“Early waking”is considered to be your baby waking and not being able to be settled back to sleep before 6:30am for a baby under 6 months or before 6:00am for a baby over 6 months. Here are the main reasons babies wake early:
NAPS vs NIGHT SLEEP
One of the biggest factors in early waking is the way daytime sleep affects night sleep. If a baby has too much day sleep, they have simply already had enough sleep in that 24 hour period and they genuinely don't need to sleep till 7am. The opposite is also true - if your baby hasn’t had enough day sleep and was very overtired at bedtime, this stimulates a hormone called cortisol, which is similar to adrenaline and peaks during the afternoon and evening. Higher cortisol levels means your baby's sleep will be more restless, causing night waking and early morning waking. The timing of your baby’s naps plays a part too - if a baby’s morning nap is too early or for too long it will actually cause or reinforce early morning waking because babies learn they can catch up on the missed night-time sleep at that nap! Having a late afternoon sleep that is too long can also lead to those early wakes.
The best way to rule out nap-related reasons for early waking is to have your baby is in a good Sleeping and Feeding Pattern so their naps are spot on. If your day sleep is all in line and your wee one is still waking early, this is not "normal" and here are the next most likely causes:
Babies are quite sensitive to being too hot or cold. A common reason for an early wake is that they are actually cold. Having your baby swaddled and then cotton or wool blankets over the top for babies under 4 months or in a merino sleeping bag for older babies is the best way to go to ensure they are cosy all night long. Using a heater in their room is a good option in cooler climates/seasons, as long as you can control the temperature - use a Heatermate or thermostat to set the room temperature: between 18-20 degrees Celsius is the perfect room temperatures for babies. Babies who are too hot or over-bundled can also wake early too... this is the period of the night when babies come into their lightest sleep (they enter deep sleep again right before it's time to wake up), so anything that makes them uncomfortable at this time of the morning will wake them and keep them awake. Using natural fibres in your baby’s clothing and bedding helps stop overheating - we’d recommend fabrics like cotton, merino or wool. You should never use polyester, fleece or other man-made fabrics in your baby’s bed.
If mornings where you live are starting to get lighter your baby may start to wake around 5:30/6:00am and instead of going back into another sleep cycle, can stay awake if there is too much to look at in their room! Some babies can be really sensitive to any daylight coming into their room as this resets their body clocks, signalling that it is morning. This can create a physiological habit of early waking which can be hard to break! Having a super dark room can trick them into thinking it is still the middle of the night and keep those sleep hormones coursing through their bodies.
Using white noise will help drown out any household or environmental noises that might stimulate them at this time of the morning. White noise and a dark room are both positive sleep associations that signal to your baby that it is still sleep time. When you get your baby up for the day, open the curtains, turn off the white noise and emphasise that it is morning so they start to learn the difference between day and night.
Genuine hunger in younger babies, babies approaching 6 months or babies who have recently been weaned off night feeds can cause them to wake around 5am. Treating this wake like a night wake and offering them a feed here would be your best bet, then put them back to bed till 7am.
If you can rule out hunger, being too hot/cold and day sleep having been an issue, it might pay to have your baby checked by your doctor. Even if they don't seem sick, ear infections or sore throats are common culprits for early waking (especially if it happens quite suddenly) and don't always show other symptoms such as a fever or runny nose etc. Babies with wind/gas issues or reflux can also be early wakers as their health conditions can flare up in the early morning once they come out of their deep sleep stages.
In babies older than 6 months a habit may have formed, which could have initially been caused by one of the above reasons. In this case your best option is to leave them to it, as long as they're not upset, because they do need to learn they have to go back to sleep. At this age, even going into your baby's room will be sending them the message that you're coming to get them up for the day and they might really protest any resettling attempts you make. (Younger babies won't form these habits so easily, so look to the above reasons if your baby is younger than 6 months and waking early). Often babies wake early as they're still learning to consolidate their night-time sleep; giving them the chance to go back to sleep here will help that process.
IN OLDER TODDLERS OR PRESCHOOLERS
If your toddler or preschooler is waking early, check the things off this list first. Habit, too much/too little day sleep, napping too late in the day or a room that is too light are the main culprits of early waking at this age. Using a tool such as a sleep training clock will help establish the “rules” with your little one around when is the right time to get up and start the day. Blackout blinds and white noise is just as effective for toddlers as it is for babies.