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Let's Say Goodbye to Early Morning Wakings

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Welcome to the show notes! Below, you'll find links mentioned in this episode

1. Schedule a free call to see if a sleep consultation with Lauren is right for your family

2. Link to all the details on baby sleep schedules

 

If you prefer to read rather than listen, I totally get it! Below, you'll find the transcript for this episode: 


Hey! I'm Lauren Garmon, your friendly pediatric sleep consultant. Welcome to the growing great sleepers Podcast. I am so glad that you are here. My joy is helping you solve your child's sleep struggles. Because sleep is not just a want, it is a need. I strongly believe that every family deserves good sleep.


On today's episode, we're going to discuss a topic that affects almost every parent of young children at some point: early morning wakings. If those have not been a struggle for you, go do a happy dance because that is completely awesome and is not the norm.


Alright, first things first. I needed to define what I mean by early morning wakings. I'm talking about those wakings between 4am and 6am. Anything before 4am counts as a night waking and anything after 6am is considered a normal time to wake for the day. Also, it is important to know that I'm not talking about if your baby is waking up between 4am and 6am for a feeding and going back to sleep. If that is working for you, that is not a problem and there is nothing we need to change. I'm talking about babies waking up between 4am - 6am and not just for feeding. They are up and ready to start the day; they're not interested in falling back to sleep.


I know, I know, you heard me say 4:00 am - 6:00 am. And that 6:00am counts as a normal time to start the day. I get it. I'm right there with you! In my perfect world, the day would not start until 8:30 am. But I'm all about realistic expectations here at Growing Great Sleepers. When it comes to babies and toddlers, unfortunately, that reality is usually 6:00 am to 7:30 am is when they're ready to start their day. That is just how their little bodies are wired and there's not a lot we can do about that.


Now, some babies will naturally sleep later than 7:30 am. If that is you: go do a happy dance! That is not the norm. It is awesome that is working for you. All right, you heard me say that 6:00 am to 7:30 am is considered the normal time for your baby to start the day. But what if you would like to help your baby wake up later, say 745? Or 8:00 am or even 8:30 am? Is that possible?


My honest answer is this: maybe. You can definitely try using the tips I'm about to talk about and see if they help your baby sleep a little bit later. But, I have to be honest with you, and I need you to have realistic expectations and know that it may work and it may not work. It's difficult to move the time that your baby is biologically programmed to wake. The 6:00 am wake ups can be tough. Hang in there, I get it! Know that one day your baby eventually will start sleeping later. One day you'll be dragging a teenager out of bed at 10 o'clock. I promise!


It's also important for me to note that I'm not talking about newborns. I'm talking specifically about babies four months and older. It's very normal and expected for newborns to wake several times during the night including the early morning. It just comes with the territory of having a newborn. You're certainly welcome to listen to these tips and you may find some of them useful. Just know that early morning wakings are normal with newborns.


My first tip is this: (and this is where I always start when I'm talking about building a solid sleep foundations when I'm working with families one on one) how dark is your child's room? If early wakings are a struggle in your house, the next time your child wakes early I want you to do something: go into your child's room and sit on the floor long enough for your eyes to adjust. What do you see? Take a look around and see if you can see anything. I'm talking the light coming in through the windows, pictures on the walls, the stray toy on the floor. If you can, then I want you to put 'making the room darker' onto your to do list. Your goal is to have the room dark enough that you can't see your hand waving in front of your face.


While light creeping in does not typically cause early morning wakings, it can do two things. First, when your baby wakes early, the brain sees the light and thinks "Light! It must be time to get up." After enough days of seeing that light early in the morning, it can cause your child's brain to lock into that early waking cycle and actually reset their circadian rhythm to think that's when they're supposed to wake for the day.


Second, your baby has gotten the bulk of the sleep they need at night by that 4:00 am - 6:00 am window and the drive to fall back asleep is nowhere near as strong as it was in the first part of the night even though your baby most likely still needs more sleep. So, when your baby does wake up for whatever reason, they see the light and it just makes it really difficult to fall back asleep. They just don't feel that need to fall back to sleep. This is why darkness can be really helpful: the brain doesn't see light so it doesn't get the message that "it is morning time!" and the darkness also makes it easier for your child to fall back asleep.


So, step one is to head into your child's room and check out what the light situation is like. It's easy for us as parents to assume that "Oh, my child's room... of course it's dark." But, go check it out for yourself; see what it is really like. Pro Tip: do it on a sunny day because it's naturally going to be darker on a rainy one and you won't get the true picture of how light or dark your child's room is. Now, quick note here: it is okay for toddlers to use a nightlight. I am not anti-nightlight at all and my oldest child uses one!


But, I do strongly recommend using red or amber light instead of a traditional white light. The white light can negatively affect melatonin production which can impact sleep. So that's number one. How bright is your child's room?

Number two is sound. If you use white noise, this is probably not going to be your problem. If you don’t use white noise though, check out what is going on in your house and outside during the early waking. Do your neighbor’s dogs always bark? Is a parent up getting ready and making noise in the kitchen? It may be as simple as the fridge starts making noise. Remember, this is the part of the night when it is hardest to return to sleep.

 

If you have followed me on Instagram or my blog for any length of time, you know that none of us sleep through the night. We have these little micro wakings sprinkled between sleep cycles. You and I are just really good at going back to sleep so they are no big deal. Babies and toddlers are often fully woken during that early morning period if there is anything going on in their environment that makes going back to sleep difficult. Noise is one of those things. 

So, if you don’t use white noise, I highly recommend adding it. The guidelines are you want a low, constant, rumbly noise between 50-60 decibels. 


Number three is being overtired. This is a big one! And I know it sounds crazy; shouldn't tired babies sleep in? Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way with young children. One thing I've seen over and over again is parents keeping the child up late in hopes that they will sleep in later as well. This almost always will backfire.


The old saying really is true: sleep begets sleep. Most babies and toddlers need 11 to 12 hours of sleep at night. So, it's simple, right? Put baby to bed 12 hours before you want them to wake in the morning. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work that way. Again, due to biology. Just like most babies do best waking up between 6:00 am and 7:30 am, most babies do best going to bed between about 6:00 pm and 7:30 pm. When children are overtired, their bodies fight against sleep. Once they do fall asleep, unfortunately those 'stay awake' hormones don't just go away; particularly the cortisol. It sticks around and can result in fragmented sleep during the night and early morning wakings. The primary reason I see for babies and toddlers being overtired is that the gap between nap and bedtime is too long. You don't want to listen to me spout a bunch of numbers, so go look in the show notes after this episode, and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about with a recommended gap between nap and bedtime for each age.


If you suspect bedtime is too late, I want you to do this: move it earlier by 15 to 30 minutes. For five to six nights, keep a log of the time your child fell asleep and the time they woke in the morning. If you don't see any change: the next week move bedtime 15 to 30 minutes even earlier. This may put you at a 6:00 pm or 6:30 p, bedtime and that is okay! It feels weird, but it is okay.


Keep another log that second week. Typically after two or so weeks, you will start to see a change and those early mornings will move a bit later and a bit later. The earlier bedtime is providing your baby with more sleep, which will often push their morning waking later.


If it doesn't and you aren't seeing any change. Then it is time to go the opposite direction: you can move bedtime a little bit later. Again, go back to where bedtime was originally. Then, go later by 15 or 30 minutes for a week. See if anything happens!


Sometimes, and this brings us to number four. Sometimes, babies are under tired. This is the complete opposite of what we were just talking about with overtired. Being overtired is very common. Being unretired is not nearly as common. But, sometimes babies gets so much sleep during the day that come early morning they simply can't sleep any longer. They're tapping out on how much their body can sleep in 24 hours.


If it has been about two months, since you last adjusted your child's nap schedule, this may be the culprit that you've been looking for. Before 12 months, babies need an average of about 12 to 15 hours of sleep a day. between one and two years, they need 11 to 14 hours. And between three and five years of age they need 10 to 13 hours a day. So what sometimes happens is that a child takes really great naps and also wakes really early in the morning. Why? They simply hit their sleep ceiling in that 4:00 am - 6:00 am window and can't sleep anymore. The fix here is usually capping one or more naps and reducing the amount of daytime sleep. Do this in small 10 to 15 minute increments every few days to avoid accidentally creating another problem by removing too much daytime sleep and creating an overtired baby.


This takes us to step five: wonky nap times. If you have been struggling with early morning wakings, I'm going to guess that your baby's first nap starts between 6:00 am and 7:00 am. All right. This is tricky. Your baby is sleepy because, well of course, they woke up super early.


But, offering these early naps actually helps keep that cycle of early morning. wakings going for two reasons. One, your baby is treating it as an extension of nighttime sleep. Baby, she simply woke up, had a little bit of fun and then went back to sleep for the rest of the night. The second reason is that early naps tend to bring the entire rest of the day earlier, including bedtime. This can result in early bedtime, early waking spiral.


The fix here is to not put your baby down for the first nap before 8:00 am. You may have to work up to this in increments, but make 8:00 am your goal. And then 8:30 am potentially 9:00 am depending on your baby. To help you move that nap later, you can offer snacks, play outside, use a fun musical toy, anything to help your baby stay awake just a little bit longer and move the nap later.


Alright, so this takes us to tip six. Tip six is to avoid offering "the thing" right away. What do I mean by "the thing"? "The thing" is, whatever it is that your baby most looks forward to in the morning. Remember, your baby can't tell time. Babies don't know the difference between 4:00 am and 8:00 am. When you come get them and start their morning routine, they assume it's time to get up.


If you've been getting your baby when they wake in that early hour, this is what I want you to do: look at exactly what you are doing when you get your baby. Are you nursing right away? Turning on the TV to their favorite show? Offering their favorite breakfast? Now, I am not at all saying that the early waking is your fault; because that's the truth. It's not! But, sometimes our actions can accidentally encourage early waking. If right, after waking your child, they're getting the thing that they really look forward to well, it can start to play a role in the waking because they look forward to it. This is what I want you to do when you get your child: put about 10 to 15 minutes of space between getting them and "the thing". Do a diaper change take off their jammies, read a book, play with a quiet toy, anything to create separation between waking up and "the thing" to make them two separate events in your baby's mind.

 
This piggybacks with tip number seven: choose and stick to a morning time. Make a deal with yourself that morning does not start before 6:00 am. This means baby stays in bed, the lights stay off, it is the nighttime environment until 6:00 am. Eventually, baby's wakeup will creep later and later. Now, some babies will be perfectly happy to talk to themselves until you come in and others will not. This means you may be able to start waiting until 6:00 am right away. Or, you may have to work up to it in 10 to 15 increments every three to four days. Also, this tip will typically not work on its own to solve early morning wakings. There will usually be another factor at play that you will need to address as well. But, if you keep going into your child and getting them up, when they wake before 6:00 am, their brain will just start to think hey, this is what time the day starts. This is when I'm supposed to wake up. So that is why you really want to make a hard and fast rule that "in our house, the day does not start before 6:00 in the morning"


This takes us to our last tip: look for sleep associations. If you help your child fall asleep at bedtime in any way: nursing, rocking, laying next to them; they will not be able to fall back asleep during that early morning waking without whatever it is that you did at bedtime to help them fall asleep.

So, this is where you will want to start if you want to stop early morning wakings and your child currently has a sleep association that involves you. I do still want you to go through the previous seven tips and see if any of them are applicable for your child as addressing those will help. But ultimately, you will need to address a sleep association if you want to solve the early morning wakings. There are multiple ways to help your baby learn a new way of falling asleep and that is beyond what we have time to talk about today.


So, what if you're listening to this and you're thinking, yeah, Lauren, we've tried all the things. The room is pitch black, we've got white noise, we have a consistent schedule and my baby still wakes crazy early. There are a small minority of babies who are just ready to start the day in the five o'clock hour and thrive on that schedule. If that is you hang in there it will eventually change. But most babies are not natural five acres and can eventually be coaxed to sleep a little bit later.

Early morning wakings are one of the trickiest problems we see in the baby sleep world. There are usually multiple factors at play and depending on the cause, it can take a good two to three weeks to see change. If you're exhausted and would like professional help, head to the show notes to grab the link to my calendar to book a free call and see a formal consultation is right for you. Or you can send an email to me at [email protected] To sum up today: there are eight things I want you to look at if you are struggling with early morning wakings.


Number one: how dark is the room? Number two: are you using white noise to help block any external environmental noise. Number three: is your baby overtired? Is bedtime too late? Is there too big of a gap between nap and bedtime? Number four: is your baby under tired? Are they getting too much sleep during the daytime? Number five: wonky nap times. Have you been offering a nap before 8:00 am? Number six: "the thing". Put a little bit of space between waking up in the morning and getting "the thing". Number seven: the day does not start before 6:00 am. Number eight: sleep associations. If your baby falls asleep with your assistance at bedtime, your baby will have a really really difficult time going back to sleep during that 4:00 am - 6:00 am period without your assistance. So it's time to think about "Hey, do we need to change our baby falls asleep at bedtime?" Early morning. wakings are tricky, but they're not impossible to solve.


Once you know the cause of the waking you can then work with your child to solve the waking. If you found this episode helpful, I would love it if you would head to iTunes and leave a review or wherever you listen to podcasts. Until next time, happy sleeping from Lauren, your pediatric sleep consultant

Are you ready to make sleep a thing at your house, but feel stuck or unsure how? Working with parents 1-1 to take the stress out of baby and toddler sleep is my joy.

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