If you have a reliable sleep routine at bedtime but you are not satisfied with the way mornings are going with your little one, here is how to have your best morning with small children. It’s no secret that most children naturally rise early in the morning, but too early can be unhealthy.
It is important to protect your sleep in the early morning hours. We get the most Rapid Eye Sleep (REM) during this time which is specifically important for our mental health. It’s a good idea to help your child start their day closer to 6:00 a.m. There are steps you can take, once your child is out of the newborn stage, to have your best morning as a parent.
0 through 3 months
Start thinking about refining your morning routine after the newborn stage. New babies can wake in the morning at unpredictable times, and this is developmentally appropriate in the fourth trimester. New babies also need to be fed frequently to keep up with their rapid growth and require feeding immediately when they are hungry. You can expect to respond quickly to your newborn’s cries, 24 hours a day, because you are still building your bond and getting to know and trust one another.
4 through 14 months
All healthy babies can sleep more predictably after the 16-week mark, or at 16-weeks adjusted age for babies born prematurely. Their circadian rhythm drives them to wake up and start their day sometime between 6:00-7:00 a.m. They are ready to nap about two to three hours later.
15 months through 3 years
Believe it or not, the morning rhythm doesn’t change much for small children between four months and three years. Their circadian rhythm still drives them to wake up and start their day sometime between 6:00-7:00 a.m. For well-rested toddlers, the next sleep wave comes about six hours later, between 12:00-1:00pm.
When children wake up earlier than 6:00 a.m. there are several factors that may be the cause. Things that can contribute to your child waking up too early are:
- Thirst or Hunger
- New cognitive or physical skills
- Sleep deprivation
- Noise disruptions
- Light disruptions
- Room temperature
- Parental behaviors (changing diapers, feeding, etc.)
Here are some of the reasons children continuously wake up too early for months on end, and ways you can work on it.
You may be surprised to hear that you can encourage early morning waking for older babies and small children by feeding them too soon after getting out of bed. You can unintentionally set their appetite rhythm too early, which can cause them to wake up before 6:00 a.m. and be legitimately hungry. Support your child to wake up later by delaying offering them liquids by 15-30 minutes after getting out of bed, and solid foods until 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. For older babies and toddlers, they can have a spill-proof straw cup with a small amount (four ounces or less) of water to get a drink independently.
Screens and Other Types of Playtime
Children are neurologically wired for play, so if they get to use screens, or play with family members anytime, they will always choose that option over sleep. It can be effective to put your child in front of a screen in the early morning and steal a few more minutes of sleep for yourself. Resist building this kind of habit. Don’t reward your child with a lot of attention or playtime before 6:00 a.m. If your child is crying intensely, keep the lights off, talking and touching to a minimum and let them know it is still time for sleep. For kids 18 months and older, use a toddler clock as a visual cue of colored light that changes only when it is time to start the day.
Our bodies know when it is time for sleep and time to be awake with the presence or absence of light. Even a dim amount of light, like early morning sunlight peeking through the crack of your bedroom curtain, can penetrate your closed eyelids. Children are sensitive to light at all times of day because their eyes are still developing. They are extra sensitive when they are not getting their sleep needs met, and struggle with sleep. Use light blocking window treatments to promote your child’s drive to sleep until 6:00-7:00 a.m.
Stubborn Early Risers
If over the course of their first year of life, your child has never slept until 6:00 a.m. you may have a genuine early riser. This type of sleeper is rare but does exist. You might consider keeping your early riser in bed until 6:00 a.m. This will raise their tolerance level to entertain themselves in bed while they wait for you to come and start the day. It is safe and healthy for children to learn the art of chilling out independently in their bed.
Breakfast, play or light could be the culprit for your child’s early morning sleep struggles. If those aren’t a significant factor, keep looking out for what is, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a sleep expert for help. It’s easy, even for experts and medical professionals, to have a blind spot when it comes to their own family members. There is no shame in admitting when you are stuck and need a second pair of eyes to see what you’re missing.