This is such a common question for parents. Perhaps after hard work and perseverance, night times are now smooth sailing and bedtime has become a breeze. But regardless, your toddler continues or has even started to wake earlier and earlier each morning. Firstly, in your household, where do you draw the line between what is a night time wake up and what time is an early morning wake up? Here at The Family Sleep Practice, we count any wake up before 6am as a night time wake up. As such, a wake up before 6am needs addressing in order to maintain everyone’s sanity and ability to go about their day happily. It’s easy to feel at a loss over how to solve the early morning wake ups, and in the meantime, no doubt you and your partner are feeling utterly fed up and exhausted!
Lets keep things simple and go through the list below- you can use it as a checklist to troubleshoot the early wake ups.
✏️ It’s always important to rule out any external/environmental details that might be causing the wake up. These might be:
A recurring noise around that time. Think milk man, heating/hot water coming on, birds roosting etc.
Light creeping into the room. The room should be too dark to pick out objects in the room or see a waving hand
Might your child be too cold/hot?
Hunger. What time was their last food. Might a later supper or a light snack before bed be needed?
✏️ Take a look at your child’s overall sleep durations over a 24 hour period. Are your expectations fair? Do they have appropriate nap times? Early morning waking can be an indicator that the child isn’t having enough sleep generally or it can be an indicator that they’re having too much sleep and are ready to drop a nap. (See my sleep durations blog for further information). I find that sometimes families are expecting their child to spend too long in their cot over night. For example, if they go to bed at 6.30pm, it is entirely reasonable that they might be ready to wake up at 5.30am. Most babies and toddlers will need between 11-12 hours sleep a night. So if you put them to bed before 7pm, they may well wake before 6am.
✏️ Does your toddler have a clear signal to know when night time is over and day time has begun? It’s very normal to wake between sleep cycles and towards the end of the night our sleep is lighter, making wake ups more likely. As such, if your toddler wakes at the end of a sleep cycle and thinks it’s nearly morning time, they might be unlikely to go back to sleep. Sometimes at this point the toddler will ‘clock watch’ their clock if they have something like a Gro clock with moons reducing towards the end of the night. I far prefer the use of a table lamp on a timer switch instead. It is such a simple way to make clear to your toddler whether it’s night time or not. For example, over night the light is off- the room is pitch black and it is clearly night time. No distractions, no clocks to watch. At 6am (or the time you’ve chosen) the light comes on. Easy for your child to understand that it is now day time and they are free to get up/start playing/look at books etc.
✏️ What is your response to your child when they wake early? Is it consistent? Understandably with early morning wake ups we can be quite inconsistent in our responses. For example some mornings you might be very grumpy and send your toddler straight back to bed and ignore them for a while. Other times you might get into bed with them to try and get them back to sleep. Other times you might think ‘oh I may as well get up and have coffee’! The problem with this is that intermittent (inconsistent) responses make it more likely that the event will happen again. In psychology this is known as intermittent reward. Where you are able to give a consistent and unrewarding response, your child is far less likely to repeat the behaviour. E.g. keeping them in their room with little and boring interaction at every early wake up is likely to reduce the wake ups. The other thing to consider in your response, is that when you put the lights on and the tv on, you are actually signalling to your child’s brain that this is the time the day begins and therefore reinforces their body clock to wake again at the same early time. Where possible, keeping your child in as much of a dark environment until morning time is going to help a lot with this. If you have a strategy you use to get your child to sleep or back to sleep, use this same strategy with early wake ups. That way you will be offering an un-rewarding, consistent response.
✏️ A final issue that can contribute to early morning wake ups is where a toddler has been moved out of their cot into a bed. Sometimes parents have done this hoping that it will resolve early morning wake ups! If your child’s bedroom has some natural light in it (or access to light!), has toys in it and they can now freely get in and out of bed, this can be enough to yield early morning wake ups! As adults, we get close to that where we stir in the early hours, roll over and then decide to check our phones instead of going back to sleep. What can you do to remove any of these things? E.g. could you make the room any darker? Remove the toys from the room? Postpone the move from cot to bed?
If you feel you’ve addressed/considered this checklist, then perhaps you need some help with the early wake ups. In a consultation with us, we will be able to offer you some gentle, effective strategies that will help your toddler learn to stay in bed until an appropriate time. Feel free to get in touch to discuss how we can help you. You can call us on 07811 868058 or email on email@example.com or contact us through the website. You can be sure you’ll receive friendly, non-judgemental, evidence based support!