Early Wakings: What Can I do About them?

This is definitely one of the most common questions I get from parents. Although most of us feel lonely while going through Early Waking stages, I can guarantee you are not alone and it will get better. So let's talk about what can potentially lead to waking up before the sun rises and things we can do to shift this pattern.

First, let's understand why they may have been happening

When I am working with families, the first question I ask is "How long has this been happening?" and the reason I ask this is because I would only make changes around daytime sleep IF this is a solidified pattern. Why? Because everything influences sleep, specially during childhood, so those fluctuations of patterns are still normal if they happen once in a while and are given the time to readjust.

"But aren't you a Sleep Specialist? I thought you had a method to solve my sleep issues!"

I am but I would never stress you into change things around giving you a time frame for improvements that could be happening without changing absolutely anything. I hope this make sense! And taking advantage of this conversation, since this is a question I get often, I don't use methods and I am constantly challenging the set of rules to "fix sleep" every time families work with me. My focus is understanding the relationship, getting curious about all the pieces of the puzzle, instead of giving you a generic step by step plan because someone once said that's how we all should do (aka most baby sleep books). There isn't an equation that can be applied to every family because the variables are always changing, also it is important to remember that waking up early for one family may mean a different thing to other. Studies have shown a difference of 23.4 hours to 24.6 hours in people's circadian rhythms. These individual chronotypes can explain why some people are early birds and other night owls, suggesting that the early birds body clock may be faster than the 24 hours period, while the night owls' work slower than 24 hours having more energy later in the day. As we age, circadian rhythms change, just like everything else in life.

Here are some of the variables contributing to Early Wakings:

  • Sleep Environment Early wakings become more common during the times of the year when the sun rises earlier. If the room is not dark enough, especially for more sensitive people, sleep can get disrupted. Another factor is temperature, since during the early hours of the day our body is usually colder, as well as the environment, which may cause children to wake up. Oh! And the opposite is also true, summer days can disrupt sleep if children overheat. So yes, get curious about these things and investigate.

  • Developmental Milestones Sleep Progressions, Teething, Changes in the child's world (new caregiver, starting daycare, new sibling, a parent traveling, stressful events in the family...) Remember when I mentioned that there are some circumstances when I don't recommend changing anything to improve Early Wakings, or sleep in general, well this is one! My recommendation here is to wait two to three weeks because this is the time it usually takes for things to fall into place on its own (You are welcome!)

  • First Nap of the Day before 8-8:30 am If your little one is older than 6 months and takes at least two naps, this is usually one of the main reasons Early Wakings are happening continuously. My recommendation is to take notes of the time first nap has been happening and try to push it to happen after 8:30 am for at least a week.

  • Sleep Totals When I learned about this concept in 2016, right after trying desperately to fit baby baby into a unrealistic sleep schedule, I felt free of the guilt of not being able to. For months I thought my "child wasn't sleeping the way he was supposed to for brain development" (seriously, have you heard this too? How did you feel about it? Well, I felt pressured and afraid that I was causing my baby to have sleep problems.) So let me explain, in a period of 24 hours human beings have different sleep needs (I do, you do, my children do and yours too. We are ALL different. And our sleep needs may vary from day to day depending on our sensory experiences too.) Let's say your little one needs 13 hours of sleep in a period of 24 hours but 4 of those 13 hours are spent asleep during the day, it is normal to expect that your little one won't need 12 hours of sleep at night, but instead around 9 hours. Doing the math, this means that if your child goes to sleep at around 8 pm, waking up at 5 am correspond to their sleep needs (Isn't it mind blowing? I truly hope this clarifies things for you as much as it did for me years ago)

  • Infrequent or Too Short Naps Ok, so this one is a hard one for me because most often than not it is not the issue. I'm a big fan of catnaps when we are following our children's lead, and for this reason I believe short naps are relative. I am more concerned about not having enough homeostatic sleep pressure for bedtime than children getting overtired (which is not evidence-based because we don't research supporting over-tiredness. Although I must say that my clients do report early wakings when their littles are up for longer than they are used to, or during nap transitions so... again, every single person is different). That's exactly when I need YOU and all your expertise on your child to tell me what you observe. How does your child wake up from short naps (less than 30 minutes ones)? Observe your baby's unique nap patterns.

  • Bedtime is not Optimal for Your Child I know you may be rolling your eyes to this one and you are so right! I agree... Children's sleep is constantly changing. Well, the good news is that if you are open to see what's hidden behind those changes, you won't be so surprised when things shift and change again. So here's what I recommend observing: Is it possible that bedtime is too early these days (considering what I explained above aka Sleep Totals)? Or Do you think the gap between the last nap and bedtime is too long? I am not a fan of asking parents to keep constantly tracking their children sleep because I consider rhythms healthier than by the clock schedules, however here's when I recommend keeping notes.

Here's what you can try combined with a dose of patience and empathy:

  • If Early Wakings have been happening for longer than two to three weeks, start by investigating their sleep totals. Keep track for a week or two before implementing changes, just so you can make sure daytime sleep is not taking away from nighttime sleep and bedtime is not happening way too early for your child's unique sleep needs. Now, if you observed that daytime sleep can be the cause, reduce just 15 minutes at first from the longest nap and wait a couple of days before changing again. Your child's body clock needs time and patience to adjust.

  • Experiment with a shorter window before bedtime for a couple of days (3 days are usually enough to know if this impacts positively or not) and then a longer one.

  • If you noticed that short naps are likely the caused based on what you read above. Try to extend naps by holding you little one a few minutes more, and in this case an early bedtime can to the trick.

  • All right, let's say nothing helped. You can start shifting bedtime 15 minutes later every three nights, but you will also have to move the last nap a bit ahead too. For this last nap, which is usually the hardest one to make it happen, I recommend whatever that helps your little sleep the easier way (motion, car naps, stroller walks, carrier, nursing...) So, you will continue to move bedtime until early waking is resolved and keep it for about 7 days before bringing it earlier 15 minutes every 3 days.

  • Make sure your little one is exposed to natural light during the day and artificial light is reduced by the end of the day (and even then, keep in mind that children tend to be early risers and you are not doing anything wrong)

  • In terms of environment, try to investigate if there aren't noises consistently happening everyday at the time your baby wakes up. In my experience, when both my kids began to wake up at 4 a.m. I found out my neighbor was leaving his house for work at that time (a white noise machine was our solution). Because our homeostatic sleep pressure in on the lower end towards early morning and melatonin is depleted, the sleep drive to go back to sleep is almost none. Also, if you don't have blackout curtains, try to cover the windows as close to pitch black as possible to rule out sunlight during the early hours as being the cause for early wakings.

  • Also, rule out any possible discomfort and if your little one doesn't sleep in the same room, offer a feed, cuddles... Usually this can get you an extra hour or so of sleep during this stage.

  • And my less preferred way to change a possibly habitual early waking (only when you have ruled out all the causes and suggestions above), you can touch you little one a little bit before their usual waking time just so they will move a little bit and start a new sleep cycle right after with you helping them resettle back to sleep. This is something to try but I am the first one to say: it does not work for every child.

I hope this post helps a bit!

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Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I love writing about Sleep, Parenting, Infants & Toddlers and Motherhood. I hope you feel safe, seen and respected here in this space.

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