These are one of the most common sleep problems I deal with. From newborns through to toddlers & children this often affects all age groups at some point in time. A baby / toddler that sleeps all night but starts the day at 5am is actually missing up to 2 hours of night sleep and will be just as exhausted as a baby / toddler who wakes multiple times at night. These are not phases and if dealt with incorrectly they can reinforce an early wake up for many years to come.
'My baby is just an early riser' is something that many people tell themselves that is not necessarily true, an early riser is actually a baby / toddler that wakes at 6am not 4/5am and is quite rare to find, most little ones need to sleep until at least 7am.
Reasons for waking early
Babies / toddlers enter their lightest phase of sleep around 4/5am so any of the below factors will cause them to wake up. Because their sleep at this time is lighter, it is then harder for them to go back to sleep.
This one is particularly common at this time of year when the sun comes up earlier then normal. It is so important to make the room dark, this is for both night sleep and daytime naps. Use blackout blinds / curtains or even tin foil to get it pitch black. Children do not get scared of the dark until closer to age 3 so a night light is not needed until then.
Sudden wakes at this time can be hunger, if your baby is under 9 months and you have previously not been giving a night feed you may need to try one now before 5am to get them through to 7am. Babies have growth spurts which can make them more hungry for a short period of time. If you haven't introduced solids yet and baby is around 6 months it may be time to start, if they are on solids already and eating well increase protein at lunchtime.
3. Social interaction
This is especially true of toddlers but even babies 6 months and older will think it is time to get up if they see you at this early hour. Don't go in unless you really need to, if you do, make it brief and then leave again. Do this consistently for 3 weeks to see a difference.
Because babies and toddlers come into a lighter sleep at this time they will wake if they are too cold or too hot, much the same as we do. Ensuring they are adequately dressed for room temperature is key. Check the back of their necks to see how warm they are, ideal temperature for a room is between 18-20c and most sleep bags give an ideal tog rating for the relevant season / room temperature.
This can be inside or outside the home. If they hear something before 4/5am they will likely not wake up or if they do they will go back to sleep. The difference at 4/5am is they are in their lightest sleep phase and so a noise at this time will wake them fully and it could take them 40 minutes to return to sleep.
5. Overtired or Undertired
If baby is overtired, going to bed too late or having too little day sleep this will cause a build up of cortisol by the early hours which will wake them and make it harder for them to get back to sleep.
If baby / toddler is having too much day sleep (especially from that first morning nap) this will be teaching them to keep waking early as it doesn't matter because they will catch up at the next nap.
What to do about it?
Can they self settle? This is key, if they can put themselves to sleep at the start of the night then they will be able to do so when they wake in the early hours. If however, they rely on something to get them to sleep like a dummy or feed for example then they will need that at this early morning wake. You will need to do some sleep training to teach them how to self settle in order to get rid of this wake up.
Day Sleep - Babies and toddlers all need a certain amount of day sleep that varies depending on age. Making sure your baby is napping at the correct times and for the correct duration helps get them to bedtime when they are genuinely tired and not overtired.
The solution unfortunately isn't simple, and there is no one size fits all either. The good news is, there are definitely things you can do to get rid of that early wake but it won't be quick or easy. If you have checked off the above sleep hygiene factors then it looks like you have a genuine early morning habit wake that needs to be broken. It can take 3 weeks to break a habit of any kind and being consistent for these few weeks will make a difference.
The best thing to do is not to get them up until 7am, regardless of whether they go back to sleep or not. This is part of teaching their brains that morning time is when mum / dad gets me up. Often parents will think 'well he isnt going to go back to sleep now, he is wide awake and crying so I will just get him up' even if they are wide awake you would be surprised how they can get sleepy again after 40 mins. Even if they only have 15 mins between the 5am wake and 7am that then helps you out for the morning nap, which for babies 4 months plus only needs to be short (hour or less).
For toddlers and children in big beds who get up themselves, if you do not encourage them to return to bed, let them stay up, shout at them, give them attention it will just continue. There needs to be a consistent approach with real consequences.
This is a tricky habit to break, especially in Summer months when mornings are bright, you have other children who then get woken up and since it's so close to 7am anyway you just accept this is the wake up time and this is how life is. I am here to tell you it really doesn't have to be like that, your whole family can and should be able to start the day at 6/7am, possibly even later once they get older.
This is something I've had huge success helping people to achieve, many of whom never thought it was possible and were actually shocked after just 2/3 weeks that this wake up disappeared. Please get in touch to see how I can help you do the same at www.asleepatlast.co.uk or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.