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.
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.