(Revised and updated from an earlier version)
Early-morning waking is a common problem for babies and toddlers. Unfortunately, early waking is one of the hardest problems to fix because the circadian rhythm resets to light exposure each morning, and even a little light in the morning will cause your baby to ‘lock in’ to an early wake time. In addition, sleep is light in the early morning, so your baby may have difficulty going back to sleep even if he/she needs more sleep. If you search for advice on the topic, you’ll inevitably hear simplistic advice like ‘put him down early for bed’ or ‘put her down later for bed.’ Sometimes a simple change will work temporarily, but if your baby’s sleep pattern is stuck too early, then you’ll need to adjust his/her circadian rhythm in order to achieve a permanently later wake time.
The Science Behind Early Waking in Babies
The drive to sleep is coordinated by two things: homeostatic sleep pressure, which is the build-up of sleep need (sleepiness) over time, and the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is your internal biological clock; it controls the timing of many events in your child’s body, including your child’s biological bedtime and biological wake time. Your child’s biological bed and wake times are bookended by a strong drive to be awake. This means that putting your baby down early may backfire and doing sleep training past a certain time in the morning may be pointless. It’s really important to understand how the circadian rhythm works in order to make sure that you are asking your baby to sleep when he/she is capable of sleeping.
Why would the circadian rhythm promote waking up so early? The answer is light exposure. Our circadian rhythms are designed to reset to light exposure, and our bodies look for the dawn signal in the morning. This means that just a tiny change in the lighting in your baby’s room may lead to a ‘locked-in’ early waking. It’s important to note that it’s not the light itself that will wake your baby up; it’s that if your baby wakes up early for any reason and sees light, his/her body will immediately start to change in response to the light exposure and promote the drive to wake up at that earlier time the next day. The major problem here is that you can’t just make it dark the next day and expect your baby to sleep later; it’s the same thing that happens in jet lag. Since light today leads to an early waking tomorrow, your baby will still wake up early the next day even though you may have taken steps to darken the room.
All that said, sometimes an early-morning waking is not due to the circadian drive to be awake. Since early waking means that your baby might have just had 8, 9 or 10 hours of sleep, her homeostatic sleep drive will be restored and she won’t feel that same pressure to sleep as she did earlier in the night. This will make it really hard for your baby to fall back to sleep. Similarly, sleep is very light in the early morning hours, so it’s easy to wake up to a very soft noise or due to a little tummy rumble or wet diaper. All of these things can prevent your child from sleeping in later even when she is capable of sleeping later.
Need More Help?
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SLEEP TRAINING CLASS (for well babies 6-15 months)
PHONE CONSULTATIONS (with one of our sleep experts)
THE SECRET TO NAPS (downloadable e-book)
How can I fix my child’s early waking?
First, you need to figure out the source of the problem by answering these questions:
Does your baby have a sleep association and wake frequently during the night?
If so, do not work on early waking until you address the sleep association. See our blogs on sleep associations or use our sleep training class to create a plan that will help your little one connect sleep cycles through the night.
Is your baby waking for a reason?
If your baby already knows how to fall asleep independently and an early-morning waking for food or comfort is the only problem, then you may not need to shift his/her circadian rhythm. Sometimes sleep associations can linger in the early morning hours long after sleep training. Since sleep is light in the early morning, your baby will be more sensitive to a tummy rumble or the cat roaming the halls. If you are feeding your baby and she is not going back to sleep in the crib but will sleep in your arms, then she has the capacity to sleep later, and sleep training should fix the early waking. Stated a different way, if your baby can sleep under certain conditions, but not in the crib, then she doesn’t have a circadian-misalignment issue, but rather a sleep association. If your baby is used to eating in the early morning and you think she doesn’t need to anymore, then you will want to reduce feeding as described here, before starting any intervention.
Is your baby going to bed too early?
Some parents get seduced by the idea that an early bedtime will solve all problems. An early bedtime will certainly solve some problems, but not every problem (see our article on early vs. late bedtimes). If you are putting your baby to bed at 6:00 pm and he/she is waking up at 4:30 or 5:00 am, he/she might be getting enough nighttime sleep. See our age-by-stage sleep chart to figure out if your baby is getting a normal amount of sleep. If he/she is, then you will need to follow the steps to shift his/her circadian rhythm (listed below) in order to achieve a later bedtime and wake time.
Is your child waking because his or her circadian rhythm is ‘locked in’?
As described above, this is a common issue when sunrises get earlier. If your child wakes up too early and no matter what you do, he/she won’t go back to sleep, then you will need to shift his/her circadian rhythm in order to give your little one the ability to sleep later.
Second, you need to take action:
If your child has a sleep association only...
You will need to do some sort of sleep training to get your baby to learn how to go back to sleep when sleep is very light. Unfortunately, many of the most popular interactive strategies don’t work as well in the early morning hours (e.g. pick-up/put-down). Since your child doesn’t have a very strong sleep drive at 5:00 am, doing check-ins for an hour may make him or her more excited, stimulated or upset (similar to naps). Generally, the more hands off you can be with your approach to early morning intervention, the faster your results. For example, if you are comfortable waiting until your baby’s target wake time and then getting him/her, that’s fine and should lead to later mornings within 4-5 days. Your baby may not sleep at all for the first three days that you do this, but he/she will start to extend those mornings once you get through the first few mornings. If you feel uncomfortable with that type of approach, then consider lying in your child’s room and verbally soothing without picking him/her up until wake time. This usually takes more time to work, but is a preferable option for some parents. There are many other approaches, but as always the success of any approach relies on your baby’s personality, age, experience with prior sleep training, and your parenting style. If you need personalized support for this, book a consultation with us and we will help you devise a customized plan.
If you determine that your child's early waking is indeed due to circadian misalignment...
You may decide to shift his or her circadian rhythm. To accomplish this, you need to do the following:
1. Fully control your child’s exposure to light and darkness.
It is extremely important that you make your child’s room dark enough that there is no change in light from the middle of the night to the morning. If it isn’t dark enough, then your child won’t shift and will just get progressively more sleep-deprived. To achieve an appropriate level of darkness, you may need to get creative. We have found that inexpensive blackout Redi-Shades coupled with curtains do a great job at darkening most rooms to an appropriate level.
2. You need to keep your child up temporarily later than usual, possibly even well beyond an appropriate bedtime.
It’s important to note that the later bedtime is not the thing that will lead to the later wake time; it is the fact that with a later bedtime, your child will be able to experience more bright light exposure before bed. It is this bright light in the evening paired with darkness in the morning that will lead to the shift in the circadian rhythm. Toddlers over 18 months can typically handle pushing bedtime much later without issue. However, babies are very sensitive to the build-up of sleep pressure, so you have to be very careful about how you make bedtime later. Although a later bedtime will ultimately solve the early-waking problem, you could create a new problem and more night waking if your baby becomes chronically sleep-deprived as a by-product of your adjustment. As a result of this challenge, we recommend vigilantly working to get your baby to take long naps (even if assisted in a stroller or car seat) near the end of the day. This isn’t what you would normally want to do, but in order to achieve a later bedtime, a long, late nap will do the trick. Keep your baby up as late as possible without pushing him/her into becoming an overtired mess. For young babies ~6 months, you may only be able to shift bedtime by as little as 15 minutes a day. For older babies ~12 months, you may be able to make bedtime later by as much as an hour in one day if naps were good. Keep shifting bedtime a little later each night. The later the bedtime and brighter the light, the faster the shift will happen.
3. Allow your child to experience bright light in the evening.
Keeping sun safety in mind, go outside as much as possible while the sun is out, and stay in west-facing rooms when you are inside. Indoor light works too, but it’s not as potent as the sun. If you have to be inside or if the sun has set early, then keep as many lights on as possible before bed. Do your bedtime routine in a dimmed room as usual.
4. Don’t expect your child to sleep-in right away.
Jet lag is so-called, because there is a lag in the time it takes the circadian rhythm to catch up with the change in the light/dark cycle. It is normal and expected that your child would still wake up early after the later bedtime. Don’t expect him/her to start to sleep later until the third morning. Your child won’t sleep all the way to your target wake time at that point, but you should start to see a little bit of change. S/he should continue sleeping later on subsequent days. You can go to your child and play quietly, but you need to keep it dark. You should also try to hold off feeding your baby until your target wake time (if you don’t think this is possible try tapering that feeding before starting this intervention). You can pair this with sleep training if you think your baby has a sleep association and is also circadian shifted.
5. For toddlers, introduce a morning cue.
If you have a toddler, then use a morning cue to help your child understand when night ends and day begins. You can use a toddler clock (just be sure that it doesn't have a light on during the night) or you can simply plug a nightlight into a smart outlet or lamp timer and set it to turn on at your target wake time. When the clock or nightlight signals that it's time to get up, then you should point to the clock/nightlight and exclaim, "look, it's time to get up" and then begin your morning routine. Importantly, introducing a morning cue won't solve this problem alone. Also, remember that if you don't respect the clock, your child won't. It's really important that you don't start your morning routine until the clock says that it's time to do so.
6. Allow your child to take long naps to make up for lost nighttime sleep.
Don’t worry about waking your child up from naps during this process. Remember, your baby will be getting less sleep at night due to the later bedtime, so you need to keep naps nice and long to compensate. Don’t be afraid to offer assisted naps, as long as it’s safe, to increase your baby’s daytime sleep.
7. Don’t move bedtime earlier until your child has slept to your target wake time for at least three days in a row.
Once that happens, you’ll know that your child is now locked in at a later wake time. You can start to move bedtime back to a normal time (if you were temporarily keeping your child up later) by putting your baby to bed 15 minutes earlier each night. You can also scale back to normal napping to assist the earlier bedtime shift.
We KNOW this is not easy! It wasn’t easy for us to write, because the science is complicated, the causes of early waking vary, and the little details are so important. If you are struggling to put it all together yourself, we would be glad to help you through a personal consultation.
Khalsa, S.B.S., Jewett, M.E., Cajochen, C. and Czeisler, C.A., 2003. A phase response curve to single bright light pulses in human subjects. The Journal of physiology, 549(3), pp.945-952.
Higuchi, S., Nagafuchi, Y., Lee, S.I. and Harada, T., 2014. Influence of light at night on melatonin suppression in children. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 99(9), pp.3298-3303.
Davis, K.F., Parker, K.P. and Montgomery, G.L., 2004. Sleep in infants and young children: part two: common sleep problems. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 18(3), pp.130-137.