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Early Rising, the Pain Point of Sleep Struggles

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

Is your baby’s internal alarm clock set at 5 am Every.Single.Morning?

Early mornings seem to be the most common problem that most of my clients face, but just why is this so common… well a simple explanation may be that because their sleep drive between 4-6 am is so low that your little one easily wakes.


Sleep drive is related to the sleep pressure babies experience when they are ready for a nap or nighttime sleep. That is why falling asleep at night is much easier than at nap time, as the sleep drive is so strong. Come the early mornings and that sleep drive is no longer as strong as it was at the start of the night. As adults, we have learnt to be able to put ourselves back to sleep in the early hours of the morning even when we wake often during those times, a baby, on the other hand, may not be so skilled… yet.

It is important to understand that as a sleep consultant, an early morning rising is considered to be anything between 4-6 am, any wakes before this is considered night sleep but anything past 6 am is considered completely normal and a baby is able to start their day as early as 6 am…. The point here though is do you?... it’s ok if you don’t and there is nothing wrong with teaching your little one to sleep until your desired wake up time, one that suits you and your family’s lifestyle.

What causes early rising?

A small but powerful phenomenon called Zeitgebers- these are “a natural rhythmically occurring phenomenon which acts as a cue in the regulation of the body’s circadian rhythms”. Zeitgebers are made up of three elements:

  • Food

  • Light and

  • Social interaction

so let’s address each individually…

Light

You will hear me mention a dark room more times than I can count, why? Well, sneaky morning sunlight that creeps through the windows in the early mornings gives your baby’s brain the signal that it’s time to wake up. Maintaining a really dark room will help prevent this and help your little one to stay asleep for longer. This goes for night lights too, even the smallest amount of light will signal your baby’s body to wake so if you using a night light under the age of 2.5 years, you may want to switch it off and see if this helps address the issue of early rising. Consider using Sleepy Sunday as an affective way to block out unwanted light.

Food

For older babies a feed between 4-6 am is enough to cause early rising, their body wakes seeking the wonderful comfort of some warm milk and suddenly this is all they can think about and so they call out but then refuse to go back to sleep after.

Social Interaction

When your baby wakes and you go to them (now I’m talking about when they just awake and playing or babbling and you go to them to try to settle them back to sleep), your social interaction disrupts the process and they get stimulated enough to refuse going back to sleep. When you offering a feed at this time to an older baby this also constitutes as social interaction.

But early rising is not just affected by Zeitgeber’s, no there is more to it!


1. Bedtime is too late

Parents are always baffled by this explanation for early rising, but the truth is a baby/child that goes to bed too late/overtired will continuously wake early. The misconception that the later they go to bed, the later they will sleep in is certainly not true. If you are putting your baby to bed a little too late consider offering an early bedtime for a while, earlier does not mean hours earlier but even a 30-45 minutes earlier could have a massive impact!

2. Morning nap is too early

A nap that starts before 9 am can firmly reinforce early rising as it becomes an extension of your baby’s night sleep. They learn not to sleep any later because they know they will receive a nap as early as 8:30 am.

3. Morning nap is too long

Similarly, to the morning nap being too early, a morning nap that is too long will continue to reinforce early rising as their circadian rhythm wants to rise earlier and earlier to be tired enough for the long morning nap. Try shortening this nap to no more than one hour.

4. Too much day sleep

Are you letting your little one sleep to their heart's content throughout the day? Did you know that this adversely affects your early rising?


All babies have a certain number of hours of sleep they require each day, the number of hours they need gets less and less the older they get. If, for example, your little one’s age-appropriate total hours of sleep in a 24 hour period amounts to 14.5 hours, 12 hours night sleep and 2,5 hours day sleep, and you are allowing them to sleep for 5 hours in the day, their bodies only now require 9.5 hrs of sleep. In effect, your little one will wake and simply not be tired anymore. It’s important to adjust your nap routine so that your little one is sleeping only for the amount that is required. Perhaps one of their naps is too long, or are they old enough to drop a nap?