7 reasons babies wake at 5am (and what to do about it)

Why do babies wake up so early

Babies are creatures who need sleep and lots of it, so why is it that some little bed bugs decide that 5am is a perfectly acceptable time to wake for the day?

We’ve asked baby and toddler sleep expert, Tara Mitchell from The Gentle Sleep Specialist what it is that makes some babies wake so early, and tips to tackle crack-of-dawn waking.

Here are 7 reasons babies wake early, and what to do about it.

So long sleep-ins, hello parenthood! It’s common knowledge that sleeping in past 7am often doesn’t exist when small children are involved, right? That’s part of the parenthood contract and you’ve already signed it! But 5am starts to your day? Yikes, that’s early.

Read on to see why your baby might be waking early and my top tips for eliminating this.

1. Does baby have an optimal sleeping environment?

Ensure you create the perfect environment to encourage your little one to drift through those light sleep phases that occur during the early hours of the morning:

  • Darkness – make your child’s room really, really dark … pitch-black dark if you can. This is especially important coming into those warmer months when the sun is coming up early and can/will easily trigger your child to wake from their sleep.
  • Warmth – if your child is underdressed for bed, there’s no doubt that as the temperatures plummet in the early hours, an early wake up may be prompted. However, overheating a young child can be dangerous, so if you believe that your little one is dressed warm enough, skip straight past this point.

2. Is your baby going off to bed at a reasonable time?

Overtiredness is a big factor when it comes to reasons why early morning waking occurs.

  • Try and stick to an age-appropriate awake time before putting your little one down for bed to avoid overtiredness. A bedtime of 5:30/6pm is completely acceptable when required. Remember that sleep promotes sleep.
  • Keeping your child up later in the evening to achieve a later morning wake up time will often backfire due to overtiredness. It usually results in a much harder settle for sleep at the start of the night, more night wakes than usual and ends in an early start too. It’s just not worth it.

3. Does baby rely on something to help get them to sleep?

Eliminate all external measures that your child may be relying on to fall asleep and stay asleep.

  • External measures or ‘props’ refers to anything that comes into play at sleep time, time and time again to get your little one drowsy or put them off to sleep. For example, if your child is using a dummy or being fed/rocked/sat with to sleep each time, when it comes to the early hours of the morning, instead of your little one just drifting through each sleep cycle, they wake looking for that same thing that got them off to sleep at the start of the night and by 5am its game over on the resettles. ‘Self-settling’ plays a vital role in helping your little one ‘re-settle’ and stay in better sleep patterns in the early hours of the morning.

4. Is baby hungry?

If your baby is still having a night feed, it’s preferable to keep that night feed in the second half of the night (ideally after 12:30am) and keep him/her aware during that night feed.

  • Talking and touching your baby throughout their feed will enable them to register that they’re having a feed as well as encourage them to feed efficiently (as opposed to comfort sucking). A baby that is fast asleep during a night feed will often not realise that they’ve even had a feed and commonly wake between one to three hours later looking for another feed. This is partly why we don’t recommend dream feeds. If your baby is aware of their night feed, they should be able to achieve a long stretch of sleep to follow.
  • Through experience, it is rarely hunger that is the cause for early morning starts. However, if your little one is around six months of age, it might be worth considering whether they are ready for solids. If your little one is too hungry, drifting back off to sleep in the early morning can be a big ask.

5. Are you encouraging early morning waking by being too accommodating to it?

Unless you are worried, give your little one some time to see if they will drift back off to sleep without going into their room to stimulate or awaken them further. Of course, if your child was crying though, you could always go into the room and offer some comfort (such as a pat of the mattress and some shushing) to encourage him/her back to sleep.

  • Move away from rewarding the early morning waking with a feed, especially if your little one has already had one night feed – this excludes newborns and in situations where your child’s weight gain is of concern. Instead, try waiting 15-20 minutes after you get your little one up for the day to give them their next feed. Please seek medical advice if you are worried about your child’s weight gain.

6. Is baby napping too early?

Try and keep your little one’s first nap at a reasonable time. If you bring it too far forward and continue to accommodate the early morning waking there is a good chance it will stay around. On the contrary; don’t push your child’s first awake time to be significantly past their normal awake time or they will end up with a challenging nap. No longer than 30 minutes past their normal awake period is usually sufficient.

7. Do you need to reconsider your expectations?

Keep in mind the total hours of sleep your child is achieving overnight. Once having achieved that required amount of sleep, children will wake (possibly early!), no matter what is implemented. They have simply finished their sleep and are ready to start the day. For example, if your child has gone to bed at 6pm and is waking up at 5:30am, 11.5 hours of sleep is completely acceptable and they are actually doing fantastic.

We hope this helps you to figure out why your baby may be waking early and assists you to get a
slightly longer sleep in, in the mornings.

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Tara Mitchell is a Paediatric Nurse, former international nanny, mum and qualified Infant and Toddler Sleep Consultant, she’s also the founder of The Gentle Sleep Specialist – a place for families to get help for sleep issues. Resolving sleep issues, establishing routines, creating healthy sleep habits and managing behaviour at bedtime is what she specialises in.