Many of us have been taught to believe that middle of the night wakings are normal for young children, far beyond the small baby stage. But few (none?) of us enjoy them.
Often on consultations, parents' eyes get wide when I tell them that they really don't have to offer a night feeding past the age of, say, 6 months. (You are certainly welcome to offer one past this age, but it isn't required.) Reading on parent groups on Facebook, I see that many parents will offer a night feeding even at ages 2 or 3... and that it's normal for a toddler to need a peanut butter sandwich or serving of milk at 2 am. This is not true and I would argue, not even healthy.
Regardless, if you are struggling with middle of the night wakings and want to be sleeping through the night, here are the top things to investigate.
The first culprit is overtiredness. If you have worked with me before, or you've done your sleep research, you know that overtiredness produces a stress hormone, cortisol, that makes it harder for children to fall asleep and stay asleep. The more tired they are, the more they wake up. These children usually wake up cranky in the morning. They often appear like they are the Energizer Bunny in the late afternoon or early evening.
The second culprit is habit. If your child is used to receiving attention when he or she wakes up in the middle of the night -- whether it's a feeding, a cuddle, a parent lying down with the child, or even scolding the child -- your child will continue waking up at night. Even with negative attention, your child would rather have that than no attention from you at all. It's normal for children to want to be with their adults at night... but normal doesn't mean healthy. It's better for everyone -- with a few exceptions, namely children who have endured trauma and need extra nighttime attention -- to get good sleep at night.
The third culprit is much less common, and that is undertiredness. If your child is dealing with this, she is likely going to bed very early and/or taking a very long nap. They then have a "split night," wherein they wake up for a while in the middle of the night. These children are typically cheerful when they wake up in the middle of the night and are ready to play, unlike children waking from overtiredness or habit. After 2-4 hours, they have built up enough sleep pressure to fall asleep again, and then will sleep until the morning. These children typically do not seem overtired in the morning.
If your child's issue is overtiredness, they need an earlier bedtime. This is always the first thing i suggest trying.
If the issue is habit, you need to either gradually or abruptly eliminate the nighttime habit. If you are offering a feeding at night, gradually reduce the volume of it. If you are lying down with your child at night, start sitting next to their bed instead, and gradually move your chair further and further from them.
Don't try ruling out undertiredness unless the other two options have been eliminated -- this is quite rare. If this is suspected culprit, shorten or eliminate the nap first. Only after that has been attempted should you move bedtime later. Most children under six need a bedtime between 6:30 and 7:30 pm -- quite a bit earlier than the American norm.
PS I hope you are all sleeping gloriously after "falling back" on Sunday night but if you aren't, help is available. Schedule a free consult and find out how your family can be sleeping beautifully through the night in two weeks or less, guaranteed.
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.
Welcome to June, where gloriously long days can sometimes lead to painfully short nights.
One client wrote to tell me she felt like a “monster” making your preschooler stop playing and come inside to go to bed when all the other neighborhood kids were still out playing in the sunlight.
If you’re having this feeling too, and I say this lovingly, you need to get over it.
It’s not you fault that days are so long right now. And if your child doesn’t get enough time in bed, the whole family will suffer. Your child most of all.
So sit with those feelings of being the meanest parent on the planet for a few minutes and then let them go. They are not helping you or your child.
Your child may think you are mean but they will certainly feel better with more sleep.
The brain needs darkness to help it produce melatonin (naturally), so plan ahead that your child may need a longer wind down time during the summer months.
While I normally don’t recommend a bath every single night (unless families prefer it), a bath, especially with lower-than-normal lighting may help your child fall asleep more quickly when bedtime rolls around. It’s also helpful for removing all that sunscreen, bug spray, and sweat that can accumulate in summer months.
Black out shades or curtains are more important than ever during summer months. (I’m actually thinking of adding blackout curtains on top of our blackout shades in order to really seal out all the little cracks of light that still come in.) If you have held off investing in either, please do so now. And if you have cracks of light coming in, look for ways to seal those off, like cut up strips of cheap blackout shades. The darker, the better.
Unless your child is 2.5 years or older and has a fear of the dark, don’t bother with a nightlight. Children younger than 2.5 don’t have the intellectual capacity to have a fear of the dark. And regardless of age, a nightlight makes it more challenging for the brain to produce melatonin naturally, which aids the body in falling asleep. The darker the better.
If your child tends to sleep late in the mornings – and most young children don’t – make sure to wake them up at about the same time every day. This will also make bedtime easier.
If your child is an early waker, don’t reward them with attention before 6 am. You may need to work gradually towards a goal of 6 am if they are currently waking up much earlier.
At about 2.5 years old, children can understand an Ok to Wake Clock. (My favorite is the Hatch Rest.)
Many parents tell me that their children ignore their OK to Wake Clocks.
Of course they do.
Children only cooperate with their OK to Wake Clocks if parents insist on it. Otherwise, children prefer to be with their parents or watching TV or doing something else much more fun than staying in their rooms.
So if your child comes out of their room before the OK to Wake Clock says it’s time, escort them back to their rooms. In the most boring, least-engaged manner possible.
Don’t allow screen time or food or playing with toys before the approved wake time.
Over time, this will lead to later wake times, as will the earlier bedtime.
Make sure any middle of the night wakings are treated in the most boring way possible also.
Long days can make bedtime more challenging but loving parents, you can succeed in getting your child well rested again.
If you’d like help getting your child’s sleep back on track (or on track for the first time), schedule a complimentary sleep consultation.
Daylight savings time is coming to the United States and Canada in just TWO weeks, on March 14. (It's not until April in Mexico.)
Parents often ask if they can just keep their child’s schedule the same while the clock “springs” forward, to instantly create a later bedtime and later wake time.
The answer is that yes, you can… but it can be a little tricky to maintain. The main challenge is that in order to keep naps from shifting, you have to keep meal times the same as before, also. So if your child ate at 7, 12, and 5 before, you will now need them to eat at 8, 1, and 6.
Likewise, if your child woke at 6 am, napped at 1, and went to bed at 7 pm, your child will need a wake time of 7 am, a nap time of 2, and a bedtime of 8 pm.
The wake time and the bedtime should be pretty easy to maintain but if your child goes to daycare and preschool, you may not be able to control the nap time nor the lunch time. Just something to keep in mind.
Also, in the United States and Canada, the days are getting increasingly long. In order to prevent early wakings, you may need to up your game when it comes to keeping your child’s room dark. If you haven’t yet invested in blackout shades, do so. It’s seriously one of the best investments you can make in the health and happiness of your family.
Even if you do have blackout shades, you may need to address light coming in around the edges. If you haven’t bought them yet, consider buying extra-large ones that go around the window frame instead of inside the window frame. If you have already made the investment, consider painter’s tape around the edges. It may look ugly, but a few minutes of extra sleep in the morning is worth it, no?
At naptime, check if light is streaming under your child’s door. It may not keep her from falling asleep, but it may lead to a shorter-than-optimal nap time. If this is an issue, put a towel at the bottom of the door to block the light.
Don’t forget to keep white noise running during naps and all night long. It can be very hard to convince a child to go to sleep when it’s still light out! If he can hear the rest of the family having fun, that will only make things worse. White noise is your best friend in this situation.
If your family is struggling with early wake times, why not schedule a free consult to see if you can all get a little more shut-eye?
We have continued to relish in Simon's amazing sleep habits these past few months since working with you.
He is now 8-months-old and since the time change a week ago, things have gone haywire.
We kept his 6:45 pm bedtime the same so that it effectively got bumped one hour later. But now he is waking up at 4:15 am every day!
Should we keep his bedtime the same and let him cry until 5:30 or 6 am every day or move his bedtime around?
I've gotten messages like this from many clients this week. So if you are in a similar situation, take heart. You are not alone! Whoever invented daylight savings time definitely didn't have small children.
Time changes are really, really hard on little ones. And not great even for us big ones. My five-year-old was up very early for 5 days in a row before finally adjusting, and I feel like I'm still tired from the adjustment, or perhaps those early wakings. (Here in Mexico, we switched a week before the United States.)
And if your children stayed up even later on Saturday night due to the excitement of Halloween, it's likely that the early wakings are even worse.
When children are overtired, their bodies produce a stress hormone, cortisol, that makes it harder for them to fall asleep. This is why my five-year-old jaguar was bouncing around like a crazy person on Halloween night, even before eating any sugar, and needed a lot of "encouragement" (threats) to go to bed.
Overtiredness and cortisol also make it more likely that your child will wake up during the night, and also wake up too early in the morning. This is why little Simon woke up at 4:15 am! Even without the time change, this would have only 5:15 am, much earlier than his regular bedtime.
When children go to bed too late, they sleep less. Counterintuitive but true.
In Simon's case, I suggested that his mother ease off on the new bedtime and go back almost to his old, pre-time-change bedtime. And then gradually move it 10 or 15 minutes later each night.
The reason it didn't work for her, even after a week, to just move his bedtime an hour later (and hope for one-hour later wakings as a result) is that Ali most likely didn't move everything in his schedule.
In order to keep him on the "old time," she would have needed to shift everything, including naps and mealtimes, accordingly. It sounds like a great plan but in actuality, it's not easy to maintain daylight savings time for your child when the rest of your life has transitioned to standard time. But it's worth a try for the highly organized parents among us!
If your little one is having early wakings or night wakings as a result of the time change, ease off the time change for a day or two. Go back to the "old" time and do a super early bedtime for a couple of nights. Once your child is waking up at a more reasonable time again, gradually start shifting her bedtime later again. One four-month-old I am working with right now couldn't even tolerate 10-minute changes each day. Her dads had to shift to just five minutes every other day. It's hard to go so slowly... but 4:30 am wakes are even harder.
As for naps... if your baby is waking up super early, he will have trouble making it to a 9 am (two- and three-times a day nappers) or 12 pm (once a day nappers) naptime. If you are reverting back to "the old time," try to keep him up until at least the 8:30 am (old time) first nap or 11:30 am middle of the day nap. A too-early naptime can make things even harder -- if your child naps at 7 am, the second nap is likely going to be super early as well, leading to a very long stretch between the last nap and bedtime, leading to, you guessed it, more overtiredness.
But if he only takes a short nap because you kept him up until the appropriate nap time and then he was wildly overtired? Try to leave him in the crib for at least 90 minutes (of total crib time, not necessarily sleep time). Often times, children can learn to fall back to sleep if you leave them long enough.
I'm happy to report that on day 5 of our new time zone, Amelie woke up after 6 am, and the next two days, she woke up after 7 am! Woot. And after only one day of the earlier bedtime, little Simon woke up at 4:20 but then went back to sleep until 5. So that's progress too.
If you need help getting your child to give up those painfully early wakings, set up a free chat with me. Your family deserves great rest! Let me help.
Check out my first weekly Facebook Live to hear more about the ideal bedtime for your child, how teething can affect sleep, bedtimes for school age children, hear the story of how I came to be a sleep consultant and more.
I also talk about my peaceful parenting style and how incorporating "special time" can make bedtime separation easier. For those of you with toddlers, preschoolers or older children... fear not, instituting new bedtime routines doesn't have to be a miserable experience for anyone in the family.
Set up a free consult with me to learn more. There's no committment.
Despite it being only mid-morning, this toddler is overtired.
Early wakings and nighttime wakings are the number one reason families reach out to me for help. And the culprit is one that always surprises them.
You are putting your child to bed too late.
I know that seems crazy. You put your child to bed at what feels like a very reasonable hour, based on your family's schedule. It feels impossible to put her to bed any earlier. Your days are so hectic.
Plus your very reasonable fear: you are afraid your child will wake up too early. I know. I get it. I am having exactly the same struggle with my five-year-old who just gave up her nap and needs an earlier bedtime. Even though I know better.
Here's the deal: overtired children don't sleep well. They wake up more at night and they wake up too early in the morning.
I suggest roughly twelve hours in bed each night for children under 6. (Maybe slightly less for preschoolers who still nap).
The sleep before midnight is the most restful. So sleeping 8 pm to 8 am is not as good as sleeping 7 to 7 and will generally result in less overall sleep.
My ideal bedtime for most children under six years old is actually 6:30 pm. Especially knowing that if you aim for 6:30, you might actually achieve 7 pm.
If this sounds too hard... think about your disrupted nights and way-too-early mornings. How much would you like those to go away? Are you willing to push your schedule to make it happen? Even if it means you have to work in the evenings to finish work earlier? Remember that when your child sleeps through the night, you will be more rested and thus, more productive. So you may find you are able to finish your work in less time and not need to continue to work in the evening!
This tip, moving bedtime earlier, has worked with every child I have worked with. Even my own. I put her overtired five-year-old self to bed at 6:20 last night -- the earliest in weeks -- and she woke up at 7:20.
A warning: this doesn't always work the first night you try it, though it often does. I tried it for the first time a few days ago and my little one was up at 4:30 AM. Sob.
But two days later, my efforts paid off and she started to sleep later.
Most of my families see results in two to three nights, and often even faster. So give yourself a few days, at least, to try this radically simple suggestion: an earlier bedtime.
If you want to put your child to go to bed earlier and sleep all night long but aren't sure how to make it happen -- maybe you struggle emotionally even if you have the book knowledge of what needs to happen -- set up a free consult and get your family the sleep you deserve.
I am conflicted about using blackout shades in my twins' room.
I'm reluctant to use them because whenever I nap in a dark room in the middle of the day, I wake up feeling cranky and miserable. I don't want that for my girls.
But right now, they never nap on the same schedule and I am going absolutely bonkers. I can never leave the house and I never know when I'll get a break.
Kate, single mom to 11-month-old twins
Kate is an amazingly devoted mom. I admire her tremendously.
We parents should take all the help we can get. It's not cheating to help them nap. It won't make your young children wake up feeling cranky and miserable.
That's because their young bodies have totally different sleep and wake cycles than we do. Babies' bodies are designed to nap during the day. Unlike ours.
When we wake up cranky and miserable after a nap, it's because we have nap inertia. Basically, we are sleeping at a time that our bodies weren't designed to nap. Babies, on the other hand, absolutely need naps during the day.
If babies nap at the biologically ideal times, they won't have nap intertia. For twice-a-day nappers, those times are roughly 9 am and 1 pm. Once-a-day nappers should sleep at around 12 pm.
Just timing naps appropriately can make a huge difference. That's step one. And it's the furthest thing from cheating. It's taking advantage of biological sleep and wake cycles.
Step two is yes, using all the sleep crutches you can find that don't require your active, ongoing participation.
So blackout curtains? Heck, yes! White noise? Absolutely. Fan or air conditioner to keep the room cool and air circulating? Definitely. Swaddle (for newborns) or sleep sack? Sure! Pacifier that you have to reinsert 16 times during the nap? Nope.
Offer the pacifier once and that's it. Either she finds it and re-inserts it herself or she loses it and learns to sleep without it. There may be some tears in the short-term but otherwise, she will never learn to sleep independently (or at least, not until she gives up the pacifier).
The same goes for breastfeeding or bottle feeding to sleep. If your little one can fall asleep and stay asleep, feeding to sleep is fine. But if he needs another nursing session or an additional bottle to link his sleep cycles, you are doing him a disservice. You'll know this is happening if your baby (4 months or older) is waking for multiple feedings every night. By four months, your child should be able to go several hours without feeding, and that should gradually decrease from a maximum of three a night to two to one or less at nine months old. By a year old, most babies should not need any feedings at night.
My five-year-old recently started to give up her nap. The timing feels pretty terrible -- stuck at home for months at a time during a global pandemic -- but I hardly feel like I can complain. Five years of napping is a pretty good run.
But then we tacked up a heavy blanket over an internal window to her room that was letting in a good bit of natural light. Lo and behold, my preschooler is napping again. Gloriously long naps that leave her well-rested and cheerful, a delight to be around.
If this "cheating" means I can avoid the cranky miserable mess she was on the days she missed her naps... I'm a devoted cheater.
But I prefer to think of it as smart parenting. Helping my girl get all the sleep her body needs to be her best.
(Note the white noise on her table, the standing fan pointed at her, and of course, the heavy blanket tacked up over the internal window.)
If you'd like help getting your little one napping better, or need support tackling a different sleep challenge, schedule a free consult so we can get your child, and your entire family, the sleep you deserve.
Weekends. Gloriously free but hectic, too. So much you need to do. And so many things you just want to do.
Grocery shopping. Errands. Cooking. Catching up with friends and family. And then the ever-elusive sleeping in.
Surely a later bedtime on weekends can't hurt?
Well, only if you and your child don't mind the occasional jet lag.
The truth is, children don't do well with a lack of consistency in their routine. Children thrive on predictable wake times, nap times, and bedtimes. Putting them to bed later feels to their bodies like changing time zones. You know that doesn't feel good.
And the even uglier truth? Adults do better with consistency, too.
Part of the reason you so desperately want to sleep in on weekends is that you are accumulating sleep debt by changing your bedtime and wake times so frequently.
It's hard to give up those occasional late nights, but if you do, you will feel less tired. Even if you get a bit less sleep, overall.
Before you accuse me of being a Grinch... I get it. I truly do.
This past weekend, I kept my children up late to go see the newly-lit Christmas tree in town. My little one got to bed an hour and a half late.
Sometimes, we have to prioritize life over sleep. It's important to balance the needs of the entire family, including the parents, with the sleep needs of your child.
I encourage you to limit exceptions, though, to no more than twice a month. Plan ahead so you save those later nights for the most important of occasions.
Here are some other ways to limit the impact of the occasional late night:
Watch your child and see how she reacts to the occasional late night. As she gets older, she will be more able to tolerate that occasional exception. A younger toddler may be better off staying home with a babysitter and getting to bed on time, rather than going out with the family. It may also be a lot more enjoyable for you that way. Rest assured, she won't need this early bedtime forever.
Need some help adjusting your child's bedtime? Set up a free consult and let's chat!
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.