Having an early riser is tough!
My first child got up, like clockwork, at 5:30 a.m every morning. Around 3 years of age—after countless early morning starts—he finally graced us with a 6 a.m. wake-up. When you’re a chronically sleep deprived parent, even 30 minutes of extra shut eye is a gift.
Fast forward eleven years and that baby is now a preteen. Early morning starts are a thing of the past. In fact, the opposite is now true—it’s hard to get him out of bed!
But there’s a new little one in the family. And although baby #4 doesn’t rise super early, her 6:30 a.m. starts are still hard. This is especially so with the fall time change. As I write this post, the clocks just fell back an hour, morphing that just bearable 6:30 a.m. wake-up into an uncomfortably early 5:30 a.m. start. Yeesh!
In this post, we’ll cover some of the main reasons behind early morning wake-ups and what you can do to extend overnight sleep.
Ready for improve those painful early morning starts?
What is a normal wake-up time, anyway?
Young children tend to rise early. In fact, waking up between 5:30-6:30 am is more of a rule than an exception for young children.
This is a tough fact to hear. Tired tired parents need sleep, too! And like me, you may want a couple of minutes to yourself in the morning—but not at the cost of getting up at 5 a.m.
Fortunately, there’s still hope. Your child may be waking up earlier than their natural biological rhythms and sleep needs would typically dictate.
In order to figure this out, ask yourself the following key questions:
- Is my child on a regular sleep schedule (i.e., do they go to sleep and wake-up roughly around the same time each day)?
- Does bedtime occur at an age-appropriate time?
- Is my child sleeping soundly through the night?
- Does my child wake up on their own and appear well-rested?
- Is my child functioning well during the day (e.g., seems generally content, no significant behavioural issues)?
If you answered “yes” to all of the above, your child’s wake up time is likely appropriate for their current needs and developmental stage.
To put it in another way, well-rested children meet the following criteria, they:
- Wake-up no earlier than 5:30 a.m
- Follow a regular sleep schedule
- Go to bed in a timely manner
- Sleep soundly overnight
- Wake up independently at an appropriate time and appear alert upon awakening
- Manage well emotionally and behaviourally throughout the day
If you’ve answered “no” to one or more of the above five questions, your early riser may be waking up too early. With some detective work, you’re likely to find the cause. Below are some top early morning culprits to consider.
What causes kids to wake up early?
There are several reasons why children get up uncomfortably early. This includes environment triggers that wake-up kids prematurely as well as factors that make it hard for children to settle back to sleep.
We’ll look at some of the top reasons for early morning wake-ups below starting with the sleep environment.
Your child’s sleep environment matters
Your child’s sleep environment may be the cause of her early start. Factors to consider include: light, noise, and room temperature.
Early morning light can wake kids up. This is especially true in the summer time. For example, where I live the sun starts rising just shy of 5:30 a..m. on the June solstice.
If early morning light is the culprit, use room darkening blinds or curtains. There are a number of low cost options including paper and fabric blinds that are often available at department or home hardware stores. In a pinch, you can even tape garbage bags to the windows, a hack we’ve used when traveling.
Consider any sounds, within or outside the house, that may be prematurely waking up your child. For example, are any of the following true for your home:
- Is a household device or heating/cooling system turning on at an early hour?
- Does a family member or household pet make noise in the wee hours of the morning?
- Does outside noise, such as a garbage truck, disturb your child’s sleep?
Eliminate what noise you can and consider using a white noise machine to help mask the rest.
Significant overnight temperature changes can also prompt early morning wake-ups. For example, our bedroom can get pretty cool at night. We’ve found sleep sacks help keep our kids warm—but not too toasty. These bedtime accessories are safe options for babies and a great blanket alternative for toddlers who may otherwise kick off their covers.
Soggy diapers may be the cause
If wet diapers are waking your child up prematurely, consider changing your little one’s feeding schedule. This may include eliminating some or all overnight feeds when your baby is ready. Many infants are ready for this milestone by 6 months of age.
For toddlers, limit drinks before bed and overnight. Fluid intake is best met during the day.
If excessively wet diapers persist despite changes to feeds and fluids, consider one of the following measures:
- Use super absorbent diapers
- Add an absorbent pad to the diaper
- Consider double diapering
Adding a barrier cream to your child’s bottom can help decrease overnight discomfort from wetness. If you need to change a diaper in the early hours of the morning, do it under low light and with minimal interaction.
Is your child waking up to eat or play?
Children may wake-up early out of habit. For example, if your child is regularly fed at the crack of dawn, his body comes to expect this early morning feed.
In this case, gradually shift your baby’s morning meal later. A 4 a.m. feed can be moved to 4:30 a.m. then 5 a.m. and so forth.
For toddlers, set the earliest time they can eat and stick with it so as not to reinforce an early morning wake-up prompt.
Children are also prone to early morning wake-ups to engage in highly anticipated activities, such as iPad time. I remember as a child struggling out of bed on school mornings but eagerly getting up at the crack of dawn to watch weekend cartoons. Today’s children have a variety of electronic devices to entice them out of bed—and ones that may be more easily accessible than TVs.
Like with meals, set a “no earlier than” time limit on any activities associated with premature morning wake-ups. For example, have a household rule that there no tech time before 7 a.m. And for multiple reasons, keep technology out of kids’ bedrooms.
Need for parental presence
Children can become dependent on a parent to fall back asleep. This is the main reason my kids have struggled with early morning awakenings over the years.
How does this often happen? We end up interacting with our kids. This, in turn, reinforces the wake-up as kids thrive on attention.
For example, your early morning riser ends up in your bed or you in theirs. In the short-term, this arrangement has advantages—in particular, it may allow you to get more sleep! But this approach can quickly backfire if our kids become dependent on our presence to fall back asleep.
When you child wakes up too early, give him the opportunity to settle independently. This will prevent habitual early morning visits, which require more effort to break.
Your child may be short on sleep
It’s a common misconception that early awakenings signal the need for later bedtimes. In actual fact, moving the bedtime earlier rather than later is often the solution, especially for young kids.
Why? Because overtired kids are more likely to wake-up early. And the solution—an earlier bedtime to allow for more sleep.
Start by considering your child’s daily sleep needs. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that 1 to 2-year olds get between 11-14 hours of daily sleep. For a child still napping 1.5 hours a day, that means she’ll need between 9.5-12.5 hours of overnight sleep.
In many cases, children beyond infancy do not sleep more than 11 hours a night. If your child falls into this category, she can achieve her 11 additional hours by going to bed at 7 p.m. and rising at 6 a.m. If the 6 a.m. rising is too early for your liking, consider trying to gradually nudge your child’s bedtime later but not past 8 p.m..
It can take several weeks to see a consistent later morning wake-up. If changing bedtime results in persistent off-kilter naps, bedtime struggles, and/or overnight awakenings, return to the original bedtime schedule.
Other strategies to help early risers sleep longer
We’ve already covered several ways to help our early risers sleep in longer. Here are some additional strategies to help address those premature morning starts.
Don’t rush the crib to bed transition
Unless your child has become a bonafide crib escape artist, stick with a crib until your child is at least 3 years old. It’s much easier (trust me) to address sleep problems—including early morning wake-ups—when kids can’t get out of their sleeping space.
Try a wake-up light or alarm clock
For toddlers and school age kids, try using a wake-up light or clock. Looking for a simple set-up? Attach a dim incandescent light to a timer that turns the light on at bedtime and off at the scheduled wake-up time. During the day, explain to your child that when the light is on, it’s time to sleep. When the light off, it’s time to wake up. If your child wakes up overnight or too early in the morning, point to the light to remind him that it’s still sleeping time.
If your child is able to read numbers, another alternative is a digital clock. To make it easier to read, cover up the minutes and teach your child what hour they can rise.
Set a realistic wake-up time
It’s important to set a realistic wake-up time. You’ll want to base this on your child’s total sleep needs and current wake-up time.
For example, if your child is waking up at 5:30 a.m., it’s not reasonable to suddenly expect him to stay in bed until 7 a.m. Rather, start with the wake-up time close to when your child is currently rising. Then gradually move the rising time later—by 10 to 15 minute intervals—every couple of days.
Give your early riser appropriate play options
Consider giving your child low simulation morning play options. For example, prepare a bucket of quiet play toys that are special for mornings only.
I suggest getting your child involved in preparing the play bin. Have him decorate the bucket and help select toys from a predetermined set of play things. As a rule of thumb, you’ll want the morning toys to be enticing enough to occupy your child but not so enjoyable that he’ll awaken prematurely to play.
It’s also important to ensure a young child’s bedroom is safe for independent play. This includes no dangling cords and furniture secured to the wall.
Consider going to be earlier yourself
It’s important to keep yourself well rested—something easier said than done, I know. If you’re a night owl, like me, you’ll likely have to work hard to get to bed in a timely manner. It’s tempting to tackle your to do list—or simply relax—when the kids are finally in bed.
Over the years, I’ve shifted to an earlier bedtime. While this means less adulting time at night, I’m now able to enjoy my morning coffee—and sometimes even write—before the first child gets up.
More sleep for everyone
Unfortunately, it turns out my eldest was a natural early riser. So, there was no “fix” for those years of early starts. However, the sleep in later techniques shared in this post were helpful with my subsequent two children—and I’m hopeful this will also be the case for my fourth!
There’s no doubt about it—early morning risers are tough. But there is hope.
Start by figuring out whether your child’s early AM start is appropriate based on her age, overall sleep habits, and functioning during the day,
If you detect a problem, then try to figure out the cause. Is something in your child’s environment waking him up? Is he awakening early out of hunger or because he wants to play? Is your child unable to fall back asleep without you present? Is a sleep deficit prompting the early morning start?
You can get your child better rested. And as we all know, a better rested child means a happier household.
I’d love to hear from you!
Does your child struggles with early morning awakenings? What strategies have worked for you?