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The Morning Routine: What is it and why do you need it?

Most parents know that having a consistent bedtime routine is an important element in fostering good sleep habits. You can read more about that here. But many parents don’t realize it can be just as important to have a solid morning routine that signifies the end of night and the beginning of the day.

Why do you need a morning routine?

If your child is up just a little too early for your liking, it might be tempting to bring your child into bed with you to nurse, drink a bottle, play with your phone (yeah – we know it happens) or have some cuddly snoozy time where even if they aren’t sleeping, at least YOU can be horizontal for just a few more minutes! Although this can work in some situations, it is often the catalyst for a sleep regression over time. Sleep is very light in the early morning hours and many babies and young children will start to treat that little bit of snooze time as an extension of the night. For example, your 6 month old baby may be sleeping from 7:00 PM until 5:30/6:00 AM, which is a completely appropriate amount of sleep (see our sleep chart if you aren’t sure what is normal for your child’s age). If you don’t really want to get out of bed until 6:30/7:00 AM, then you might bring your child into bed for some cuddle/nurse/snooze time at that 5:30 AM wake time and buy yourself a little extra sleep. The problem is that your child is now experiencing a sleep association — that is, you bring her into bed during the “night” and she sleeps or dozes a bit more.

This can quickly devolve into your child waking a sleep cycle or two too early, at 4:00 or 5:00 AM and can even lead to earlier night wakings and the establishment of parent-led sleep associations. In order to prevent these sleep associations from creeping back into your night, it’s important to have a morning routine that serves as a clear boundary at the end of “night” and the beginning of “day.”

Another more subtle reason to have a morning routine is that it’s helpful for your child to sleep in a consistent sleep environment all night, with no obvious change in light as the sun rises (for more on why you should black out your child’s room, see our sleep environment post here). As a result, it can be difficult for a baby or young child to know when it’s time to get up, because there are no obvious cues coming from the sleep environment if 4:00 AM looks the same as 5:00 AM. A distinct morning waking with light at a regular time helps your child have a well synchronized circadian rhythm which is the key initial step to solving all sleep problems.

What is a morning routine?

A morning routine is simply a few steps that you take in the morning to separate your “night” from “day.” For example, when your child wakes up in the morning, take her out of her crib, change her diaper, get her dressed and go into another room that isn’t associated with sleep to nurse or start breakfast. It can be as simple as that! You could add additional steps such as a special good morning song, turning on the coffeepot or brewing a cup of tea, or going to get the newspaper before nursing/feeding/cuddling. The idea is not to deny your child food in the morning if she’s hungry, it’s just to create a little bit of separation between what happens at night and what happens in the morning.

What if that’s not enough?

For babies or toddlers who are having trouble adapting to this, it may also be helpful to start the day with an obvious morning cue. For babies this might be a morning song that you sing when you enter the room. For toddlers and pre-school aged children, your morning cue might be a lamp on a lamp timer that turns on in at your desired wake time or an auditory cue such a crickets or birds chirping on a tablet or smart phone. For this to be effective it has to be a very obvious. Products such as clocks that turn green are far too subtle for toddlers and pre schoolers; a lamp or sound cue is FAR more effective!

Will it make my child sleep in longer?

It’s important to note that a morning routine will probably not solve any sleep problems or early waking. The purpose of a morning routine is to prevent sleep problems from developing in the future or to facilitate sleep training you may have already begun. As with all things sleep, there are plenty of complications and problems that can arise before a morning routine can do its work. Below are some common questions that we get related to these complications:

Should I open the curtains during the morning routine?

Ultimately YES, but at first maybe not. The morning routine suggestions described above are all behavioral. Light has a biological effect and resets your child’s circadian rhythm each day. If your child is waking up at a time that works for you, then yes! Open the curtains to provide a strong light signal to start the day. That will lock in your child’s circadian rhythm and keep your days predictable.

If your child is NOT waking at a time that works for you, then you’ll need to figure out why your child is up early and fix that first. Our circadian rhythms are searching for the dawn signal as morning approaches and if you open the curtains and let the sun in at 5:30 AM, then that’s the surest way to lock in that early wake time. To fix this, you’ll want to first determine whether your child is simply done sleeping or whether she is waking for another reason. Our blog on fixing an early wake time can help with steps on how to shift your child’s sleep to a more reasonable time.

I like morning cuddle time. Do I really have to stop?

We generally take the position that it’s not a problem unless it’s a problem for you. Some babies and toddlers will be perfectly content to have a morning snuggle and will never wake up earlier looking for your attention. If you like the way things are going, then it’s perfectly ok to just go with the flow and only establish a morning routine if things start to unravel in the morning.

If you are starting an all night sleep intervention of any sort (see our book for sleep intervention strategies), then you should treat the entire night the same way and create a morning routine to separate your night intervention from day. After you have finished your night intervention and your baby no longer has sleep associations, then you can go back to your morning cuddle time if you wish (with the caveats above).

As with any co-sleeping/morning cuddles ensure that you have talked to your pediatrician about making your child’s sleep environment as safe as possible.

Can’t I let my toddler/pre-schooler get up and read or play until I get up?

This can work in some situations, but it is generally not a good practice. Morning light exposure can cause a young child’s wake time to drift earlier. This means that your child might end up locking in to a too early wake up, potentially causing sleep deprivation. With toddlers and pre-school age children it can be difficult to undo such habits, so it’s typically better not to give your child such freedom until they are older and understand more about the importance of sleep. In addition, some young children will roam around the house, which could be dangerous if they are unsupervised.

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