When a baby wakes early in the morning, it can set the tone for a long day for the family. Let’s start by defining early morning waking. If your baby wakes between 4-6am and is ready to start the day, this is definitely baby waking up too early. Waking anytime before 4am is considered a night waking. Generally, it is common for 6-7am to be the hour many babies naturally wake for the day.
Is Baby Waking Up Too Early?
Early morning wakings are more challenging for babies than night wakings because the sleep pressure is lower. As the night progresses and a baby wakes sometime after 4am but before 6am and has been sleeping since 7pm, your baby has likely slept about 9 hours. That is great, but the ideal target is closer to 11-12 hours for night time sleep. Just as adults sometimes struggle with falling back to sleep after waking in the same 4-6am timeframe so do babies. The difference is we know it is too early to start our day, but the babies don’t know that. Here are some questions to ask to determine why your baby is waking early in the morning and how you might coach her to break that cycle.
1. Is it too bright in your baby’s room?
Particularly with the recent changing of the clocks and Summer months arriving, there is more sunlight between 4-6am than during the Winter months. Sunlight creeping in around shades can signal to a baby it is morning since the room is brighter than it was during the night. Babies associate light with awake time. If your baby is struggling with early morning waking and you can go into her room and see your hand in front of your face then it may just be too bright and could be the cause of her starting her day so early. A quick fix can be to grab some suction cup black out shades to affix to the nursery windows. Pairing the black out shades with curtains to help any brightness from peeking around the edges may be all you need to do to solve this early morning issue for your baby.
2. Is your baby’s bedtime too late?
I know it seems contradictory, but often pushing a bedtime slightly earlier can make a huge impact on resolving early morning wakings. It may be that the wake window before your baby goes to bed is too long, so she is starting her night overtired and waking early. Try playing with bedtime and adjusting it back by 15 minutes each night until the early mornings start to be less of a problem. Additionally, if your baby has a bedtime closer to 8pm because you are shooting for a 7-8am wake up time, you may be setting an unrealistic goal. Most babies’ sleep rhythms align with starting their day between 6-7am. Life happens and your baby may have an occasional bedtime of 8pm. However, the most ideal bedtime window is between 7-8pm. Keep reading for suggested wake windows for the last segment of your baby’s day leading into bedtime.
3. Is the first nap too early?
If your baby wakes early and you’re starting her day at 5am, for example, she might start showing cues she is ready for sleep before her appropriate wake window. Of course you read those cues and transition her to a nap. Unfortunately, providing that early nap before a full wake window has passed can reinforce an early wake up pattern and your baby’s body will treat this nap as an extension of night sleep. A way to break this habit, and ultimately the early wake pattern, is to support your baby in stretching that first wake window to fall within her normal range. It won’t happen all at once. To keep your baby awake a bit longer, try stretching the wake window 15 minutes longer every few days, until she is starting her first nap within an expected wake window. Below are suggested wake window ranges.
0-4 weeks old: 35-60 minutes
4-12 weeks old: 60-90 minutes
3-4 months old: 75-120 minutes
5-7 months old: 2-3 hours
7-10 months old: 2.5-3.5 hours
11-14 months old: 3-4 hours
14-24 months old: 4-6 hours
4. Is your baby getting the right amount of daytime sleep?
As I mentioned above, heading into bedtime with an overtired baby who did not get enough daytime sleep can lead to early morning wakings. If your baby is getting too much daytime sleep, this can also be a cause. Babies have a range of total suggested sleep in a 24 hour period that lessens as they get older. A newborn sleeps more in a 24 hour period than she is awake. As your baby gets older, you will notice her sleep needs change. You should still encourage her to sleep 10-12 hours at night, so daytime is where her sleep needs start to diminish.
After the newborn stage, a good rule of thumb to follow is to gently wake your baby if she is napping longer than 2 hours. By doing this, it will prevent her from too many daytime sleep hours, ensure she is eating enough calories during the day to minimize overnight feedings, and allow for a rhythm to develop around her wake windows and nap times. Below are suggested totals for daytime sleep.
Newborn: Total sleep in 24 hour period is 16-18 hours / varied nap schedule
3-4 months old: 5 hours daytime sleep (4 naps)
5-7 months old: 4 hours daytime sleep (3-4 naps)
7-10 months old: 3.5 hours daytime sleep (2-3 naps)
11-24 months old: 3 hours daytime sleep (1-2 naps)
5. Is your baby hungry?
Sometimes offering a feeding seems like a quick fix in the early morning hours, but by providing that feeding, you may be reinforcing the early morning wake up. Look at your baby’s entire calorie intake for her day. If your baby is hungry in the early morning hours, I am not suggesting you don’t feed her. Try to increase her calories during the day to minimize the chances she is waking from hunger between 4-6am.
As much as possible, try to offer your baby a full feeding every 3 hours throughout the day. By using an every 3 hour feeding cycle, your baby will get one more feeding session a day than using a 4 hour routine. If your baby is waking up too early, you may also try offering an additional ounce in each daytime bottle. To help meet increased calorie demands, you can also add one more nursing session into the day or add solids to your baby’s diet with your pediatrician’s approval.
If you don’t think your baby is waking due to hunger but is accepting the feeding for soothing purposes, think about other ways you can respond that won’t reinforce the early morning waking. Often the best approach in this case is responding the same way you would if your baby had woken in the middle of the night. This reinforces the message that it is still night time and encourages your baby to go back to sleep. Keep it dark, quiet, and all business during an early morning wake up.
6. Is your baby too drowsy or asleep when you put her to bed?
If your baby needs caregiver support to get to sleep at bedtime, she likely struggles to put herself back to sleep when she wakes during the night and in the early morning hours. You may notice that as the night progresses it is increasingly harder for your baby to independently sleep. This is a result of her sleep pressure becoming lower as she meets her sleep needs through the night. She may fight the transition back to the crib more and more as her awareness level increases. If you would like support and ideas around encouraging and supporting independent sleep habits for your baby, reach out to Boston Baby Nurse & Nanny for a virtual or in person sleep consultation.
Early morning wake ups are very common. Evaluating what might be the cause or causes for your baby’s early start is the first step, adjust patterns as needed, and see how your baby responds. It may not happen immediately, but with consistency, you should start seeing your baby sleeping through those early morning hours and waking at a more appropriate time for her…and you! In addition to Boston Baby Nurse & Nanny’s sleep coaching services, we have an online class for parents and caregivers: Sleep Coaching 101.
About The Author
Courtney Poirier is a veteran Newborn Care Expert with Boston Baby Nurse & Nanny. She has many years of experience with sleep conditioning and coaching in daycare & home settings. Prior to working with babies, she was an elementary school teacher. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and their two sons. One is seven years old and the other is nine years old.