Early Morning Waking Strategies
This is a transcript of Podcast episode 69 available here or iTunes/Spotify/Google Play
Let’s get into early morning wakings. First of all, why is this happening? Now, I share in all of our baby and toddler programs that early morning wakes are going to happen when you’re sleep training. It just is, because your child will get to the point where their body has essentially evened out. They have repaid their sleep debt. They are waking up early and now they’re fully convinced that 9.5 or 10 hours of sleep is great! Perhaps two or three weeks ago you would have absolutely said, “Yes, Becca, I want 9 hours of sleep, let’s get that!” Now, we’re trying to get more.
So, you may be listening to this podcast because...
You just sleep trained your child and they’re waking up early, and we need to dig a little bit deeper into this..
Your child falls asleep independently, but they’re waking up early...
Your child has always woken up early, and what can we do about this?!
Here’s the checklist I go through with my families:
#1: Check for light
It is currently mid-June, and a few weeks ago I shared how we are putting our daughters to sleep at 7:30 pm and they’re sleeping 7:30 pm to 7:30 am. We had been on a 7 to 7 schedule, so we pushed it 30-minutes later. Well after a few days on the new schedule, the girls were starting to wake up early! It was 6:15 am, and they were talking and singing, putting on their broadway shows, I’m like what the heck is going on? I go up there and guess what, ya’ll? Their EZ Blackout covers had kind of come off of the window and their room had a huge beam of sunlight coming in through it! So of course, they woke up early!
Here’s what I need you to do. Go to your child’s room. I don’t care if they’re newborn, baby, toddler, preschooler, whatever. Even I would like to do this to my own room. Go into their room, sit down, close the door, close the blinds and curtains, and just let your eyes acclimate, and if you can see objects around you, if you can very clearly see the bed, objects hanging on the wall, you can even read words on the wall or artwork, you need to make the room darker. Now, if you’re sitting there and you can’t even see your hand in front of your face, brilliant. You have a wonderfully darkened room. I also want to evaluate any night lights. I’ve talked about in previous podcasts that yes, toddlers can have night lights. I would prefer a dim salt lamp or the hatch clock to be on red. That’s not going to be as intrusive. What I want to make sure of is that we don’t have sunshine coming into your child’s room, or even blue or white light for that matter. If sunshine is coming in your child’s room, even if it’s the tiniest little crack, guess what? It’s going to trigger through their closed eyelids, to their brain, that it’s time to wake up, and we’ve got to make sure the room is dark. All of these other strategies will be for not if there is sunshine coming in your child’s room.
So how do I make the room dark?
Now, I actually have had a couple of questions, of course, since it’s summertime, asking, but how am I supposed to make the room dark? If you have to have the windows open, or perhaps you have a window unit, you guys can definitely still use the EZ Blackout covers. I highly recommend that. If you have to leave the windows open, I sympathize with you. I’ve been places we have to do that. We may need to adjust your child’s bedtime. We also may just need to be a little looser on our morning expectations because for one, if you can have as many fans going as possible, great, we can make the room as dark as we can, but if you have to have the windows open, there’s not much else we can do. We can go through these other strategies, but your child is probably going to wake up early and we may just need to realign out expectations that they’re going to get maybe 10.5 or 11 hours of sleep. Open window situations, we kind of need to be flexible on our sleep.
#2: Check the expectations
Now, we’ve made sure the room is completely pitch-black dark. Check! Next, I’m going to check into what does your child thinks is going to happen at 5 or 6 AM?
I have a family that I just checked in with recently, who the child is 14 months old, and she has been learning how to sleep beautifully all night long. She’s completed the sleep e-coaching™ program, and everything is great except for her 5:30 AM wakings. When I started to dig I found two things. One I found that she was nursing or having a sippy cup of milk before bedtime routine, which can be okay, but mom shared with me that the nursing was also happening in the morning when she got out of her crib. Ten minutes later, but she had also started to become incredibly attached to mom. What I asked her to do was in the morning when she got her toddler out of bed was give more time before breakfast--I know that you’re giving her a ten-minute wait, but add more time. Now, let’s start to have breakfast, instead of instantly having nursing time with mommy. Especially for toddlers, I would love for them to have food and then nurse, if you’re continuing to nurse, which is wonderful! Let’s create more separation, so I asked her to start doing that. This was just a few night’s ago, so I haven’t checked back in yet, but this is absolutely going to help her situation because her little one is thinking ‘I can’t wait to get up, I can’t wait until mommy comes in because I get to nurse, and it’s my favorite thing in the world.’
So, check in on what your child is expecting. Are they expecting to get up and sit down in a cozy chair in their room, in the semi-darkness at 5 AM and nurse with you? Or be rocked by you, or go to your bed and cuddle? Oftentimes, that’s what I’m finding with babies, is that they are thinking at the 4 and 5 AM mark that they will get up, go to mommy and daddy’s bed and cuddle. Well they don’t really know it’s that time, but 4 and 5 AM, it’s some of the lightest sleep that your child is getting so something could easily wake them up that’s triggered into ‘time to go to mommy and daddy’s bed.’ I just need to make sure that you are not giving them instant gratification and if you say that you’re not, check into how your child is responding to some of this.
Are they acting super attached to you? This didn’t come out until the last few minutes of our 30-minute call that mom said, “Oh yeah, she’s been just extremely attached to me.” Well, mom is also pregnant, so of course, this little one is starting to feel and sense that, so I asked her in the morning time, get your child out of the crib, get dressed, change diaper, go downstairs, have her help you get your coffee and both your breakfasts, sit down and eat, then after breakfast, nurse. Get creative in how we can start to space these things out.
#3: Check the naps
Next thing we want to check in on are your child’s naps. It really is going to be so critical to evaluate if your child is getting too much daytime sleep, or if they need to be making a nap transition. Frequently, I can tell when a family reaches out through Instagram or e-mail and they say, “My seven-month-old is waking up at 5 AM, they’re taking three naps a day, how can I help them sleep longer?”, and the answer is, consolidate! Go to two naps because if they’re getting too much daytime sleep, it’s going to take away from the night--which means early mornings! So, it really is important to evaluate if it is time to make a nap change.
Are they getting too much sleep? Without getting heavy into the numbers on this podcast because nobody wants to sit and listen to me rattle off numbers, just go down in the show notes or check out my Instagram. I have a button on the links in my Instagram and in the show notes that’s a free schedule generator. I’m going to share with you what your child’s ideal schedule should be, and how much daytime sleep we’re looking at. If you’re on one of these transition times, like six to seven months or twelve to fourteen months, or even two and a half to three, it’s time to start evaluating our naps. Let’s make sure we’re not getting too much daytime sleep, cut naps off, or make transitions, or whatever we need to do. It’s really important.
Of course, I hear families say, “There’s no way I could do two naps because they’re waking up at 5 AM!” Here’s what we need to be real about. Your little one needs to make a nap transition if they’re in this six to seven month, or twelve to fourteen months, or two and a half to three because these are the times we transition to consolidate or get rid of naps, and what I need you to recognize is that in that morning time, your child’s going to be the sleepiest. It’s called sleep pressure. It’s essentially a sleep hangover. They slept all night, they wake up in the morning, they’re tired. I need you to pull out all the stops during the day! Snacks for older kids, music, play time, excitement, whatever you can possibly do, push them to the appropriate nap. Don’t get them up at 5 or 5:30 just because you’re tired by 6:30. Put them down for a nap, even though they could handle two and a half hours of awake time. Sure, they’ll go back to sleep at 6 or 6:30 and probably wake up at 8, but then guess what? The rest of your day is totally messed up! It’s so important for you to hold fast to your morning time, get them up, keep them on track for that first nap.
Don’t put them down early, okay? That’s only going to reinforce the idea that if they wake up early, they get to have a nap sooner, and on a whim, and it doesn’t matter that there’s a schedule because they get to yawn and go down for a nap even though I’m not really ready. It’s really important that you hold fast to the nap schedule or the appropriate awake times which lead to a schedule to make sure that we’re not doing or giving naps on a whim, that we’re holding fast to what your child can do.
#4: Check ALL of the pieces of the sleep puzzle
You probably knew I was going to say this, but I will always and forever ask a family to do our Sleep E-coaching™ programs if they have early morning wakings because I don’t really know what’s happening. I don’t know if your child sleeps with a pacifier, or they fall asleep while rocking, or if your toddler expects you to come lay down in bed with them. The reason Sleep E-coaching™ exists is to give you the foundations of how to sleep. Once I know you’re doing that, now we can problem solve and dig into why else?
So, I am not even going to touch on props. If you are listening to this podcast and you know your child is four months and up and they use a pacifier to go to sleep, or they feed to sleep, or they expect someone to lay with them and they have a prop, that’s step one. Before you even get into these things, we need to sleep train, and then we can look at these early morning strategies because it will click. I’m skipping over the props thing in case you haven’t noticed because I cover that in Sleep E-coaching™, but it is something to think about. What is your child looking for at 5 and 6 AM to help them go back to sleep?
#5: Check Bedtime
The last thing I want to stress here is that early morning wakings are very complicated. Those, and short naps, are the two hardest things to work through. You’ve tried all of these strategies. You’ve made sure that the room is super dark, that we have appropriate awake times or naps, we have evaluated the early morning expectations, and now is the time to start questioning their bedtime.
Now, there are multiple different ways I’m going to go with this, so hang with me. I want to evaluate if your starting your chid’s bedtime at the appropriate time, but also their bedtime routine. I’m going to start with routine first.
If your child is twelve months and under, we can have a night time bottle, or nursing session. Right before you have them get into their crib, yes, we’re going to have a feed. But if your child is over twelve months old, that bedtime feed has to be gone because I got an email this week from a family who shared with me that their 18-month-old was really struggling, waking up early in the morning, and multiple times at night. They couldn’t understand why because she was taking a full bottle at bedtime. Ding, ding, ding! That’s it! After twelve months old, you cannot have a bedtime feed, and have a successful night of sleep. Asterisk here! Sure, some people can, but generically if you say.. ‘walk around the neighborhood and you’ll lose ten pounds..’ that may happen for one, but not for everyone.
So, here on this podcast, I’m laying down the truth and I’m telling you that if you have a toddler or preschooler, they cannot have milk before they go to bed. Why? Milk is going to cause them to have wakings. Why? Because it has natural sugars which can act like a sugar crash for your child. Also, your child might be lounging, hanging out with a sippy cup or bottle of milk and they’re starting to get tired and then thinking they need milk to get to sleep. Then they’ll wake up at 5 and 6 AM looking for that. I cannot tell you how many toddler families I’ve worked with where we start to dig and dig on those early mornings and I find they get the kid up, they go to the kitchen, grab the cup and give it to them, sit them in front of the TV, and bingo that toddler has everything they want and more! This strategy is one you can implement right away. If your toddler or preschooler is having a bottle or sippy cup of milk, stop it cold turkey at bedtime routine. If they ask, say, “This is a great opportunity to play!” Listen to Episode 32 where I give you the ideal toddler bedtime routine. It doesn’t include a bedtime feed or a bedtime snack because this is not the time to have that. Evaluate the milk situation. If your toddler or preschooler is waking up early, are they looking for that to help them get sleepy and get back more hours of sleep in those early morning times? It’s very important to look at!
Time for Bed
The next thing I want to check in on was the time for bed. That actual time your kiddo goes to sleep. Most people will think the later their child goes to bed, the later they will sleep. If you are a Little Z family, you know that ain’t true! That’s not going to happen! You’ve got to get your kid to bed at the appropriate hour to have a fuller and better night of sleep. I’m looking at a 7-7 schedule or 7-6 schedule Again, we’re aiming for 11-12 hours, here.
What most families will try to do before they do Sleep E-coaching™ is implement an 8 PM bedtime in hopes that their child will sleep until 7 AM. You know what happens, it backfires! They wake up at 6 or 6:15 and are getting way less sleep! I’m going to ask you to start tracking some things. I know you’re familiar with this if you’ve done e-coaching, you’ve been keeping a log, but I want you to start to find about 15 minutes earlier. If your little one has been going down at 7, and waking up at 5:45, tonight, I want you to put them down at 6:45 PM. Alright? I want you to do that for 4 to 5 nights, and I want to start to see if there’s any difference. If your little one goes down at 6:45, and sleeps until 6 or 6:15, they’re getting more sleep than they were before. I would stay there. If you don’t see any improvement in the morning wake time, then I would go 15 minutes earlier, yes! Do 6:30 for 4 to 5 nights and track that sleep as well. If you’re not seeing any improvement, then you have my full permission to do a 7:15! Now, we’re going to shock them with a little bit later. All of these bed timings I want you to do for 4 to 5 nights.
A majority of the time, we’ve gone through this whole checklist and these bed times and this is what is happening--we’re seeing little by little morning time change. Better expectations and better things are happening. But you know what? There’s always going to be something to look at.
For instance, I worked through all of these strategies with a recent four-month-old, and guess what? He was learning how to roll! It didn’t matter what we did, his body was trying to figure out how to roll from belly to back, and back to belly. Finally, at the tail end of our two weeks together, he flipped, and he started sleeping better! He knew how to sleep on his own, he knew what to do, and the skills, but his body was trying to learn a new developmental skill.
I do want you to evaluate what’s happening in your child’s body. We are not using teething as an excuse. I don’t use gas as an excuse. We can look at developmental regressions as a skill your little one is learning like rolling, crawling, standing, sitting, even jumping and talking. That can happen, but it only really happens for about two weeks.
If you’ve been experiencing these early morning wakings for longer than two weeks, get on these strategies now! No matter where you are in your child’s sleep training journey, I want you to know early morning wakes are normal. If you are a Sleep E-coaching™ family, you can get support with me. In fact! I only open up support if you have completed a program. You can go back into your program and click Step #5, or send us an email. We’ll give you different options for us to connect personally!
You know I am all about having great sleep and helping you make sleep a thing! If you listened to Emily’s story, you’ve listened to these strategies, and you know the missing link is that your kid has no idea how to sleep independently, it’s time to teach them. Scroll down in the show notes or head to our website, www.littlezsleep.com and start to check out options for your sleep e-course. If this was helpful to you, or you know a mom needing some sleep, be sure to share this!
Sweet dreams! See you next time!