Do you have an early morning riser?

What to do when your early morning riser doesn't come with a snooze button

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Early risers are tough! This is especially true if you’re a night owl or your child is sleeping poorly overnight.  My first child rose like clockwork at 530am.  Finally, around 3 years of age she graced us with a 6am wake-up. When you’re a sleep deprived parent, even 30 minutes of extra shut-eye helps. 

It’s not uncommon for young children to wake up well-rested between 530-630am.  By a couple of months of age, your child’s biological sleep rhythms are becoming more mature, prompting this physiologic early-rising. Although it’s great to know your child is making developmental progress, the early mornings are hard for most parents to stomach.

 

How do I know if my child's wake-up time is too early?

To better determine if your child’s wake-up time is appropriate, it’s helpful to take a broader look at his sleep. Key questions to ask include the following:

1.     Does your child wake up spontaneously and appear well-rested?

2.     Does your child function well during the day without appearing sleepy?

3.     Is your child on a regular sleep schedule?

4.     Is bedtime occurring at an age-appropriate time?

5.     Is your child having multiple overnight awakenings?

If your child has a regular sleep schedule, sleeps soundly overnight, and wakes up after 530 am well-rested, chances are he is waking-up at an appropriate time. However, if your answer is “no” to one or more of the above questions, your child may be awakening prematurely. With some detective work, you’re likely to find the cause. Below are some possible culprits to consider.

 

Environmental factors

Something in your child’s sleep environment may be prompting her early morning waking.  For example, light, noise, temperature, and excessively wet diapers can all be factors. Early morning light can be addressed with room darkening blinds or curtains, white noise can help drown out sounds, and regulating the room temperature will help keep the sleeping environment pleasant. If your child has excessively wet diapers, consider making changes to her overnight feeding schedule. Many babies can sleep through the night without feeds by 6 months although breastfed babies may meet this milestone closer to 9 months of age. For older children, avoid excessive fluid consumption before bed and overnight. Fluid intake in this age group is best met during the day. If excessively wet diapers persist despite changes to feeds and fluids, consider using super absorbent diapers, adding an absorbent pad to the diaper, or double diapering. Putting a barrier cream on your child’s bottom is another strategy worth considering, to help decrease overnight discomfort from wetness. If you need to change a diaper in the early hours of the morning, do it with minimal interaction. 

Habits and anticipation

Children may wake-up early out of habit.  For example, a child who has a meal in the early morning hours may awaken early because of hunger.  Although his body may not require food at 5am, he has likely become accustomed to eating at that time. If this is the case, gradually shift your child’s meal to later in the morning. A highly anticipated activity, such as using electronics can also be enough to pull children out of bed prematurely. I remember as a child struggling out of bed on school mornings but eagerly getting up at the crack of dawn on weekends to watch cartoons! If this is the case, considering introducing less stimulating morning activities to your child’s morning routine.

Sleep associations

Sleep associations refer to a certain set of conditions that must be met in order to fall asleep. Common examples in infants include the need for breastfeeding, rocking, or a pacifier for baby to go to sleep. Even adults have sleep associations such as requiring a certain pillow or duvet weight in order to drift into dream land. Sleep associations are often at the heart of many sleep issues including early morning awakenings. For example, it is not uncommon for early risers to end up in their parents’ bed. In the short-term, allowing early morning visitors may seem like a survival strategy, giving sleep-weary parents extra sleep. However, this approach can quickly backfire when your child becomes reliant on your presence to fall back asleep. Even children who remain in their own rooms can become reliant on their parents' presence to fall back asleep. Try giving your child the opportunity to settle if he stirs early in the morning rather than rushing in to help. Ultimately, children with sleep associations need help learning self-soothe skills, a process often referred to as “sleep training”. 

Sleep deficit

Overtired children are more likely to be wound-up at bedtime, have trouble settling, wake-up overnight, and rise early. A common misconception among parents is that early awakenings are best treated by a later bedtime. In actual fact, moving the bedtime earlier rather than later is often the solution. 

Considering your child’s daily sleep needs will help you better determine whether a later bedtime might help. For example, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that 1-2-year olds get between 11-14 hours of daily sleep. For a child still napping 2 hours a day, this means she will need between 9 and 12 hours of overnight sleep. In many cases, children beyond infancy do not sleep more than 11 hours a night. Assuming this is the case for this child, she can achieve her 11 additional hours by going to bed at 7pm and rising at 6am. If a 6am rising is too early for her parents' liking, they could consider trying to gradually nudge her bedtime forward. However, she should be asleep no later than 8pm. It can take several weeks to see a later wake-up emerge and shifting the schedule can backfire in the form of off-kilter naps, bedtime struggles, and overnight awakenings. If this is the case, it makes sense to return to the original scheduling. 

Additional reasons

If the change to early morning risings is sudden or relatively new, it is also worth considering illness or a developmental milestone (e.g., earning to crawl, language leap).  In these cases, expect to see other evidence to support these possibilities.  In both instances, if the early morning awakenings have not settled down within one to two weeks, it's time to consider other contributing factors.

 

Strategies to help parents get more sleep

When faced with a well-rested early riser, there are a number of strategies that can buy parents some additional sleep. In addition to the tips provided above, consider the following:

1.     Don’t switch your child from a crib to bed until she is at least 3 years of age.  It is much easier to establish good sleep habits and avoid early morning visitors when your child is crib-bound.

2.     Consider a wake-up light or clock to signify an acceptable rising time.  A simple way to do this is to set up a dim light with a timer such that the light goes on at bedtime and off at the scheduled wake-up time.  If your child wakes up overnight or too early in the morning, point to the light as an indication that it is not wake-up time yet.  There are a number of clocks available for purchase that undergo a colour change to signify wake-up time.  Examples include the “Gro-Clock” and the “Onaroo OK To Wake Children’s Alarm Clock”.  If your child is able to read numbers, another alternative is a digital clock. Covering up the minutes with duct tape and having your child only read the hour can make it easier to decipher. When setting the wake-up time be realistic.  You’ll want to base the rising time on your child’s total sleep needs and current wake-up time. For example, if your child is waking up at 530am, it is unreasonable to suddenly expect him to stay in bed until 7am.  Rather, start with the wake-up time close to what your child is currently doing.  Give him lots of praise for staying in bed until this time then gradually move the time later every couple of days.

3.     Provide children with a bucket of quiet, minimally stimulating toys that are special for mornings only. Get your child involved in this process including decorating the bucket and helping select the toys. You will want the toys to be enticing enough to occupy your child but not so enticing that she will awaken prematurely to play. You’ll also want to ensure your child’s bedroom is safe for independent play. Older children can be taught to organize morning activities and even prepare a simple breakfast for themselves. 

4.     Reward charts may help get things started. A simple sticker chart with an inexpensive bigger reward after a predetermined number of successes may help with this process. I personally like to make my rewards system based on special time with a parent or as a family. Similar to the toy bucket, it is helpful to get your child involved in setting up the reward system.  The more child involvement, the higher likelihood she'll buy into the system.

5.     Consider going to bed earlier yourself. I know this is easier said than done! I’m always tempted to “burn the midnight oil" after my kids go to bed. There always seems to be an endless list of things to do - as well as the enticement of relaxing time by myself or with my partner. However, I often pay for this indulgence the next morning when 6am rolls around.

 

For more sleep tips, please check out my other blog posts at www.jenniferborst.com/new-blog and follow me on Facebook @jenniferborstsleep and Instagram at @heartofwhatmatters.  Wishing you restful sleep!