Early morning wakings are one of the most common sleep challenges for families with young children.
In most cases, the answer is as simple as it is counter-intuitive: move bedtime earlier.
When human beings are overtired, our bodies produce a stress hormone, cortisol. And in the children, the effect of cortisol is increased energy (also known as the second wind that happens before bedtime), more difficulty falling asleep, more night wakings, and earlier morning wakings.
In other words, making the overtiredness issue even worse.
Parents always ask me, “but won’t putting her to bed earlier make her wake up earlier?”
I understand your fear but no, if the issue is overtiredness, your child will end up sleeping longer with an earlier bedtime. Because you are nipping her over tiredness in the bud.
Of course, if your child is waking up too early for some reason other than overtiredness, an earlier bedtime won’t help.
But overtiredness is the most likely culprit. So give that a shot before trying anything else.
And in the meantime, if you haven’t put up blackout shades in your child’s room yet, or don’t have white noise, go ahead and make those happen at the same time. Early morning light and/or early morning noise (garbage trucks, barking dogs, crowing roosters if you live in Mexico) are another common cause of early morning wakings.
Some children respond even to light leaking around the edges of blackout shades so consider addressing that, too. It can’t hurt and it might help!
There is the occasional “genetically early riser.” These children generally wake between 5-6 am and usually have family members who are lifelong members of the Early Bird Club, also.
That said, first, these children are few and far between and two, these children still get more sleep with an earlier bedtime. So if you do have one of these children who is going to wake up at 5:30 am no matter what, might as well put them to bed at 6 pm versus 7 and get everyone a bit more sleep, eh?
And then your challenge, parent, is to accept this stage of life and work on going to bed earlier yourself. But again, this is rare.
And in the handful of children that I have “diagnosed” with this over 3.5 years and hundreds of families… I ended up finding out much later than many of them did, very very gradually, start sleeping later and getting to a very reasonable 6:30 am wake time. (For reference, I consider anything between 6-7 am to be a healthy wake time for a young child.)
If you are struggling with early morning wakings with your young child, know that you are in good company -- nearly every family I work with struggles with this at some point. But you don't have to keep living with it (in nearly every case). Schedule a complimentary sleep consultation and find out how your family can be sleeping peacefully in two weeks or less, guaranteed.
Back when I was a first time mom, prior to becoming a child sleep consultant, I used to take really long mornings out and about with my toddler and then plan on a 2 pm nap.
It seemed like the best of both worlds. She was still napping AND we got to go do things AND I didn’t feel pressure to go out again after the second nap because by then it was 4 pm.
The only problem was, sometimes she woke up in the worst mood.
She was a perenially cheerful, easy going child but after those naps, she woke up a screaming banshee. It was puzzling. And it took a long time to calm her down, upwards of 30 minutes. It was distressing to see her so upset, but I didn’t know how to help.
Fast forward a few years, to my child sleep certification program, and I learned about sleep inertia.
Sleep inertia is what happens when we sleep at the wrong time. For us adults, it’s that horrible feeling when you wake up from a nap at 4 pm (and you slept hard). You feel confused and anxious and sleepy and just out of sorts.
The same thing happens to your child when she sleeps at the wrong time.
She may also have the added burden of having trouble falling asleep at bedtime if her nap was too late, even if she’s tired. Kids need a certain amount of time to build up adequate “sleep pressure” before they can sleep again.
She will feel so much better when she naps at times that correspond with her body’s natural production of melatonin.
These times change as your child grows, of course.
Waking a sleeping child is never fun but it’ll be a lot easier and less painful if you wake them up before these times.
If you are struggling with a tired, cranky child, schedule a complimentary sleep consultation and get your child – and your entire family – feeling amazing in two weeks or less, guaranteed.
If you’re a yeller, first off, there’s nothing wrong with you.
Yelling is a sign that your boundaries are being crossed.
If you want to yell less, you do not need to be more patient. You do not need to better, or kinder, or less irritable.
You just need to become aware more quickly when your boundaries are being crossed and act proactively to protect yourself.
Let’s say your preschooler is singing a really annoying song, over and over again. Loudly.
The script many of us have playing in our heads isn’t that we “shouldn’t” be annoyed by this. We should be more patient, more understanding. We should enjoy the sound of her sweet lilting voice.
This is where the problem lies. Your negative judgment of yourself.
The fact is that you are annoyed by her singing. Even if you wish you weren’t.
Here’s where you can make a change. Offer compassion to yourself and allow that it is annoying to you. And act accordingly. Now.
Make a request, calmly – “honey, could you either not sing or go into the other room to sing?” – and you won’t explode. (And if you preschooler decides they are not interested in honoring your request, you can “help” them by physically moving them to another room, again, before boiling over.)
What typically happens is you stuff down the annoyance of the singing and then yell ten minutes later about something unrelated. Leaving your family bewildered at your unexpected explosion.
Yelling less doesn’t mean more patience with your child. It means having more compassion for yourself when you first start noticing your annoyance start to flare, while you still have control.
Want to stop yelling? Schedule a complimentary life coaching session (scroll down past sleep coaching to life coaching) and experience how easy it can be.
Thank you to my faithful readers who quickly informed me of my snafu, I am here to share that I sent you some mis-advice.
In order to spring forward, you need to move bedtime, mealtimes, and nap times a few minutes earlier each day, not later.
That will allow you to "spring forward" next Sunday.
My apologies for any confusion this caused! Time changes are confusing enough as it is.
For those living in the United States, Daylight Savings Time begins this Sunday, March 12, at 2:30 am.
This is when we “spring forward,” that is, we change the clocks from 2 am to 3 am (or more likely, our cell phones do it for us).
For most adults, this is not a great experience. For those with young children, hope springs eternal that this might cure a child’s early wakings. For if they were waking up at 5 am before, suddenly they are waking up at 6 am.
Unfortunately, this rarely works out but it’s always worth a shot!
Your best bet, if this is your situation, is to keep naps, bedtime, and mealtime exactly the same as they are now in terms of your child’s body clock. Therefore, if bedtime is currently 7 pm, make it 8 pm after the time change. Naptime (for a once-a-day napper) might shift from 1 pm to 2 pm. And meals switch from 6, 12, and 5 to 7, 1, and 6.
It’s important to move mealtime as well as sleep times in order to keep your child’s body clock from shifting.
If your child is not an unusually early riser, it's best to start the transition 4-6 days before the start of DST so that you aren’t dealing with an overtired and cranky child (or parents). Move bedtime, naptimes, and mealtimes 10-15 minutes later each day and you should be more or less on track by Sunday.
And keep in mind that the timing doesn’t have to be perfect by Sunday – you can consider that one extra day of grace for sorting out the time change.
Don’t be surprised if everyone feels a little groggy and tired next week. That should wear off in a few days. But starting the transition ahead of time should definitely lessen the impact of the time change.
If you’d like help navigating this or another sleep challenge, schedule a free sleep consultation and find out how your family can be amazingly well-rested in two weeks or less, guaranteed.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and certified life coach for parents. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.