How Do You Stop Early Morning Waking?

How Do You Stop Early Morning Waking? This is probably one of the top three questions I get asked by parents. Unfortunately it’s not one I have a positive answer to, but don’t let that put you off reading the rest of this post!

You see early morning waking is the human biological norm. We are meant to wake with the rising of the sun, just as we are meant to go to sleep shortly after it sets. The problem is that we, as adults, just don’t do that any more. Our sleep is abnormal. Our circadian rhythms bear little resemblance to what is truly biologically normal for our species. Modern day inventions have allowed us to create artificially light evenings and artificially dark mornings. We stay up far later than our predecessors who relied solely on moon, star and fire light to brighten their nights. Modern electric lighting, with its blue tinged wavelength, tricks our bodies into believing it is still daylight long after the sun has set. Our bodies secrete cortisol in an effort to stay awake and alert. When we do finally retire to bed we cover windows with blackout blinds and thick lined curtains, keeping the early morning sunlight at bay for as long as possible and so too allowing melatonin secretion to continue so that we can repeatedly hit the snooze button on our alarms. Pre-children, non work days commonly start at nine, ten or even eleven am. This modern-day adult sleep pattern is abnormal.

Babies and toddlers bedtimes are far more in sync with sunset and so too their wakings are far more linked to sunrise. Mornings commonly start at some point between five and six am. This is normal. This is how we, as adults, should sleep and have done for many hundreds of years. The problem most adults have is that their child’s normal sleeping habits are at odds with their abnormal ones. The most simplest answer to the question “how do you stop early morning waking” is simply “when your child learns and adopts your abnormal sleep patterns”. Commonly that takes until they are around four years old.

There is another point to consider here that rests once again on adult expectations. Many expect (hope?) that their children will go to bed at seven pm and wake at seven am. For many however twelve hours sleep per night is just too much sleep. An individual baby or a toddler has a fairly unique set sleep requirement per twenty-four hours. Some may need only eleven hours, others may need eighteen. Both of these are within the realms of normality. A twelve month old baby, who has a two hour long nap in the day and who only needs eleven hours sleep in a twenty-four hour period, will only need nine hours sleep per night. If said baby goes to sleep at  seven pm, it is fair to expect that they will be ready to start the day at four am. They simply won’t go back to sleep because they are not tired. They have fulfilled their sleep need. A twelve month old baby (with similar nap timings) who needs fourteen hours sleep in a twenty-four hour period will wake at seven am. All babies are different. Charts and tables provide only educated estimates, if your child naturally needs less sleep per day then you have two options: continue to put them to bed at seven pm and accept the early morning waking. or adjust their bedtime to a more natural sleep time of around eight thirty pm in the hopes of the waking reaching nearer to six am. As a general rule, it is fairly unrealistic to expect a baby or toddler to sleep much past six am whatever time they go to bed.

Image courtesy of The National Sleep Foundation
Image courtesy of The National Sleep Foundation

Other Tips That May Help Early Morning Waking:

  1. Expose your child to as much daylight as possible during the day, keeping naps in natural light (no blinds closed or sleep shades on prams or car seats for daytime naps). Conversely keep nights as dark as possible. Be aware of the lighting used at night – see THIS post for more.
  2. Use blackout blinds in the bedroom overnight in an attempt to keep the early mornings as dark as possible. Cover any nooks and crannies with stick on fabric or film.
  3. Try to slowly and gently move your child’s naps later in the day if they are prone to nap early in the morning, with the earliest nap (if they have more than one) not being earlier than ten am. This can help shift the circadian rhythm a little towards a later bedtime and later wake time.
  4. Encourage your child to come into bed with you early in the morning (following safe sleeping guidelines) for sleepy snuggles and feeds which may encourage them go back to sleep again or allow you to drift in and out of sleep for an extra half an hour.
  5. Aim for a bedtime of not earlier than eight pm, in the hopes that your child’s sleep needs will be fulfilled at a later time in the morning.
  6. Consider dropping a nap during the day, or at least don’t encourage them to go back to sleep after the end of a sleep cycle (40-60 minutes depending on age).
  7. Keep the early morning interactions quiet, calm and as boring as possible. For toddlers try telling them “it’s still time to sleep now” and encourage them to lay down and snuggle a comforter or toy and listen to a relaxation CD.
  8. Make a visual cue for older toddlers and preschoolers. Get a cheap plastic ‘school’ clock (the type you find in offices or schools, something like THIS) dismantle and colour in sections to represent night and day. For instance one half of the clock yellow with a big smiley sun and the other half blue with a smiling moon. Explain to your child why we sleep at night and that when the clock is still in the moon section it is still night-time. Make it clear that they can come to you/you will come to them whenever they need you. The clock is to *only* be used as a visual guide to show them night and day, at no point should they be made to stay in bed if the clock isn’t in the ‘day’ section. Not only is this significantly cheaper than the myriad of ‘sleep training’ clocks on the market importantly it also avoids the coloured lights these devices all have which unfortunately almost always focus on colours that are known to inhibit sleep (such as blue), making their use counter-productive.
  9. Embrace the early mornings. This is hard to do (I have been there four times!) but ultimately I think it’s the most successful way to handle early mornings. Go to bed early yourself and get up with your child. Appreciate how beautiful the sunrise is and the quietness (or bird song) of the very early mornings. This is a wonderful time to get things done too, especially if there are two parents at home, the extra pair of hands may mean that you may have some free time to prepare dinner for that evening (slow cookers are great!), do any jobs that need doing or get some exercise in (such as an early morning run).
  10. Remember ‘This too will pass’. Because it will………Each day may feel like an eternity, but in the grand scheme of your life, two or three years of crazy early mornings really is only a very short percentage. All too soon your child will inherit your abnormal sleep patterns and the tables will soon turn in the teenage years when you are unable to get them out of bed until midday.


The NEWLY UPDATED Gentle Sleep Book – out now! If you would like to understand and learn how to improve your baby, toddler, or pre-schooler’s sleep WITHOUT cry-based conventional sleep training, this is the book for you!


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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