The Early Bird Catches . . . Flak: Why Does My Little One Wake So Early?


There is a prevailing feeling that some children are just natural early risers. There is some truth to that. Some children do generally wake earlier than others, but there’s early and then there’s early. It might surprise you to know that as a sleep consultant and as a parent, I feel that any waking before 6:00 AM is not really appropriate. Shocking, I know.

Still, one of the most common questions I get from parents is, “Why does my child wake up so early?” (Emphasis, the parents). These poor people wander the world in a bleary-eyed haze, often heading to bed extra early at night just to be somewhat functional.

So, what gives?

Tired meme

In the early years of their lives, a general age-appropriate wake-up time for a child is any time between 6:00 and 7:00. Consistent early rising before that time can lead to quite a bit of sleep debt for your little one and a very long day for you. The good news is that habitually rising early is usually a fixable issue. Here are some common reasons why your child might be waking too early.

Culprit #1: A bedtime that is too late
Say what??? Did she really just write that? Sure did! The hands-down number one reason that children wake early is because their bedtime is consistently too late given their age and sleep needs. That makes no sense, you say! And to that, I say—you’re right. It’s not logical, it’s biological. Children are biologically hardwired to want an early bedtime. When they are kept up too long their bodies go into overdrive, releasing cortisol to keep them wide awake. This is precisely what causes the, “I don’t know, he just didn’t seem tired enough for bed. He was running around the house like a maniac,” phenomenon.

Also, contrary to what, again, seems logical, children will not sleep later if put to bed later. Yes, this can happen occasionally with well-rested children who have a later night out every now and then. However over time, that approach will backfire, causing an even greater build-up of cortisol and subsequent sleep debt. When children have an excess of cortisol in their bodies, it can take a while for their bodies to recalibrate—and the only cure is more sleep, usually in the form of an early bedtime for many days in a row.

Culprit #2: Waking associations  
Many children receive a cup or bottle of milk or a snack immediately upon waking—no matter what time it is. This can be problematic. Yes, we are all hungry when we get up in the morning, but for toddlers who have been habitually rising early, giving them food right away is one of the worst things you can do for their sleep. It greatly reinforces the pattern of early rising and actually makes them feel even hungrier on subsequent mornings than they would likely feel otherwise. The best thing to do when your child wakes for the day is a short morning routine before heading to the kitchen for a meal or drink.

Another association is being brought into mom and dad’s bed in those wee morning hours. It’s extremely tempting, I know, particularly because the child will often go back to sleep now that he is comfortably tucked into a cozy bed. Unfortunately, this just reinforces the pattern—and is often the hardest association to break. It doesn’t take very long for a child to begin to wake prematurely in anticipation of that “reward.” So, as hard as it might be, keep in mind that it’s a short-term gain that can be a real long-term pain.

Culprit #3: Habitually getting them too early
While this isn’t usually an initial culprit, when paired with the other problems I have mentioned, it can go a long way to reinforcing the waking. If your child begins to wake earlier, and all of the other healthy sleep hygiene components are in place, take care not to reinforce the waking by getting him as soon as he wakes. For one, we want to give the child the chance to fall back to sleep—which many children will. But also, a little one’s body can quickly adjust to rising very early if she officially starts her day very shortly after that early waking.

Ideally, you shouldn’t take children out of the darkness of their room and into the light of the living area of the home, but rather give them that chance to fall back to sleep. This is also when room-darkening shades become so important, particularly now that the mornings are lighter. Keep that room dark, with a capital D.

In talking to families, it seems that many of them think that having your very own lark at home is all part of the parenting package. In some ways, it is. Gone are the days of lounging around in bed on a weekend—at least for a while. But if your child is regularly waking before a truly acceptable time of day, know that there are definitely changes you can make to help you and your child get the rest you need.

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Kristina Amerikaner is the (mostly) rested mom of two and a certified pediatric sleep consultant with Good Night Sleep Site New Jersey. You can also connect with her on Facebook or over on that newfangled contraption known as Twitter. When not thinking about sleep (yours and hers), she loves reading, baking, and tackling The New York Times crossword puzzle. She lives with her family in Northern New Jersey, her native state.

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