Originally published on My Sweet Sleeper's website.
Someone probably told my child that the early bird gets the worm. They failed, however, to tell them it doesn’t need to be at 4 in the morning!
If you are anything like me, you have probably experienced this as well. While I do like being punctual, an early morning wake up is not ideal. In fact it is so far from ideal that it essentially messes up my day as well as my child’s.
After doing some of my own “soul-searching”, I came to deeper understandings regarding my child’s sleeping patterns that may in fact help you.
As a sleep consultant, I went through the main areas to consider while troubleshooting my son’s early risings. I checked his awake windows, though that was very difficult to keep on point with all the early risings. His awake windows for the most part were completely on point. His room was pitch black and his sound machine was always on so there was no possibility for abrupt light or noises alerting him in the wee morning. He was most definitely on a 12 hour schedule, prior to the early risings, that allowed him to go to sleep 12 hours after waking up. (Oh, and might I also add that I had attempted contact naps to get him out of the overtired cycle, as well as adding in a nap to help straighten out his days.) We didn’t have a sleep association waking him at this point, like being breastfed or rocked to sleep, because for the most part he was a self soother. And finally, he was definitely eating all his calories during the day, as he has been for almost a year already!
These are a few of the obvious sleep disruptors we check when helping other mothers solve their child’s early risings. But for some reason it was just not working on my son.
I’d like to share with you my path to getting a better and more restorative sleep for my little one, as well as helping some other mothers through their journeys as well.
Regardless of the age, though it will be more prevalent for more active toddlers, you will want to consider how much mental stimulation your babe is receiving in their awake times, as well as their physical activity. What may have been sufficient last month might no longer be sufficient this month, or next. Babies grow at such a rapid rate that we blink and they are crawling or walking. We, as parents, are only just acclimating ourselves to the new stage when our babies are ready to move on.
Here’s my advice:
1. If your child is suddenly waking early in the morning, try practicing some more activity with them during the day. Something different, exciting and unique. It could be that your 18 month old is not interested in the same park everyday and doesn’t actually satisfy his curiosity or physical activity. Try letting him have a little trike and getting out of the stroller more, guiding you down the sidewalk for mental stimulation to pair with the physical stimulation. Let him stop and explore the trees and the bugs. You may find that if he exhausts himself enough, he may extend his naps and extend his morning wake ups.
2. If you know that your child is going through a "regression" or as I like to call them "progressions", you may already understand that it is during this time that they are actually changing developmentally. What is really happening is not a regression, where they revert to a previous state, though that is what it can feel like with their sleep patterns, but rather they are progressing into a new developmental stage. What I often try to explain to parents is that babies are undergoing a developmental surge that is driving their excitement. Think about a time that you were so excited or nervous for a big day coming. You may have just learned something new, like you may have just gone surfing for the first time and you felt so exhilarated, unable to wait to do it again. Or maybe you have a meeting coming up for a job position you have been waiting for for years. Think of how restless you might find yourself the night before or the nights leading up to it. Think of this as the excitement or the anxious energy your child is feeling. They are so amazed that they can finally pull themselves up to standing, they can finally crawl, they can finally walk, etc. This is a whole new perception of the world they are still learning to understand. Kids can therefore be bright eyed and bushy tailed first thing in the morning ready to try walking again or ready to experience something new.
3. If you ever are able to look at the baby monitor when they are going through a progression, you may find that they are attempting to practice their new found skills at bedtime. The best thing to do for this is to make sure you are working them through these exciting discoveries during the day, so they are fulfilled and tired by bedtime.
The last thing worth noting is that sometimes, a child will wake up very early, and the parents are confused over what is happening to their all night sleeper. They immediately respond thinking it’s a one time thing and it’ll solve itself. The problem there is that with some children - this has just taught them again how quickly they can get mommy or daddy into the room. So rather than them having this sleep association of needing to be rocked etc, they now have trained themselves, and you, to wake up early because they can. Unintentionally, you have reinforced their early risings. It becomes a habit now. They may seem ready to start the day, they may never even show any sleepy cues during the day even though they woke early, but this is the beginning of an overtired cycle for them. The best thing to do for this if possible, is to pause and listen before going in, consider the options of why they would be waking so early, and try and let them self soothe, or play quietly in their cribs until at least 6am when its a recommended, or an appropriate time to start the day.
This is not to say that there won't be other factors involved or that some of the more obvious ones I mentioned before aren’t still the culprit, but these three elucidations above may offer a fresh perspective and give you more to think about as to why the early morning wakings are happening, and possibly what you can do to help them through it.
When it came to my son’s premature wake ups, we eventually discovered he was absolutely not stimulated enough. Once we started truly exhausting him more physically, and not just mentally during his awake windows, his naps lengthened and he went back to sleeping 12 hours each night. It’s truly amazing what taking a deeper dive into their world can allow us to understand and therefore allow us to tweak to help them start sleeping better again. But just because he is now sleeping until 6am again, doesn’t necessarily mean he won't still be the first to catch the worm!