Over tired, over wired and overly early rising

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Is your little one waking up early in the morning and welcoming in the crack of dawn? I promise that you certainly you aren't alone in those bleak early hours for I am so frequently asked about early rising and how to see a more respectable time of the morning.

Now I know you may not want to hear this BUT I do have to be honest; early rising can be extremely tricky to move forward with. However, that is not to say that it isn’t frustrating and exhausting; it really is and can really take its toll on every aspect of your family’s life! It doesn’t mean abandon all hope that enter here as there are a few things you can try but generally speaking I wouldn’t advise a family to fork out for a full consultation package with me IF this was the only sleep disturbance occurring as the advice is rather limited and general!

Like I said, it can be tricky to move forward with but it can be done and the key to seeing a more reasonable hour is working on stoppingthe early wake ups rather than settling them back to sleep when they do. The reason for this is once they are awake the chances of getting them back to sleep is slim; it’s all about biology the baby!

Do we have realistic sleep expectations?

There’s a lot of pressure to get your little ones to wake up at a certain time isn’t there? If they aren’t sleeping until a time that you have set in your head and they wake before this it can be easy to think there’s a problem that needs fixing. Again you may not want to hear this (especially if you aren’t a natural morning person!) but maybe it’s our expectations that need a gentle shift. All little ones are different and the time they wake will naturally differ. It also depends on what time they went to bed and whether they had a decent night of sleep. If your little one wakes up at 6 am, has slept well and they are well rested then whilst it’s early it is not wholly unacceptable. On the other hand anything with a 5 or dare I whisper a 4 in the rise time then yes there may be room for improvement.

We have two types of early risers:

Early bird: If your little one rises early, is in good spirits; eating and playing well and isn’t desperate for a snooze 15 minutes after waking then you likely have an early bird on your hands. Sorry folks, grab yourself a coffee and psych yourself up for the day when you can go into their room just as they are going to bed and proclaim you have lost a sock/can’t sleep/your bed is too beddy.

Early riser:  If your little one wakes up, is unsettled, desperately trying to get back to sleep and is whiny or tearful until their next nap it is likely you have an early riser; they wake up but it is not their natural wake up time.

Do read on and hopefully some of my suggestions below will help your family move forward.

Why does your little wake early and is hard to settle back to sleep?

This is all to do with biology baby!  From 3am to 6am your little one’s sleep is at its lightest because they don’t have any melatonin, the sleep hormone, in their system AND their wake hormones have kicked in ready to prep them for wake up. If they do wake up it can be almost impossible to settle them back to sleep because you are fighting basic biology!

What can you do to prevent early wake ups?

The most likely cause of early waking is being overtired. When your little one is over tired they produce cortisol (or what I like to call baby red bull). This cortisol is a shot of adrenaline designed to keep your little awake and in a state of high alertness. They produce this because when they are overtired their reactions and reflexes slow down and they may not be able to go into ninja mode at the drop of a hat to keep themselves safe from harm. To compensate their body releases this baby red bull to make sure they stay on high alert at all times. 

If your little one goes to beds overtired:

  • They may fight or resist going to sleep
  • They can take a long time to settle down to sleep. A little one who is overtired can take up to 6 times longer to settle!
  • The cortisol can wake them at any time during the night but they most commonly wake after midnight when their melatonin levels are starting to decrease.
  • It can cause early rising because once their melatonin is completely out of their body at 3am the cortisol left in their body wakes them

What can you do to prevent early rising?

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Nap Needs

Having age appropriate naps is the most important sleep foundation because they keep cortisol at bay and prevent your little one from becoming overtired.

 Encourage your little one to have appropriate naps for their age and stage:

 Age                                                                       Nap Needs per day

6 months and younger                            3-4 hours’ sleep over 3 to 4 naps

6 to 9 months                                           2-3 hours’ sleep over 2-3 naps

9 to 18 months                                          2-3 hours’ sleep over 1-2 naps

18 months to 3 years                                1-2 hours nap over 1 nap

3 to 5 years                                               Sometimes 1 nap (most lose between 3 & 4)

Best time for bed time

Pushing bedtime too late for your little one can undo all the work of your naps of keeping that cortisol at bay!

After 6 months old when their sleep system has kicked in their melatonin rises at 3 pm and is at its peak around 4 hours later. This is ideally when we want to get our little ones down for sleep; when their melatonin is at its peak!

For older ones you can push bedtime slightly later but for under-fives I usually recommend no more than five hours from 3 pm.

Ideal best bedtimes:

Under 6 months:         

Keep to their nap gap you have in place during the day. So if they go 2 hours between naps during the day bedtime no more than 2 hours from their last nap of the day

6 months to 18 months:     

Ideally no more than 4 hours from 3pm

Over  18 months:

Bedtime can be pushed to suit your little one but I generally advise no between 4-5 hours from 3 pm. If they fight or resist bedtime it is likely that time is too late for them.

If you little one is fighting, resisting or finding it hard to settle for sleep try bringing bedtime earlier slightly. Just 10 -15 minutes can make such a positive difference to how they settle to sleep, their night’s sleep and when they wake up.

If your little one wakes up after 3am, because of their non-existent melatonin levels it can take a while for them to link their sleep cycles at this time.  If there is no emotional need i.e. they are chatting, cooing or just awake I would encourage you to give them the sleep space they are asking for (they aren’t asking you to support them!)

If we go in at this time:

  • It may prevent them getting back to sleep
  • We can disturb them
  • It can over stimulate them
  • Once we go in it can be impossible to settle them once they see you; they get FOMO and understandably want to play with you!

If they need some emotional support (i.e. they are crying) or a feed, feed or reassure them but try to:

  • Keep everything as if it is night time
  • Keep conversation and interaction to a minimum
  • Only change their nappy if they really need it. No better way to wake your little one than whip off their nappy!
  • For older early risers having clear and consistent boundaries can help you all move forward. Playing and getting up at an unacceptable time reinforces that this is an acceptable thing to do.