3 Ways You’re Reinforcing Your Child’s Early Morning Wakings

baby waking early circadian rhythm early morning waking sleep environment sleep pressure toddler sleep Nov 15, 2022
3 Ways You’re Reinforcing Your Child’s Early Morning Wakings

Early morning wakings can be exhausting, especially when they linger on for weeks and months AND if your little one already isn’t sleeping well at night. If your little one is waking up every morning before 6 am, you are not alone! These early mornings are common, and thankfully, possible to troubleshoot. 

Waking earlier than usual (or earlier than ideal) is normal, but can often be caused by simple things like their room not being dark enough, they’re waking up hungry, or they don’t have enough sleep pressure and they’re merely just not tired enough to keep sleeping. 

But sometimes there are some lesser-known behaviors that we, as parents, are doing to reinforce these early morning wakings and cause them to continue longer than they normally would - without even knowing it!

Reasons Your Child Could Be Having Early Morning Wakings

It may be time to drop a nap.

Naps can be tough. They are constantly fluctuating and changing for babies in the first 12 months of their life, and it can be hard to know when to transition down in the number of naps your baby is taking. Should you keep things the way they are? Should you push your baby’s wake window a little?

Here are a few reasons why you might want to consider dropping a nap:

  • Your baby takes 30 minutes (or more) to fall asleep.
  • Your baby keeps waking in the night, sometimes for hours, and is usually not upset. They simply just can’t fall back to sleep!
  • Your baby’s last nap of the day keeps shifting bedtime later by more than 30-60 minutes.
  • Your baby is suddenly taking 30-minute catnaps when normally they sleep for at least an hour.

Most of those signs also apply to our toddlers in terms of when they may be ready to shift down to just one nap a day and eventually drop napping altogether. This can definitely be a cause of early wakings for toddlers - they are just getting TOO much sleep and their naps need to be earlier in the day, shorter, or need to stop completely. 

They may be going to bed too late. 

A bedtime that is too late can cause an overtired baby or toddler, and overtired children don’t sleep well. The best way to try to avoid this is to do your best to implement a consistent bedtime each night to help the body get into a rhythm of when they go down for the night and wake in the morning. This can be up to 30 minutes earlier or later each night depending on how they napped and the tired cues they’re showing you, but as close to the same time each night is the goal.  

With babies, you also want to pay close attention to their age-appropriate wake windows and EARLY tired cues throughout the day. Timing is key! When used together (in combination with an eat-play-sleep schedule), wake windows and knowing your baby’s specific tired cues are the key to avoiding an overtired baby and helping to get them down to bed more easily.

CLICK HERE to download my FREE Sleep Tips, which has a chart of all my recommended wake windows by age, as well as tired cues to watch for. 

Their room isn’t dark enough. 

The darker, the better! Any light that is peeking in could stimulate awake time, causing your child to fully wake during sleep cycles during naps or early in the evening rather than falling back to sleep. The same goes for morning light! Exposure to light shifts our circadian rhythms and suppresses our natural melatonin [1]. If your little one is exposed to light too early in the morning, their circadian rhythm can actually be reset to begin naturally waking at that earlier time. This is why I ALWAYS recommend using blackout curtains where babies and toddlers are sleeping, if possible. 

Check out this blog to learn more about circadian rhythm and ways you can help adjust it if needed!

Ways a Parent Can Accidentally Reinforce Early Morning Wakings 

  1. Feeding a baby the moment they wake up.

Of course, your baby is going to be hungry when they wake up! But, feeding them as soon as they open their eyes can teach them to link waking up with being fed instantly, and often leads to the issue persisting. Instead, try waiting 5-10 minutes after they wake up to feed them. Or, if they seem super hungry and fussy, simply changing their diaper before you feed them is a great way to separate the feed from the waking by just a minute or so. For toddlers, make sure they had a nice full tummy before going down for the night since they are not having middle-of-the-night feeds any longer. All of their calories should be given throughout the day and we don’t want them waking early in the morning with grumbling tummies!

2. Helping your child get back to sleep. 

I know it’s tempting to help your baby fall back to sleep with something like rocking them or offering them their pacifier (or laying in their bed with them, if they’re a toddler) when it’s early in the morning and we just want the fastest path to success (aka us going back to sleep, too!). But, this can actually reinforce your little one waking for that “prop” (i.e. The pacifier, rocking, etc.) the more times you offer it. If your baby isn’t upset when they wake up, try leaving them in their sleep space without interfering to allow them to fall back to sleep on their own. Even if they just lay there quietly or cooing, they are still in “rest mode” and this can give them an opportunity to naturally dose back off.  If your baby is upset when they wake up and you want them to sleep longer, I recommend attempting to get them to fall back to sleep without taking them out of the bassinet or crib. This could be with patting, shushing, gently jiggling their bodies, etc. 

If your child is a toddler, I recommend implementing something like an “ok to wake” clock where a light turns on when it’s officially morning and they are able to leave their bed. This takes practice, but toddlers have the understanding over time for allowing this to work. You can read more about these types of tips in my blog post about toddler readiness to transition to a crib. The tips in that blog apply to early morning wakings as well. 

And if you’re struggling with helping your toddler learn to sleep through the night, stay in their room, and fall asleep independently at bedtime, check out my Toddler Sleep Guide!

3. Doing something “exciting.”

I say it all the time, but babies and toddlers get used to what they’re introduced to! Doing something exciting, like bringing them into your bed, or letting them start the day that early and going into the living room to watch a show, as examples, is going to reinforce them waking up before you’re ready to open your own eyes. Because, hey…this is fun! When I wake up, I get to do that thing - or maybe something new! These are learned, and then reinforced behaviors. It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong or bad, by any means. It just means that your behavior is reinforcing a behavior you are trying to stop - which is the opposite effect of what you want. This is why setting boundaries, having a plan, and being consistent are the most important elements of troubleshooting any child's sleep issue. It will take some time and a plan to get it turned around, but it’s absolutely possible if that’s what you want! 

Are you currently doing any of these things? I know it’s easy to think that these things don’t make a difference, but if you are struggling with this, try making adjustments to the behaviors listed above for at least a week to see if your little one starts sleeping in later than usual! Small tweaks can lead to big changes and to see these changes, it takes time and consistency. Nothing is going to change in one day. Keep going!

If you find yourself still struggling with your little one’s sleep, please know that you are not alone and that I am here to help. Download one of my comprehensive sleep guides or check out my 1-on-1 email support package for personalized troubleshooting guidance.



[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6751071/ 

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