It’s 4:30 am. You’re in a peaceful slumber… until your mind slowly registers the cries of “Mom! MOM! Mooooooom! Waaaaaaaaah!” You go into your child’s room and try to get her to fall back asleep. Maybe she does. Maybe she doesn’t. But one thing’s for sure: by that point, there’s no way you’ll be able to.
Sound familiar? Almost every parent I know has experienced a bout of early waking. For the lucky few, it’s a short period caused by a sleep regression or illness. But for many, it’s an ongoing problem that leads to utter exhaustion for the entire family. No one (no one!) wants to wake up insanely early to the sounds of her child shrieking to be released from the captivity of her crib.
For many, these 4:30am wake-up calls are the breaking point. That’s usually when they cave to the reality that it’s time to get help.
I get it. Because this happened to me too. When my son was 13 months old, he suddenly started waking up at 5am every. single. morning. He would go to bed like a champ, sleep all night… and then wake up super early.
My husband couldn’t function at work; my son’s nap schedule got crazy; I felt like a giant #momfail… we were a mess.
What’s an exhausted parent to do when her child wakes at the crack of dawn?
First, let’s define “early”
A “normal” wake time for older babies and toddlers is anywhere from 5:30 am – 7:00 am. Anything before that usually signals a sleep issue. So if you’re reading this in the hopes of convincing your threenager to sleep til 9 am, you’re probably out of luck.
Also… some kids just wake up early. We’re all hardwired from birth either to be early birds or night owls. There’s nothing we can do to change our children’s chronotypes–if your babe is an early bird and you’re a night owl, my condolences. (But the good news is that early birds are better positioned for long-term success in their careers, so keep reminding yourself of that as you pour your sixth cup of coffee).
That being said, I’ve worked with so many parents who swore to me that their children were early birds and, by doing an audit of their sleep schedule and sleep habits, we got them sleeping til 7 am. (What is this dark magic? Keep reading.)
The 4 Most Common Culprits for Early Wakings
The good news is that early wakings can almost always be solved. It may take time and persistence, but you’ll get there. In my experience, early wakings are almost always caused by one or more of the following:
#1 – The nap schedule is off (or there isn’t one)
Daytime sleep is directly connected to nighttime sleep. If one get screwy, the other will follow. Early wakings can be caused by your child not napping enough during the day (for example, if she skips or takes short naps). They can also be a result of naps that aren’t at the age-appropriate times and thus aren’t as restorative as they could be.
Quite often, adjusting the nap schedule can help to decrease the frequency of night wakings. If your baby is older than 5-6 months and isn’t on a solid nap schedule, then it’s time to put her onto one- for both your sakes.
#2 – Bedtime is too late
If your baby or toddler is overtired at bedtime, then the overnight battle is often already lost. Pre-bedtime exhaustion greatly increases the odds that your child will wake up overnight or in the early AM (and will usually make the bedtime routine nightmarish).
#3 – Take an honest look at your child’s bedtime
Does he start to zone out well before you put him into bed? Does he get a little crazy towards the end of the night? Does he routinely doze off in the car/stroller at the end of the day? All are signs that bedtime is too late.
Your child doesn’t know how to fall asleep unassisted. If your little one needs help falling asleep (e.g., rocking, nursing, lying with her), then she will struggle to fall back asleep overnight–particularly in the early morning, when her sleep drive isn’t as strong. She’ll call for mama and, when you arrive groggy-eyed, she’ll be all, oh heeeeeey! Since you’re here, let’s just start our day!
If this is your issue, then you may want to consider sleep training so she can learn to fall back to sleep overnight without needing your presence. (This is especially true for toddlers and this is usually when I get a call!).
#4 – Environmental factors
Ensure that nothing external is waking up your child in the early morning; a trash pick-up, the floorboards creaking as you try to sneak to the bathroom, a sibling who wakes up early, etc. Ensure that her sleep environment is super dark (blackout curtains FTW!) and consider using white noise overnight.
We can’t force our kids to fall back asleep… But we can put in place conditions that will encourage them to hang out in bed until we’re ready to face the day.
I advise all of my clients to decide on an “ok to wake” time for the family. This is usually between 6-7am. (If your child is waking at 4:30am right now, you may want to start out with an earlier time). Explain to your child at bedtime that you won’t be coming to get her until that time–and stick with it.
Depending on your child’s age, consider investing in a toddler clock that shows when it’s “nighttime” versus “daytime”. You may have a few rough mornings, but eventually your child will realize that you decide when the day starts.
Over time, you can move the wake time later in 15-minute increments. Assuming that her room is super dark and stimuli-free, there’s a good chance she’ll get bored and go back to sleep. Or, she may continue to wake up early but will hang out in bed for a while. I realize this sounds like a pipe dream, but I promise that it does and can happen!
Early wakings are a real struggle. If you’ve reached your breaking point, do an audit of your child’s sleep schedule and sleep habits and see if they could be a culprit behind the 4:30am pyjama parties. If you continue to struggle, I recommend reaching out to a certified sleep coach to better troubleshoot your particular situation.
Good luck! And good night.
Hadley Seward is a certified sleep consultant and American mama living in France.
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