TAKING CARA BABIES
10 Culprits for Early Morning Wakings
Cara Dumaplin, Founder
All the coffee in the world doesn’t seem like enough for mamas who are on the EARLY WAKING STRUGGLE BUS. If your baby’s alarm clock seems to be set for 5:00am EVERY. SINGLE. MORNING, you’re not alone!
Why are early mornings so difficult?

The Short Answer: Because a baby’s sleep drive is very low at 4:00-6:00am.

What does that mean? Well, we all have a “ sleep drive.” This is the pressure that builds over time to help us fall asleep. It’s that feeling of “I’m so tired. I have to go to sleep RIGHT NOW.” Falling asleep is never easier than at bedtime because that pressure is so strong, and the conditions are almost perfect: it’s dark outside, the temperature is slightly cooler, your body is tired, your brain needs a break, and this is the time of day your body expects to go to sleep.

Now, just the opposite is true during early morning hours: our bodies have had almost a full night of rest, the sun is beginning to rise, and we are in a lighter stage of sleep. Our bodies may NEED more sleep, but all of these factors are fighting for us to wake up. That “drive” to sleep is so weak compared to what we felt at bedtime.

You and I have learned to combat this struggle. We may slightly awaken multiple times from 4-6am, but we quickly put ourselves BACK to sleep. Babies who are constantly waking between 4:00 and 6:00am have not yet learned this skill and need our help.  

Definition of Early Morning Wakings:

For the point of our discussion, “early morning wakings” fall between 4:00 and 6:00am. Wake ups prior to 4:00am are considered “night wakings.” After 6:00am, well, that’s just waking up for the day! A NORMAL and HEALTHY wake time for babies is 6:00-7:00am. This is just a typical circadian rhythm for infants, even though I know 7:00am to 8:00am would be so much nicer. When we say “early morning wakings,” we’re talking about babies who wake up before 6:00am.

Let’s examine the Top 10 Culprits of Early Morning Wakings:

Culprit #1: Sunlight is sneaking in.

Yes, even a tiny shift in light during those early morning hours can cause a baby’s body to say “time to get up.” Remember, we are all in our lightest period of sleep from 4-6am. Now add in light (which we know stimulates the brain), and it can be very difficult for a baby to fall back to sleep!

If you’re not sure if the room is dark enough, try waving your hand in front of your face at 5:00 – 6:00am —Can you see it? If you can, there’s too much light!

Shutters, blinds, or even dark curtains will rarely block out the light sufficiently by themselves. Adding blackout blinds like THESE or THESE can be so helpful. Also, black construction paper, blankets, or even trash bags taped over the windows work very well. Please use whatever works best for your nursery, but keep all of those light-blockers out of your baby’s reach.

Watch what this mom did to block out the light. Does it seem extreme? Her baby sleeps until 6:30-7:00am every morning now instead of 5:00am!

Culprit #2: Bedtime is too early.

Please understand that our goal wake time for a baby is 11 hours after bedtime. (Sure, some will sleep for 12 hours, but a realistic and developmentally appropriate goal is really 11 hours after bedtime.)

With this understanding, can you tell me what might have been happening here?
Jennifer put 11-month-old Hudson to bed each night at 6:15pm because he was just so exhausted by this time of the evening. Although he’s a great sleeper, Hudson just wouldn’t sleep beyond 5:15am. Jennifer was frustrated and wondering how to help Hudson sleep until at least 6:00am.

Do you see why Hudson was waking? He slept for 11 hours. This 5:15am wake up was appropriate based upon his bedtime. In order to defeat that early morning waking, Jennifer needed to SLOWLY adjust his daytime schedule and push Hudson’s bedtime later. Jennifer found that by shifting both of Hudson’s naps a bit later, the best bedtime for Hudson actually became 7:15pm. Once bedtime was consistently 7:15pm, Hudson slept every morning until at least 6:15am.

Please know: Some parents have to wake babies early in the morning due to work or family schedules. If you need to leave your home by 6:00am every morning, maybe a 6:15pm bedtime with a 5:15am wake time is exactly what you need. If this works for your family, no need to change it.

Culprit #3: Bedtime is too late.

Research demonstrates that for most babies, 7:00 to 8:00pm is the “sweet spot bedtime” that helps babies fall asleep the easiest and stay asleep the longest. Typically, a bedtime after 8:00pm does not help a baby “sleep in.” In fact, it can be just the opposite; these babies often wake earlier.

If your baby’s bedtime is AFTER 8:00pm, consider an EARLIER bedtime. I know it doesn’t make sense that an earlier bedtime can help a baby to sleep later, but it really does help many families!

Let me share this scenario with you:

Michelle’s 13 month old, Wyatt, had a consistent bedtime of 9:00pm. This bedtime worked well for their family because they have many evening activities. Michelle really longed for an 8:00am wake time for Wyatt in hopes that she could fit in a morning workout before the baby awoke. This would make sense, right? That’s 11 hours from bedtime! But…Wyatt was ALWAYS up by 5:00am.

Do you want to know my advice to Michelle? An EARLIER bedtime! Each night she pushed Wyatt’s bedtime 15 minutes earlier. Once he started going to bed at 7:45pm, he started sleeping until 6:45am and sometimes even 7:00am!

Because of their family activities, Wyatt sometimes goes to bed around 8:30 or 9:00pm. This is simply how life goes. Michelle just knows that Wyatt will wake up earlier that next morning. Her goal is to have him back to his normal bedtime the following night.

Every once in awhile, I’ll meet a baby who truly does better with an 8:30pm bedtime; however, it’s rare. Try an earlier bedtime FIRST.

*Expert Tip: If your baby is younger than 3 months, sometimes a bedtime of 9-10pm really CAN help your baby sleep longer in the early morning hours. This ONLY applies during the newborn stage. To learn more, check out the newborn sleep class.

Culprit #4: The first nap of the day is too early.

An early first nap can cement early morning wakings! Your baby’s body treats a very early nap as an extension of night sleep, and early morning wakings will continue.

Please evaluate your wake window between waking and the first nap. (“Wake window” is just a fancy term that means how long your baby is up and awake before going back to sleep.)

These are typical wake windows based upon a baby’s age:

4-12 weeks: 60-90 minutes

3-4 Months: 75-120 minutes

5-7/8 Months: 2 – 3 hours

8-14 Months: 3 – 4 hours

14-24 Months: 4.5 – 6 hours

Often, that first wake window of the day is the shortest, but it should still fall into the wake window range for your baby’s age.

Let me show you an example:

Lauren’s 5-month-old daughter, Allison, woke up every morning at 4:45am. (Her goal wake window before her first nap is 2 hours based upon her age.)

Lauren would get Allison out of the crib at 4:45am, and Allison would often be so tired that her first nap of the day was 6:00am. This short wake window simply reinforced that early waking.

After Lauren learned about wake windows, she started keeping Allison up for 2 hours. The first nap of the day was 6:45am (two hours after the 4:45am waking).

Do you think this resolved the early morning waking? It did NOT.

Why? Because Allison’s body needs 2 hours of awake time after the DESIRED wake-time, not after the actual wake time.

Our desired wake-time for Allison was 6:00am. That means we didn’t want her to start her nap until 8:00am. Can you imagine how Lauren felt when I gave her that advice? That’s over 3 hours of awake time. This required a gradual stretching of the wake window. Each morning, Lauren tried to keep Allison awake just 10-15 minutes longer. Sure, Allison would get fussy, and some mornings were more difficult than others. Lauren had to be creative and switch up morning activities often. Allison rarely made it to 8:00am, but that was the goal. Slowly, as that nap was pushed later and other naps were naturally later throughout the day, early morning issues began to resolve.

Want to see real mamas gently stretch wake windows with their babies? Visit my instagram and watch highlighted stories called “practical tips.”

Culprit #5: Baby is overtired at bedtime.

Too much awake time prior to bedtime can cause an overtired baby. You would think babies would sleep later when overtired, but it simply doesn’t work like that in the baby sleep world. Instead, an overtired baby often awakens EARLY in the morning.

How much time can your little one be up before bed? That’s the challenging part: it’s actually different for every baby. Get to know your little one and watch sleepy cues, but here are some averages:

4-12 weeks: 75-90 minutes

3-4 Months: 90-120 minutes

5-7/8 Months: 2.5 – 3.5 hours

8-14 Months: 3.5 – 4.5 hours

14-24 Months: 4.5 – 6 hours

Real Life Example: Seven month old, Hank, woke from his last nap of the day at 2:30pm. Mom knew that the “sweet spot bedtime” is between 7:00 and 8:00pm, so she kept him up until 7:00pm. Even though his bedtime seemed perfect, Hank still woke at 5:00am… every morning. That 4.5 hour wake window was simply too long.

Here is how we remedied the situation for Hank: Mom offered Hank a catnap from 5:00- 5:30pm, and then put him to bed at 8:30pm. This little catnap helped him stay awake until bedtime without getting overtired.

Is this within our ideal 7-8:00pm bedtime range? No, but sometimes real life requires that we choose between 2 different, less-than-ideal schedules. For Hank this worked! If this change didn’t work, I would have encouraged Hank’s mom to consider moving to a 2-nap schedule. By widening the wake windows between each nap, naps would be later, resulting in a more appropriate wake time before bed.

Here are more examples of 2 and 3 nap schedules. If you are struggling with SHORT NAPS, this blog post will help.

Culprit #6: Your baby is getting too much daytime sleep.

Sometimes, babies wake up early in the morning simply because they aren’t tired anymore. When babies get more daytime sleep than they need, they often don’t sleep as long at night. If you have NOT adjusted your nap routine in the last month or two, look at the recommendations on the blog post “Nap Schedules: 5-25 Months,” even if you’ve read it before. As your baby gets older, naps will need to be adjusted.

Maybe it’s time to drop a nap? Maybe naps need to be cut shorter?

Real life example:

Charlotte’s 10 month old was a great sleeper. Ledger slept 7:45pm to 6:45am every night. He took two glorious naps. But then… he suddenly started waking at 5:30am. Mom evaluated every aspect of Ledger’s day. After tracking his naps and nights for a few days, she found the issue: Ledger was napping for almost 4 hours total during the day. By the time he had slept until 5:30am, he was getting all the sleep he needed in 24 hours.

The Fix:

Mom limited each nap to 1.5 hours. This was 3 hours of total daytime sleep. Ledger slowly started sleeping until 6:30 – 6:45am. He had simply been getting too much daytime sleep. This amount had been perfect for Ledger at 8 months, but it was too much for him at 10 months.

*Keep in Mind: Every baby is unique in daily sleep requirements. This blog post will show you average amounts of daytime sleep needed based upon baby’s age. Keep a log for several days/nights to evaluate total sleep.

Culprit #7: Your baby is not getting enough daytime sleep.

The other side of this coin is a baby who is taking short naps and is extremely overtired. Remember, being overtired often manifests in early morning wakings. If you have chronic short naps, THIS BLOG POST can help.

Culprit #8: Parental Reinforcement

“Wait, are you saying it’s MY FAULT  that my baby is waking at 4:45 am each morning?”

Please hear me, I am never one to blame parents. Isn’t there already enough “mom guilt” in our society? I promise NOT to add to it.

Follow along with me: Every weekday morning, your alarm goes off at 5:15am. You drag yourself out of bed and long for the weekend when you can finally sleep later. Saturday morning arrives: your alarm clock is OFF, but your eyes BOUNCE open at 5:14am! UGH! WIDE AWAKE! Why? Because your body has an internal alarm clock that longs for that consistent wake time.

Your baby has that same internal system. If your baby is consistently waking early, perhaps it’s just out of habit. Let’s work hard not to reinforce it. Treat it like a middle of the night waking.

What would you do at midnight if your baby kept waking? Get him up and pour yourself a cup of coffee? Of course not- you would keep it dark, quiet, and all business. We want everything about these waking moments to communicate to your baby: “It’s still night time; everybody is sleeping; you should still be sleeping too.”

If you need a plan to handle night wakings, the online class “The ABC’s of Sleep” is just that; a 14-night plan to help you get consolidated, long nights in the crib. You’ll learn just what to do when your baby wakes in the night (and what to do with early morning wakings).

Culprit: #9: Hunger

Personally, when my own babies woke during the night, I always assumed it was hunger. This is an easy go-to concern with an immediate solution, so I think it’s honestly a fairly common assumption. However, it isn’t always true. If your baby is getting his calories in during the day and staying on his growth curve, hunger does NOT have to be your first go-to for night wakings.

Please know: I’m not saying your baby IS NOT hungry; I’m simply saying we need to evaluate the entire picture.

An important component to sleeping through the night and conquering early mornings is getting those calories in during the daytime. Many sleep consultants and baby sleep books advise parents to create a 4-hour feeding schedule. While this may work for some babies, my advice is to always be responsive to your baby’s hunger cues and offer daytime feedings every 2.5-3.5 hours the entire first year and beyond! I usually find 3 hours between feedings works much better for babies than a 4-hour schedule. Think about it: if your baby eats every 3 hours instead of every 4 hours, she will actually get in one more daytime feeding each day. (Want to see sample schedules with naps and feedings? THIS blog will help.)

If you think your baby may truly be waking out of hunger in those early morning hours, then he definitely needs more calories. Try adding in extra daytime calories by giving an extra ounce or two in each daytime bottle or by adding in a nursing session during the day to rule out hunger. If your baby is older than 6 months, talk to your pediatrician about adding more solids to his diet. (If you need help to gradually wean night feedings, “The ABC’s of Sleep” will give you step-by-step instructions.)

Culprit #10: Too Drowsy/Asleep at Bedtime

If your baby is unable to put herself to sleep at bedtime, it is unlikely that she’ll be able to put herself back to sleep during the early morning hours. Because the sleep drive is so low in the early morning hours, this is the most challenging time for a baby to drift back to sleep after coming to the top of a sleep cycle. Being able to fall asleep at bedtime and back to sleep at night wakings throughout the night is a VITAL skill in conquering these early morning wakings.

If your little one needs help with falling asleep independently, we are here for you!!

For babies 5-24 months, we have “ABC’s of Sleep,” a class that equips you with a specific step-by-step plan for teaching your baby to fall asleep independently and help herself back to sleep throughout the night. The video and booklet for this class will help you to customize an individualized plan of action for your unique baby and his or her specific needs. Your baby can have 10-12 hours of consolidated sleep at night in just 14 days!

If your baby is under 5 months, don’t worry: we have resources for you as well! While your baby is too young for formal sleep training, you can still make major progress. If your baby is 13 weeks or older, our digital download “Navigating Months 3 & 4” is a 50-page booklet designed to help you make major strides in your baby’s sleep journey during the tricky developmental phase of 3-4 months. For babies 12 weeks and under, our newborn class “Will I Ever Sleep Again?” will help you gently lay a solid sleep foundation from the start.

Finally, please understand this: Correcting early morning wakings will take time and consistency. When making changes for your little one, give the strategies at least a week to evaluate the effectiveness. If you have purchased any of the Taking Cara Babies courses/resources, please know a phone consult can offer you personalized support along your journey.

It’s rarely a quick fix, but finding the culprit is the first step in getting off that EARLY MORNING STRUGGLE BUS!

hey there!

I'm Cara.

I’m a mom of four, neonatal nurse, and wife of a pediatrician. My passion is teaching parents how to help their babies sleep with the science of a nurse and the heart of a mama so they can reclaim the joy of parenthood.

I'm Cara.

I’m a mom of four, neonatal nurse, and wife of a pediatrician. My passion is teaching parents how to help their babies sleep with the science of a nurse and the heart of a mama so they can reclaim the joy of parenthood.

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