Up with the dawn: What to do if your child regularly starts their day at 5am or earlier
If your child regularly starts their day at 5am or earlier, it can wear out the entire family. Sleep expert Lucy Wolfe suggests ways to tackle early rising
Waking too soon to start the day can be a viscous cycle and one that can affect almost any age range. There are certain cause factors that generally need to be addressed and there are also some instances when the early rising represents something else that may be going on with your child.
Early rising proper is when your child routinely wakes before 6am to start the day. Many parents describe their child who wakes at 6am or 6.30am as an early riser, but typically that is an acceptable wake time for a young child, albeit too early for some of us adults. If this is your child, no intervention is actually required, you just may need to go to bed earlier yourself, in order to be fit to parent early-doors.
A true early rising dynamic is demonstrated by routinely waking before 6am to start the day - normally anything from 4-5am, without any notion of returning to sleep. If this sounds familiar and it has been ongoing for at least 4-6 weeks (years for many of you), then we would consider this suitable for interventions and adjustments that can help reverse the early morning wake club subscription.
Some points to be mindful of - waking early out of the blue having routinely slept later than 6am, when you have had no other changes such as travel or nap transitions, may represent teething, a developmental stage or sickness brewing. No action is required here, except to provide a reassuring response, pain medication under the guidance of your GP and patience; understanding that as soon as the phase passes, then the early waking will resolve itself and your previous, late sleep will re-emerge, so try not to panic.
Also, there would be a small percentage of children who are pre-disposed to be early starters, by way of genetics, and if this is the case, generally one of the parents will be similar. In this instance it's a case of trying to live with it as best as you can.
Either way, understanding why your child may be awake early is the first part to resolving the issue, so let's examine the root causes.
1Rule out hunger Waking early can sometimes be due to the fact that your child hasn't eaten or had something to drink for 9-10 hours. Providing a milk feed here can sometimes help your child return to sleep if hunger is an issue, but providing a feed here can sometimes ingrain the waking as your child becomes conditioned to expect feeding at this early phase in the morning.
Establishing night-time feeding needs can be tricky territory and varies for each child. Primarily your task is to ensure enough to eat and drink by day and that your last solid feed is a meat protein (when age relevant), and carbohydrate-based meal. This can help to keep your child feel fuller longer. However, be cautious about stacking up the calories before bedtime as this can often undermine rather than improve your child's sleep tendencies. Together with your health care professional, understand how much milk and solid food is required for your child's age and proceed on that basis.
If you are concerned that providing a feed at 5am is fuelling the early cycle but at the same time worried about hunger, trial a dream feed around 3-4am and if your child still wakes at 5am then it is not necessarily hunger related.
2Use darkness to your advantage Around 4-5am your child will start to commence the final sleep phase. It is the hardest one to complete as their sleep tank is largely filled, and as a result often small things encourage an early wake. Even the smallest sliver of light entering the room from either the hallway or over the top of the blinds can stimulate the waking part of the brain and send a signal that it's time to get up, when it's not. Somehow, isolate any light sources that may be contributing to this and while you're at it, make sure that there are no other disturbances in the household at this vulnerable time - someone else getting up for work, the dog next door barking, heating clicking on. Even though they're small, the chances of these activities signalling it's wake time is high, so be mindful and proactive whenever possible.
3the final feed Avoid the final milk feed too close to sleep time. If your child is six months plus and routinely waking early then it is possible that the milk feed at bedtime is increasing the risk of your child not being able to get through the 5am sleep cycle. If your child is either too sleepy or asleep on the milk feed at bedtime this enables the process of going asleep with ease, but can disable the ability to pass through their natural sleep phases and the final phase is the most vulnerable phase of them all. Bedtime is the easiest time; so consider re-positioning the last milk feed before bedtime 45 minutes-1 hour before your child will be asleep in order to decrease the risk and enhance the chance of sleeping to 6am and maybe even later.
4timing it right Work on getting not only enough daytime sleep, but also on making sure that the timing of the daytime sleep and its relationship with bedtime is supporting consolidated sleep and not encouraging interrupted or short sleep durations. I mentioned a vicious cycle earlier as that is exactly what early waking is - your child wakes early, is tired too soon by day because he's awake early, is overtired at bedtime because daytime sleep is over too soon.
Depending on what naps your child needs, this is age dependent, and it can be helpful to observe the following to combat early starts:
• No naps initially before 8am and then quite quickly no naps before 9-9.30am.
• Final naps depending on age to be over by 5pm (under 8 months) and over by as close to 3-3.30pm (8 months-3 years) as possible. This can mean delaying the second nap (8 months+) to 1.30pm and a single nap (18 months+) to 1pm in order to observe these suggested dynamics.
• Practise smaller wake periods before bedtime (worry less about the ones early in the day). The nap gap dynamic before bedtime causes a large share of sleep challenges including early waking - observe not more than 2 hours between final nap and bedtime under 8 months and not more than 4 hours from 8 months-18 months. Observe no greater than 4-4.5 hours ages 18 months+.
5day and night Finally, it's important that as you make the adjustments outlined that you then treat any waking before 6am as night-time and have a predictable response. Unfortunately, even just occasional bed sharing, drinks, TV, phones or iPad use all dig the early wake hole deeper and ideally you would only support your child at this time, even if at the start it seems unlikely that they will go back to sleep. By treating this wake with precision, along with the other changes, then it will typically take 3-4 weeks for you to start seeing 6am+ on your bedside alarm clock.
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant, Author of 'The Baby Sleep Solution', creator of 'Sleep Through' a natural Body and Bed Sleep Spray and Relaxing Rub, and mum of four children. She runs a private sleep consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country.
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