You hear your babe. You look at the monitor. She’s sitting up. Wide awake. You look at the daunting time on the clock…..5:00am. “and it begins again…” you say to yourself.
A baby’s natural morning wake-up time is between 6:00-8:00am. A child who rises earlier than this is considered an early riser, and a child who rises later than this is considered a late riser. If Baby consistently starts her day at 5:00am, her schedule will constantly be shifted earlier, meaning earlier naps and a constant early bedtime. This pattern becomes a cycle of early mornings and extremely early bedtimes. Her whole day will get thrown off balance. I’m a sucker for the early bedtime, but they have a time and a place. We don’t want to get stuck in the habit of having a 5:30pm bedtime every day.
If your child is waking earlier than 6:00am, I suggest leaving him/her in her crib/bed until 6:00am every day. If you go in to your child earlier than 6:00am (say 5:30am) and get her up to start her day, she will learn that 5:30am is an acceptable time to get up. Your child might even start waking up earlier and earlier as she will learn she gets to enjoy your company! Smart little things! You want to treat early wakings as you would any other night waking. You wouldn’t get your child up to start their day at 3:00am just because they are awake, so we want to make sure we are sending the same, clear, consistent message every day and that is “6:00am is the earliest we start our day!” The key here is being consistent 100% of the time. Only go into Baby’s room at this set time, it can take a couple of weeks for this to click, so be patient!
The biggest issue that working parents run into with regards to an early bedtime is they don’t get to spend much (if any) time with their children after work. My answer is this- you can only do the best you can. There are likely some ways you can eliminate or reduce your after work tasks such as preparing meals differently (think slow cooker), bathing your child in the morning rather than at night, perhaps your nanny or daycare can provide dinner to your child. It’s a tough situation, but if your child (and you) are getting healthy, restorative sleep, you will have more quality time together during their waking hours. Yes, Mom or Dad might not get to see their child when they get home if the child needs an early bed time during nap transitions or has had a crummy nap that day, but your child will be in a much better mood the next morning, which is another time for you guys to hang out.
There are a few ways to teach your child to sleep later in the morning to reach that 6:00am mark.
1. Move bedtime earlier. OK I know you are saying “ummmmm what?” It’s counter-intuitive, but often a child will sleep later in the morning if they go to bed earlier at night. Dr. Marc Weissbluth has a saying, it is “sleep is not logical, it is biological”. The most common cause for waking up too early is a too-late bedtime. An early bedtime allows your child to go to sleep before they become overtired, which in turn promotes more sleep. Sleep begets sleep. An overtired child has a harder time going to sleep and staying asleep compared to a well-rested child. Start by taking 15 minutes off bedtime for 3 or 4 days. See if this helps (it likely will). If it does, take another 15 minutes off for another 3-4 days. Keep repeating this process until you find that sweet spot where Baby is still falling asleep within 15-30 minutes of going to bed.
2. Ensure your baby’s bedroom is conducive to sleep. You want to ensure it is dark for both naps and night sleep. Living in Northern Alberta, summers basically stay light 24 hours a day- which can be a disaster for late bedtimes and early wake ups. Blackout blinds are a must! A dark environment will ensure your baby produces melatonin (the sleepy hormone which is responsible for helping the body control sleep/wake cycles). Sleep is the lightest between 4-6am and if the room is starting to get lighter around this time, it will be darn near impossible to fall back asleep. Use a white noise machine or a fan (which doubles as protection from SIDS) to block out external noise. If you live on a busy street, the last thing you want is for a fire truck to be blasting its sirens at 5:30am which will wake up Babe.
3. Ensure your child is falling asleep independently. Give Baby ample opportunities to learn to self-soothe. If Baby only knows how to fall asleep by being rocked by Mom or Dad, she will expect that every time she wakes up at night. Babies cycle through their sleep cycles twice as often as adults do, resulting in twice as many partial arousals. If Baby needs Mom or Dad each time to fall back asleep, Mom and Dad will become sleep walking zombies. As I mentioned earlier, sleep is the lightest between 4-6am and if Baby relies on props (bottle, paci, mom rocking) then she will expect that when she wakes up as it will be even harder for her to put herself back to sleep on her own at this time. In turn, a baby who can fall asleep independently will be able to put himself back to sleep when he wakes (which all babies do throughout the night)
4. If your baby is getting the minimum required hours of sleep in a 24 hour period, try pushing bedtime later. Early bedtimes are great during nap transitions and on days when naps aren’t ideal, but we don’t want to get stuck with a constant early bedtime. This will have a direct impact on early mornings IF baby is getting enough sleep.
So, how do you know what time bedtime should be? I don’t suggest using a set bedtime on the clock; instead it should be based it on the quality of sleep your child gets that day. On days when naps are solid, your child will be able to stay awake a bit later that night. On days when naps are crummy or missed, a super early bedtime is a must. Stay tuned for my next blog post which will be on age-appropriate bedtimes.
Lindsey Hennigar is founder of The Sleep Ranch and a Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant through the Family Sleep Institute. She helps exhausted parents and families get the healthy, restorative sleep they need. Your child can LOVE sleep!