most common sleep struggle we hear about, and for good reason!
The Truth About Baby Waking Up Too Early
The truth is, solutions to a baby waking early can range from simple to extremely complex. Sleep is a system of interrelated parts. Think of it like a complicated machine. You pull a lever in one place, and it impacts something else down the line.
First, we need to define what exactly we mean by early morning waking. At the Sleeper Teachers, we define an early morning to be any time before 6am and anything earlier than 11 hours after bedtime. So for example, if your child goes to bed at 6:30pm, anything after 5:30am would be considered morning because they will have been asleep for 11 hours. Although many children are able to sleep more than 11 hours at night, it isn’t realistic for every child. If the previous example is similar to your case, I would suggest working to gradually push naps and bedtime later so that morning wake time slowly adjusts as well. If your child goes to bed around 7:00pm or later and is still consistently waking before 6:00am, this would be defined as an early morning wake.
Now that we agree on a definition, let’s review the primary causes for why they happen.
Your Baby’s Sleep Schedule Matters
A baby’s sleep schedule being off is one of the most common culprits for early waking. If your baby is sleeping on an inadequate schedule, they are either going to bed undertired or overtired. An undertired child does not have enough time to build up enough sleep pressure, or melatonin, to keep them asleep through the night.
A child who goes to bed too late, or is awake too much time between their last nap and bedtime will be overtired. An overtired child’s body will produce an excess of cortisol, a hormone produced when we are stressed. So what’s the big deal? Well, cortisol is a stimulant that also impacts melatonin, the hormone that helps us feel sleepy and remain asleep until morning.
To rule out scheduling as the cause for your baby waking early, find your child’s ideal wake window before bed on the following chart based on age:
Wake Windows Before Bed by Age
12 weeks – 4 months (3-4 naps) 1.5 – 2 hours
4 months – 6/7 months (3 naps) 2 – 3 hours
7/8 – 10/13 months (2 naps) 3 – 4 hours
13/16 months – 3 years (1 nap) 4 – 5.5 hours
3/4 years (no nap) 11 – 13 hours
Daytime Sleep Matters
If your child takes chronically short naps, this is likely the cause for baby waking early. How is this related? As we already know, overtiredness means an increase in cortisol. Little ones getting too little daytime sleep go into bedtime overtired, with too much cortisol in their bodies. That cortisol then impacts melatonin levels, and before you know it your little one is up at 5:00am.
If your baby tends to take short naps, work on improving day sleep before trying to resolve early morning wakes. Start with this blog post about breaking the cycle of short naps, or check out our Short Nap Guide if you prefer a deeper dive into the problem.
If your child is taking nice, long naps, ensure they aren’t getting too much daytime sleep. Too much day sleep will impact night sleep, because the body only needs so much sleep in a 24 hour period. Your baby will compensate by sleeping less at night if he or she gets too much day sleep. The following chart shows maximum daytime sleep needs by age. Remember, each child is different, so these are average maximums based on our experience. You may need to experiment a bit to find your child’s sweet spot.
Maximum Daytime Sleep by Age
0 – 12 weeks unlimited
4 – 6 months 4 hours
7 – 9 months 3.5 hours
10 – 13/16 months 3 hours
13/16 months – 3 years 2.5 hours
Sleep Environment Matters
Setting your baby up with an optimal sleep environment is important to allow for the best sleep outcomes. There are several components that make up an ideal sleep environment.
First, your baby should be sleeping in a quiet room away from noise and stimulation. We recommend using a white noise machine to help mask any noises that may be occurring while your child sleeps, especially in those early morning hours. If your child sleeps in your room, move them as far away from you as possible. Little ones are very aware of their caregivers’ presences, so giving them more space will help decrease stimulation (smell, sight and noise).
Next, ensure your child’s room is dark enough. Light interferes with melatonin production, and it’s especially stimulating first thing in the morning when sleep is most fragile. Even a halo of light peaking out from the top or bottom of the curtains can be enough to rouse some children from sleep.
Resources to Help Solve Your Child’s Early Morning Wakes
If you’ve checked all the boxes you can think of, and baby is still waking early, head over to check out our Step-by-Step Guide to Putting an End to Early Morning Wakes. The extensive guide will help you deep dive into all factors that lead to early waking, and walk you through 12 steps to getting your mornings back.
If you’re looking for live, personalized support, reach out to the Sleeper Teachers for more information about how we can help. After all, we are certified sleep consultants and spend our days (and nights) supporting and educating families in finding sleep solutions. You can also head over to our reviews page to read how impactful teaching independent sleep was for our clients. Lives change when everyone in a family sleeps!