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  • Ursula Quinn

Early waking

Babies and children waking too early is probably one of the most common issues that parent’s approach me with. It can be extremely frustrating and tiring for the whole family when a little one is consistently up before the crack of dawn. However, often a few key changes may push those pesky early mornings to a more reasonable hour. So, what is an early wake?

Ok, lets be realistic here. Eleven hours of sleep overnight is average for babies and toddlers. So, if they are asleep at bedtime around 7 or so, then waking up at 6 or after is a reasonable time. If this is too early for you then you will need to establish a later daily routine and bedtime.

If your baby is going down to sleep at bedtime at approximately 7pm but waking prior to 6am then I would suggest asking yourself the following questions:

1. Is your child getting enough sleep during the day? Are the naps long enough and are they happening at balanced times over the course of the day? Most babies younger than 14 months need a morning and an afternoon nap. Babies beyond 14 months are often transitioning (or have transitioned) to one nap which should sit pretty much in the middle of the day.

2. Is bedtime too late and/or is the window between the end of the last nap and bedtime too long? Babies under 8 months usually do well with no more than 3 hours of awake time before bed. Beyond 8 months it starts to get closer to 4 hours and what surprises some parents is that this 4-hour wake window often doesn’t really lengthen much until well beyond 18 months of age. You may need to adjust the timing of your naps to keep this last wake window on track.

3. Is your baby comfortable falling asleep independently? This is key. If your baby relies on your help or presence to fall asleep at bedtime, then they may well need you again during the night. Some babies will stay asleep all the way until 4 or 5am (when sleep becomes lighter) and then wake and look for you. Unfortunately for many babies, once the night is almost done, they find it hard to go back to sleep, especially if they have seen and interacted with a parent. Then, yikes! you have an early wake-up.

4. Is there something external or environmental that is waking your child during the wee hours? Are they perhaps too cool or too warm? Is daylight starting to creep into their room? Are the binmen trundling by and creating noise outside?

5. Are you reinforcing the early wake up? Think about what you do when your child wakes at this time. What kind of message are you giving? You may be bringing your child into your bed or taking them downstairs to watch cartoons. This will encourage the same behaviour to continue. The key, while challenging, is to have one message for overnight wake ups (including the early morning ones). Its dark, it’s quiet, it’s time to stay in your bed and go back to sleep. But, here’s a key point, always work on point 3 above to encourage your child’s ability to fall asleep without your support before attempting making changes at 5am.

6. Is your child getting too much sleep during the day? Yes, this can happen too. Most commonly I see this with 2 year old children and older. Their total sleep needs can drop quite a bit at this age and some little people will continue to nap for the same length of time but will start to have shorter nights. If you suspect that this might be the case, then experiment with shortening the nap a little (start with 30 minutes) to see if that helps.

7. Other factors to consider are; hunger (particularly for younger babies), developmental leaps (usually a phase of early wakes) or teething (which also usually only last a week or so).

A final word to say is that early waking can be a stubborn issue. If a child’s body clock has become a set to wake early, then it can take time to see results. You will need to be consistent and patient and that is hard at 5am.

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