Modern Parent
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Modern Parent

Overcoming Early Wakes

Tips for solving what is notoriously the hardest sleep problem to solve

We all know the feeling. You’re sleeping peacefully when you are suddenly woken by the sound of your screaming child — at 5:00 AM. You were alarmed the first time this happened and concerned the next few times, but now it’s normal, and all you feel is frustration because you desperately need more sleep. But what can you do? Early wakes are notorious for being the hardest sleep problem there is to solve.

Before we can dive into problem solving mode, we have to determine the cause of the early wake (and confirm that your child is actually waking earlier than he should be and not just earlier than you would like him to).

Let’s start by defining an early wake. With the exception of newborns, all babies, toddlers, and preschoolers need ten to twelve hours of sleep a night. Ideally your child will sleep ten and a half hours or more. So if your child is waking for the day less than ten hours after he fell asleep for the night, it’s an early wake for sure. If your child is waking between the ten and eleven hour mark, he may need more sleep or you may need to adjust your expectations or help him learn to hang out contently in his crib for a while after waking.

There are many factors that contribute to early wakes. Your child could be waking early and crying out for you because of a schedule issue, because he’s overtired, because he’s excited for the first activity of the day, or because morning light and sounds are telling his body that it is time to be awake.

If he is taking nice long naps during the day but then waking early each morning, he may need a schedule adjustment. Good naps typically lead to good nights, but when a child is getting too much daytime sleep it can lead to problems with night wakes or early morning wakes. If you suspect this is the case, you can try shortening his naps or transitioning to fewer naps if appropriate.

Another leading cause of early wakes is an overtired child. It seems backwards, but when kids are feeling too tired they often struggle with a variety of sleep issues. An overtired child will often wake early in the morning, realize that he doesn’t feel well-rested, and start crying instead of trying to fall back asleep. The best way to combat these early wakes is to put him to bed earlier than normal so that he can begin to catch up on sleep and hopefully start sleeping later in the mornings.

Some children wake early in the morning and cry out for a parent because they very much enjoy the first activity of the day and they would rather start that activity than go back to sleep. This is often the case for children who nurse first thing in the morning or get pulled into their parents’ bed to snuggle or watch tv until a more appropriate time to start the day. You can help break this cycle by starting the day with a boring activity like getting up and dressed before nursing or instead of pulling your child into bed with you.

Morning light and sounds are another factor that can contribute to early wakes. By the early morning hours a child has already completed his deeper sleep cycles and is feeling decently well rested, so it is naturally the hardest time for him to fall back asleep. If light is streaming in through his window or he hears the birds chirping outside or a parent getting ready for the day in the next room, it will be nearly impossible for him to fall back asleep. It can be very helpful to use blackout curtains to keep his room super dark and a sound machine to drown out noises from outside of his room.

No matter what factors may be contributing to your child’s early wakes, it’s always a good idea to treat any wake before ten hours of nighttime sleep in the same way that you would treat a wake that occurred earlier in the night. This means that you won’t get your child up and dressed but would instead do whatever you would do if he woke earlier in the night.

It’s also very important that your child has the opportunity to fall back asleep when he experiences an early wake, so be sure to give him a chance to resettle before rushing into his room to start the day.

The most important part of overcoming early wakes is making sure that your child has the ability to fall asleep (and back asleep!) all by himself. If your child is a strong independent sleeper, you should be able to help him overcome early wakes by determining what factors are contributing to his early wakes and making the appropriate changes to help eliminate these factors. It can take a few weeks to correct early wakes, so hang in there and stay consistent.

Emily Lau is a certified sleep consultant who gives tired parents the tools they need to get their young children sleeping through the night. If a full night’s sleep sounds sensational to you, download her free sleep resource bundle and get the rest you’ve been missing.



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Emily Lau

I’m a certified sleep consultant who is on a mission to help little ones and their families get the sleep they need!