They say the early bird catches the worm, but the early rising child just catches everyone off guard and makes them a bit sleep deprived for the rest of the day.
An early wake up can have a knock on effect for the whole family. If there are siblings who are also woken, you may then be faced with two sleepy children instead of just the one - while also having to deal with your own tiredness.
So believe me, I know early rising anguish is real and its effects can ripple throughout the whole household for the whole day. But there are things you can do to combat it, so take a deep breath, take a read and hopefully start saying goodbye to those 5am wake ups.
Morning larks vs night owls
Firstly, it goes without saying, when we have a baby we have to learn to accept a degree of early rising. This is mainly due to what is referred to as their biological chronotype.
Generally, babies are naturally morning larks and will rise early. In our teenage years we all shift towards a more night owl rhythm (hence why you can’t get a teenager out of their bed early), before shifting back towards a more lark rhythm in adulthood.
But we all have a tendency towards a consolidated stretch of sleep with a preference either earlier (lark) or later (owl) in the evening.
So you can see straight off the bat, if you're flitting around like a born lark, your baby’s natural tendency to wake early may not be so hard for you to deal with - you’d be getting up earlier in the morning than your owl counterpart regardless.
But if you lean towards being a natural night owl, then a clash in chronotype can occur.
Matthew Walker’s brilliant book: ‘Why we sleep’ explains:
Morning types make up about 40% of the population.
30% are made up of evening types.
The remaining 30% lie somewhere in the middle.
Based on these stats, it makes sense a large chunk of the population will be struggling with their child's early rising, purely based on a clash of chronotypes.
In this instance, we then have to consider, is it an actual child sleep problem you’re experiencing, or is there a clash of the birds going on?
If this is the case and in order to get more sleep, you might need to think about shifting your natural circadian rhythm a bit to align with that of your child's - effectively, being a bit less owl and a bit more lark.
So try going to bed earlier every few nights in 15 minute increments until you have shifted your bedtime to a more reasonable time. The hope is that by getting a longer consolidated stretch of sleep at a time more akin to that of your child’s, you won’t struggle so much with a lack of sleep when they inevitably rise early.
My 5 steps to shifting early rising
So we’ve established your child is probably going to wake early and your best bet is to embrace this by trying to align your body clock with theirs.
But there’s early and there’s EARLY. So if you ask me, anything with a six in it is pretty much fair game, given a child’s tendency for early rising. But anything with a five in, especially in the winter, can feel like the middle of the night.
But there are things we can do to manipulate the variables which affect your child’s body clock which can be the cause of early rising, namely:
When they eat
So below are my 5 steps to help influence your littles ones body clock and hopefully shift those early wake-ups.
Step 1 - Review bedtime
A little bit of trial and error is needed to see what works, as frustratingly both a too early bedtime and a too late bedtime can be the causes of early rising.
If your child goes to bed too late they can crash into sleep, messing with the sleep architecture leading to an earlier wake up. However, don’t drastically shift the bedtime, as there is only so much sleep they can achieve in a 24 hour period - shifting too early may ultimately mean they still wake early. Only play this game if you think your child isn’t achieving enough nighttime sleep in total.
If they go to bed too early, as I just explained, there is only so much sleep they can achieve in a 24 hour period, so it may just be they have had all they can achieve and are ready to start the day. If so, try shifting bedtime a little later, in 15 minute increments, to see if this alters the waking time. You’ll need to play with the timings to see if you can find that sweet sleepy spot.
Step 2 - Look at nap timings
Make sure they are taking any age appropriate naps that sit somewhere in the middle of the awake window. Here the balancing act is real people. You neither want a nap too soon after waking so they have a long awake period before bedtime, or too long after waking so they are cranky going into the nap, and also do not have a long enough time awake before bedtime. I’ll let you digest that for a bit - but for more on naps see my previous blog.
Step 3 - Think about light exposure
Expose your little one to as much natural daylight as possible, if you’re outside getting fresh air and running around you get all the added bonuses of that too. I know this can be hard in the winter on dreary days, if this is the case then keep the lights on brightly during the day to help.
If you’re finding it hard to keep them awake in the evening and they’re falling asleep very early, you can try keeping the lights on brightly until about an hour before their bedtime routine starts. That’s because most people will fall asleep about two hours after their melatonin (sleepy hormone) begins to rise - which we know is linked to light exposure.
Light in the morning
Firstly, if you don't have a blackout blind, now might be the time to invest in one, just in case a slither of light (especially in the summer) coming into the room is the cause of an early wake up.
I know it can be tempting to stick the TV on when they wake early so you might be able to squeeze in a bit more sleep yourself, but you may find they continue to wake early just for what they view as the treat of watching TV.
Instead, keep it dark when they wake and then do what is known in the trade as a ‘dramatic wake-up’. This helps teach that we wake because of environmental cues such as daylight.
So here’s what you need to do. Go in when they wake early and comfort and sit with them in the dark, nice and calm and quiet. Do this for as long as is sustainable, maybe just aim for 15 minutes the first time while they get used to the concept. Then try and shift it in increments each morning until you reach the optimal time you’re aiming for.
Each time you are ready to get up, open the curtains, switch on the lights and announce that it’s morning and NOW is the time to get up. Make is dramatic as you like - hence the dramatic wake-up! The idea is to make the time you switch the lights on and the time the day starts later and later.
Step 4 - Try putting socks on!
I know this seems like a strange one, but stick with me. There's research to suggest that feet regulate your core body temperature. The core body temperature drops in the early hours of the morning, it's often subtle, but may be enough to trigger an early wake up. So keeping their toes warm could just be the answer - it's worth a try at least!
While you're thinking about body temperature, make sure you dress your child in 100% cotton layers - this is especially important in summer when you want your child to be able to lose heat faster if they become hot, rather than sweating and becoming insulated by synthetic fibers. You don't want them being uncomfortable to be the cause of any early rising.
Step 5 - Keep meal times consistent
Our circadian rhythm is affected by eating times. So as part of this process try and keep breakfast at the same time and don't be tempted to give it early. Our body clock works on a cellular level and will get hungry at similar times. We want to eliminate any possibility that part of the process of waking early is because their little tummy is hungry and used to getting breakfast early. You could try adjusting the breakfast time with the shift in time of the dramatic wake up, as I know it might be hard not giving breakfast to a hungry grumpy child.
Bonus tip: If your child is older and you can trust them, you could try leaving out some quiet toys or activities, or even the breakfast bits to make their own cereal. Explain to them they can get out of bed and play with these quietly until it is time for you to get up.
Let’s quickly talk about THAT famous sleep training clock
I’m not knocking the idea of this blue and yellow clock, for some kiddies I know it can work really well. Unfortunately, however, it emits a blue light which messes with melatonin (that sleepy hormone I keep banging on about). So probably best avoided.
A neat trick instead is to buy a digital clock which emits a red light (which doesn’t mess with anything) and try and teach your little one the number six and tell them not to get out of bed until they see that.
I hope these tips are useful and that you see an improvement with those early wake-ups as a result. As ever, if your sleep situation has become unsustainable and you would like some 1:1 support with these steps to tackle early wake-ups, or you have something else you would like to discuss, then please do get it touch and book your free 15 minute introductory call. Or in the meantime, head over to my Instagram page for all my latest free help and tips.