I think this is the single question I get the most often as a sleep coach, and it makes a lot of sense. Early rising is usually the first thing to go wrong when a child is having sleep problems, and it’s the last thing to improve in the sleep coaching process. Plus, it’s NO fun to wake up at 4:30 or 5am; 6 or 7 (a developmentally appropriate start to the day) is hard enough! Our bodies are hard at work secreting hormones to keep us asleep, so we’re groggy and cranky at best. Our circadian rhythm, or natural sleep cycle, indicates that we shouldn’t be awake, it’s dark, and most of us aren’t even close to the 8 to 9 hours of sleep the average adult requires. Actually, our kids are probably not at the 11 or so (depending on their age) that they need either, so that bears the question; why is it happening?
Let’s start with the low hanging fruit. Are they getting rewarded for getting up early? I know that sounds like a silly question, but stick with me. Sometimes, particularly when we’re tired, it seems easier to just nurse them, give them a bottle, bring them to bed with us, turn on a TV, etc. just to get a little more sleep. On the other hand, it may seem like a battle that isn’t worth fighting, particularly in our exhausted state, so we may just give in and get them up. Unfortunately, all of these “quick fixes” actually ENCOURAGE early rising. Without meaning to, we’re providing positive reinforcement for the behavior we are hoping to eliminate. If you remember your Intro to Psychology course, you know this will never work. So, here’s the bad news. You are going to have to treat EVERY wake-up the same way, even the ones at 4:30 and 5am. I usually tell parents to just pretend it is 1am. For some reason, it’s easier to be consistent then!
Assuming you aren’t unintentionally rewarding the early rising, what else could it be? Well, there are four main causes:
- Doing too much of the work to help your child fall asleep at bedtime – Remember, it should take him 10 -15 minutes to fall asleep. If it’s a lot faster than that, he was probably too tired or you did too much (rocking, feeding, patting, etc.).
- Bedtime was too late – I know it’s counter-intuitive, but a later bedtime usually leads to an EARLIER wake up in young children. It is really important that they fall asleep at a time that coincides with their natural sleep cycle, or circadian rhythm, otherwise their body will start releasing hormones to help them stay awake. Once those hormones are in your child’s system, she will have a much harder time falling asleep and staying asleep through the night. For most kids, that natural sleep time is between 6 and 8 pm.
- Too large of an awake window after the last nap – This is very similar to the previous reason. Children on 2 naps a day can’t go more than 4 hours from the moment they wake up from their afternoon nap until they are asleep for the night, and many of the younger ones can’t even go that long without their body releasing hormones to stay awake. Older children who only take one nap a day may be able to go 5, but many are more comfortable between 4 and 4 ½ hours of awake time.
- Nap deprivation – A lot of people believe that limiting a child’s nap will help him sleep better at night. This is simply not true! If a child is not taking age appropriate naps, his body will release those same “stay awake” hormones we discussed earlier, and that will make falling asleep, and staying asleep, a lot more difficult. Plus, he’ll probably pretty unhappy and crabby!
If you know that none of the causes above apply in your situation, I would suggest you rule out medical issues such as acid reflux (GERD), obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and uncontrolled allergies, asthma, or eczema. A single sleep cycle is 3 to 4 hours long, so even if your child “sleeps through the night,” she is actually waking up and putting herself back to sleep every 3 or 4 hours. Each time she wakes, it’s a bit more difficult to fall back to sleep, so that last wake up that usually occurs between 4 and 5 am is the hardest one of the night. Physical discomfort makes it very difficult to sleep, so that is often enough to keep a child from falling back to sleep that last time.
Thankfully, once the issues listed above are resolved, it only takes a couple weeks to get the early rising under control, so there is hope!