(Gentle) Sleep Training: What To Do When Your Baby Wakes Up Too Early In The Morning

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You might be pretty chuffed with your baby sleeping lovely long stretches at night but still, those early morning wakings get a bit tedious.

I, for one, am more of a night owl; anything before 7 am was early to me – pre-baby that is!  But having got my newborn pretty much sleeping through the night, next on the long list of skills to learn in the baby department: sleep training early morning wakings.  So you can finally answer a common baby sleep conundrum: how do I stop my baby waking at 5 am? 

You may be wondering if your baby is waking early because it’s too bright.  This is an incredibly common reason baby wakes up too early in the morning so this post will start there.

But, it may not be all that simple.  There are a whole heap of reasons why your baby is waking too early.  

Finally, I figured out how to stop baby waking at 5 am with some gentle sleep training early morning waking tactics.  You’ll find out all the nitty-gritty right here.

Defining: What is an early morning wake-up? 

Everyone’s definition of an early morning is going to be a little different. 

If you’ve tended towards late nights and as-late-as-possible mornings, like me, then 6 am will feel early.  But you may be more of an early bird and waking up at dawn may be just your thing. In which case you might be totally fine with your newborn waking at the same time.

What time should my baby wake up in the morning?

So, defining early morning wakings is a little subjective but as a general rule, the consensus seems to be that before 6 am is too early. 

Between 6.30 am and 7.30 am is the ideal time for baby to wake up in the morning.  This is the time I tended to start the day with my babies when following this newborn sleep schedule.

5 am is definitely too early and also a common time for babies to wake – it could well be why you’re here. Fear not, sleep training those early morning wakings is not as tricky as you might think.

How do you know if your baby is waking up too early 

The most important thing is that baby has sufficient rest. That’s really the prime factor in knowing if your baby is waking too early.  If your baby is waking up cranky and is clearly tired throughout the day, more sleep at night and banishing the early morning wakings could help.

Of course, it’s not just about night sleep – babies need a certain amount of sleep in the day, interspersed with periods of wakefulness that aren’t too long (these “awake times” are short at first and increase as baby grows).

Signs of tiredness that indicate baby is tired due to waking too early

If baby is fussy, agitated, clingy, difficult to settle, falling asleep while nursing these are all signs that baby is not getting enough sleep. This obviously won’t be helped by an early morning waking.

Another sign of overtiredness in babies is super-short naps – i.e. less than 45 minutes – as well as early morning wakings.  So it can be a vicious circle….

To get a general feel for how much baby should be sleeping, both day and night, check out these baby sleep charts.

Learn how to distinguish between tiredness, hunger, gassiness and trapped wind in this post here: 6 newborn baby cues you need to know: understanding baby cues (printable chart!)

The Circadian rhythm and how it affects early morning waking

The circadian rhythm is best explained as an internal 24-hour body clock.  It’s present in much of the animal kingdom (from animals, to plants, to fungi and more), is regulated mostly by light, as well as physical and social activity in animals.

Baby wakes up too early in the morning? The circadian cycle is partly to blame
Baby wakes up too early in the morning? The circadian cycle is partly to blame

 

Many processes and behaviors of the body demonstrate circadian rhythms, from body temperature to mood. However, the most obvious one is the sleep-wake rhythm. As diurnal mammals, we naturally want to sleep at night and spend the daylight hours awake. 

This is due to the relationship between light and the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin; light inhibits melatonin.  So as darkness falls, melatonin levels rise. 

Along with sleep debt (the need to sleep due to a length of time awake), melatonin creates a strong desire to sleep called the “sleep drive”.

The early morning waking baby’s sleep drive 

Melatonin levels are at their highest in the first part of the night, so this is when the sleep drive is strongest.

In the early hours of the morning, melatonin levels start to drop off and around 5 am it’s all but gone.  Of course, this often coincides with sunrise, which would inhibit melatonin anyway.

The hormone cortisol, also has a part to play.  Early in the morning, light intensity stimulates the release of cortisol, helping the body wake-up and get into gear for the day. (Source).  (Interestingly, this trend has only been found in the early morning, not at other times of the day i.e. increasing light intensity in the afternoon doesn’t affect cortisol levels.)

So really it makes perfect sense for your baby to wake at the crack of dawn – melatonin levels are minimal, the sun’s up which signals the start of the day, and stimulates cortisol which gives our bodies a helping hand. 

Is my baby waking early because it’s too bright?

This could well be one of the reasons, so it’ll be no surprise then that the number 1 sleep training early morning waking strategy is making baby’s sleep space pitch black (check out the best blackout shades right here).

But there may be other reasons too – we’re not done yet.

The ideal sleep environment & newborn sleep cycles and patterns

For babies to sleep well, their sleep environment is critical.  Doesn’t matter what time of day it is, you want baby to be free from disturbance.

We’ve touched on the impact of light and brightness in the morning, let’s look at the other most common disturbances, all of which could wake baby throughout the night or play a part in an early morning waking:

  • sudden noise
  • The startle or ‘Moro’ reflex
  • feeling too hot or too cold
  • discomfort such as dirty/wet diaper
  • hunger

Newborns are easily disturbed

Newborns spend the majority of their sleep (70-80%) in ‘active’ or ‘transitional’ sleep when they’re easily disturbed and restless.  Disturbances can also prevent your newborn from transitioning easily between sleep cycles. 

It’s normal for babies to come into full but brief consciousness at this point – the brain’s way of checking in that all is ok.

Not only that, as the night progresses, sleep cycles shorten a little and babies spend a little longer in the more easily disturbed phases.  So towards the morning, newborns are more easily disturbed than early on in the night.  The same goes for us as adults, too.

Related post: Newborn sleep patterns: decoded and demystified for healthy sleep habits

Creating the ideal sleep environment

Creating the ideal sleep environment will minimize any disturbances and help prevent your newborn waking during light sleep stages and between sleep cycles.  A poor sleep environment could be why baby wakes up too early in the morning.

baby was in darkness in utero - another reason to invest in est baby blackout curtains nursery
The ideal sleep environment mimicks the womb; getting this right will help with early morning wakings

 

Not only that, baby’s sleep environment should help induce sleep. Mimicking the environment that was so calming and comforting to your newborn ticks both those boxes.  This means:

#1 Playing white noise

Or music with a consistent tone, pitch and volume (think mellow classical music or lullabies).  This drowns out those sudden noises and will be calming and comforting – the womb was a noisy place with a lot of whooshing and gurgling.  For this reason, white noise is best – turn it up loud, think the volume of a running shower.

#2 Swaddle baby effectively

Not only will this prevent the startle or ‘Moro’ reflex from disturbing baby, but a good swaddle will also re-create the cocooning effect of the womb that newborns feel so calm and comforting. (Swaddling is superior to a sleep sack for a newborn)

 

#3 Make sure baby is a comfortable temperature

This should prevent baby waking too early due to any hot or cold discomfort and is as simple as having the room at a comfortable temperature and dressing your newborn in the correct sleepwear.

More difficult to control disturbances

You’re never going to eliminate the need to change a dirty diaper at 5 am or any other time of the night, but ensuring a wet one doesn’t disturb baby by using a really thick nighttime diaper could help prevent baby waking up too early in the morning.

Neither can you do much to control your newborn’s appetite; if hunger strikes, you need to feed that baby.

When it comes to trapped wind disturbing baby, ensure you’re burping baby enough and effectively during those night feeds.

Related post: Got a gassy baby? 16 Common causes & remedies to fix them for good

What is sleep training for early morning waking babies?

To me, the term “sleep training” sounds harsh, involving tears and upset from baby (and often mom too).  But sleep training for early morning waking is really no more than instilling good sleep habits and routines alongside a super-duper sleep-inducing environment, as you’ll see in the solutions below.

You should never leave a newborn to cry for an extended period of time but even if your baby is older, if you get all those other things sorted, there shouldn’t be any need to consider cry-it-out methods of sleep training.  Gentle sleep training should be all that is needed.

Understanding your expectations when your baby wakes up early

If early morning waking has become a habit, i.e. it’s happening at least 5 mornings a week, it could well take a while to correct, like any other habit.  It may only take a few days, but it could take up to 10.  Patience and perseverance is key. 

Keep plugging away with all the early morning waking sleep training strategies below and in time you should see a change. 

What can cause my baby to wake up too early in the morning?

By now, you probably have a few ideas on what causes early morning waking for your baby.  In light of the above, the first will be no surprise to you and is one of the most common reasons, especially in those summer months… And there are a few others already mentioned, but here’s the full list of reasons for early morning wakings.

#1 EARLY MORNING WAKING CAUSE: Sunlight 

Of course, sunlight tops the list of why your baby is waking too early in the morning. To recap the above:

  • sunlight signals to baby that it’s time to wake-up, helped by cortisol levels which is elevated by light intensity in the morning
  • this is aided by the easily disturbed sleep that a newborn spends so much time in, even more so in the morning

SLEEP TRAINING FOR EARLY MORNING WAKING: Make baby’s sleep environment pitch black

By pitch-black we’re talking so dark that you cannot see your hand in front of you.  You want absolutely no chinks of light creeping in around the curtains – you need the best blackout shades you can lay your hands on.

Early morning waking baby due to a lack of sleep drive
Baby waking too early in the morning bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to start the day?  A lack of sleep drive due to too much sleep the day before could be the reason

#2 EARLY MORNING WAKING CAUSE: Lack of sleep drive

Sleep drive is not just about a lack of melatonin in the morning.  It’s hugely influenced by how many naps and how much baby slept the day before:

too much sleep in day > too little sleep drive in morning > early morning waking

SLEEP TRAINING FOR EARLY MORNING WAKING: Ensure baby not sleeping too much in day

Again, you need to ensure that your newborn’s sleep environment is pitch-black, so that sunlight cannot suppress melatonin (as well as stimulate cortisol) any earlier than necessary.

In addition, check that baby is not sleeping too much in the day; use these baby sleep charts as a guideline. 

#3 EARLY MORNING WAKING CAUSE: Unravelled swaddle or inappropriate sleepwear

When in those easily disturbed light sleep stages, newborns often look restless and move around a lot, thrashing and kicking about.  You need to become a swaddle ninja!

sleep training early morning waking strategy #6: swaddle
Sleep training early morning waking strategy #3: swaddle, but swaddle effectively

SLEEP TRAINING FOR EARLY MORNING WAKING: Learn how to swaddle correctly & effectively, dress baby in correct sleepwear

Don’t worry, if you’re all fingers and thumbs, you never get the swaddle to stay on longer than 5 minutes, let alone past 5 am or your baby seems to hate the swaddle, learn all the nitty-gritty in this free swaddle course:

 

Guidance on how to dress baby for sleep right here.

#4 EARLY MORNING WAKING CAUSE: Baby is overtired

So babies may wake early in the morning simply because they’re no longer tired.  The opposite is also true; being too tired can also cause early morning wakings.

Do babies sleep longer if they’re really tired?

Uh no, unfortunately not.  Fun fact: being super duper tired does not mean your baby will sleep longer or better. Overtired babies do not sleep well.  

What about, do babies sleep longer if they go to bed earlier?

Quite possibly.  Because by going to bed earlier, when not overtired, your baby could well sleep better and wake later in the morning.

Cortisol affects sleep again, this time stimulated by the stress of overtiredness

Overtiredness is a form of stress and, as in other times of stress, such as the flight-or-flight response, cortisol is released as a coping mechanism.  By cope, we’re talking, keeping that little body functioning and awake. 

The more overtired baby becomes, the higher the stress response i.e. the more cortisol floods the body.  Super-duper meltdown alert.   Settling an overtired baby to sleep may seem almost impossible.

If your baby is fighting sleep and naps, overtiredness could well be the reason

Once asleep, cortisol continues to circulate baby’s body and can disturb during light sleep.  This means baby will wake sooner and/or more often.

So short naps and early morning wakings are also the norm if baby is overtired.

SLEEP TRAINING FOR EARLY MORNING WAKING: avoid overtiredness

Other than the early morning wakings, short naps and difficulty in settling, general agitatation and fussiness can also indicated baby is not getting enough sleep. 

If baby is wriggling and writhing and generally uncomfortable, gas pains might be the issue.  Check out this gassy baby post for the causes and solutions.

For guidelines on how much sleep your baby should get and with corresponding awake times (the time baby can manage between sleeps without becoming overtired) check the chart below.  

baby awake time chart to avoid early morning wakings

 

Of course, these are only guidelines, but as a rule of thumb your baby is probably not getting enough sleep and will be overtired if either of the following are true:

  • baby is getting 2+ hours less sleep per day than recommended by the chart
  • baby is awake longer than 2 or 3 hours than recommended in the ‘maximum awake time’ column

So how do you avoid baby becoming overtired?

You need to learn your baby’s specific tiredness or sleepy cues, which in turn will help you figure out those awake times. Then once you spot baby is getting tired, settle baby to sleep before overtiredness hits.

All about baby cues here, or jump to those sleepy cues right here. More on avoiding overtiredness and working out awake times here.

#5 EARLY MORNING WAKING CAUSE: You rush over and pick baby up when she stirs

Not only are newborns easily disturbed, they can easily fool us into believing they’re awake or about to wake up.  That’s just the nature of newborn sleep.

During those light sleep stages of “transitional” and “active” sleep babies often cry out, call out, stir, wriggle and even open their eyes.  Plus they also often wake briefly between sleep cycles (after 45-50 minutes).

However, this does not mean baby is awake, about to wake and certainly doesn’t mean they’re ready to get up. 

Remember that late on in the night, i.e. towards getting up time, more time is spent in light sleep stages (the same goes for you too, so you’ll also be more likely to be woken by your baby vs. the middle of the night).

You need to give baby the chance to settle back to sleep.

sleep training early morning waking strategy - to pause and see if baby will settle back to sleepeep through night
Sleep training early morning waking strategy #5: pause and see if baby will settle back to sleep

SLEEP TRAINING FOR EARLY MORNING WAKING: Wait a moment

Quite simply, you need to pause before rushing over to your baby.  Wait to see whether or not she’s awake.  If she is, give baby the chance to settle back to sleep. 

Pausing like this is an important step in encouraging baby to ‘self-soothe and is key to longer sleep periods both day and night.

For more on the importance of the ‘pause’ in developing healthy sleep habits, plus how to do it check, out this post: Want baby to sleep through the night? Essential learnings from newborn sleep and the ONLY tip you really need 

Can I leave baby in crib awake in morning?

You should now understand that the answer to this is, as long as baby is happy and content, then yes, absolutely.  In this way you’re waiting and pausing to see if your baby will fall back to sleep.  If you decide instead to get baby up you’re effectively telling baby it’s time to start the day, further cementing the early morning waking habit.

#6 EARLY MORNING WAKING CAUSE: Baby unable or won’t settle back to sleep on waking

So your baby may have woken briefly as they tend to do, between sleep cycles or when in easily disturbed sleep. You’ve paused, but baby cannot settle back to sleep; this is perfectly normal and to be expected of a newborn.

SLEEP TRAINING FOR EARLY MORNING WAKING: Aid baby back to sleep until early morning wakings are no longer

First, check that nothing is disturbing baby that needs your attention, such as:

  • Dirty/wet nappy
  • Hunger
  • Too hot or cold
  • Trapped wind
Fix as necessary and while doing so make sure that you keep the lighting dim, avoid eye contact and don’t make any sudden noises.  This helps signal to your baby that it’s still time to sleep, not time to get up. 
 
Then try to settle baby back to sleep with your normal settling technique.  This can take a long time, up to an hour or so.  Or you might not succeed and baby stays awake.
 
Even if baby doesn’t fall back to sleep, continue in “night mode” with darkness, white noise, swaddle, no eye contact (i.e. don’t be tempted to play with baby or communicate in any way) etc.

Sleep training for early morning wakings: a summary of what to do

Ensure baby’s sleep environment is spot on

That means:

Try to ensure baby has enough sleep drive but isn’t overtired

Baby needs to be tired enough to need to sleep later in the morning, but not so tired that cortisol floods that little body and disturbs baby in the early hours… yes, that can be a hard nut to crack.

Learning baby’s sleepy cues and figuring out those awake times are crucial.

If baby appears restless or waking up, pause first

Baby might not be awake and if she is, give her the chance to settle back to sleep before you disturb further.

Settle baby back to sleep if necessary

Whatever the cause of your baby waking up too early in the morning, those early morning wakings can quickly become habitual too.  Help baby back to sleep if necessary until baby is regularly waking later. 

Conclusion: Your little one may be waking up too early in the morning but with time and patience, these sleep training early morning waking tactics will see you both getting more sleep

Keep at it and not only will these tactics stop baby waking up too early,you’ll also get a bit more sleep too.  Good luck!

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Hi, I'm Sarah

Mum of two outrageously gorgeous and ridiculously energetic toddlers – A.K.A. not so little, Littllees.  I’m determined to give them the best without losing my mind.  I reckon it’s possible.  Most days.  

I love a challenge and have to find out they ‘why’, ‘what’ or ‘how to’  –  there are rather a lot of these when it comes to kids… 

I also love, love, love things to be neat and tidy and just so.   The Littlees normally have other ideas!  

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