We are thrilled to have an article from the fantastic Lauren at the wonderful Little Sleep Stars – an infant sleep consultant in Lytham St Anne’s. Lauren can offer her services wherever you are based. Lauren offers a free 15 minute telephone consultation. If you would like an appointment please click here. Today Lauren shares an article with us on a question many of us parents want to know the answer to.
How do I stop my child waking at 5am?
Based on how frequently I am asked, “how can I stop my child waking at 5am?”, there are a startling number of families out there routinely starting the day at 5-something – sometimes even earlier! Whilst early-rising can be a tricky sleep hurdle to overcome, it is possible – and often the solution is the last thing a family expects…
Great expectations | Early Rising Infant
I class “early-rising” as being awake for the day earlier than 6am. Whilst many (maybe even most!) parents would love their little one to sleep until 8-something, a child’s biologically chronotype make it incredibly unlikely that’s where their natural wake-up time sits. For most children sleeping at their absolute best, waking for the day between 6 and 7am is typical.
Early bird or early-rising | Infant Sleep
How your child sleeps overall and their mood whilst awake are the best indicators as to whether sleep is working well for them. A little one who wakes at 5:55am, bright-eyed and content, makes it through to nap-time and then onto bedtime without getting cranky and sleeps soundly, is likely an early bird. Whilst this means an earlier start than you may like in the short-medium term, you’ll potentially miss these days when you are attempting to lever your child from his bed during the teenage years!
On the other hand, if your child wakes at 4, 5 or even 6-something still appearing tired and also routinely fights sleep, takes short naps and/or wakes frequently through the night, they are most likely early-rising. This means that rather than waking because they’ve had all the sleep they need, they are starting the day because they’ve taken all the sleep they can – and those two things are very different.
Blame the hormones | Overtired Infant
It’s a lot to do with a hormone called cortisol. Crucial to survival in many ways, cortisol is secreted when we are tired in order to keep us “going” – to enable us to flight or flee if faced with danger. Unfortunately, cortisol isn’t only produced in times of mortal threat. When a little one isn’t getting enough sleep overall, or if the sleep isn’t distributed in the best way to manage their sleep pressure, cortisol is released. This is why tired children often appeared wired or giddy – they have an adrenaline-like substance coursing through their bodies. And that’s really where the problem tends to start…
Because their cortisol level remains elevated, an overtired child faces a number of potential sleep traps – amongst them is finding it hard to get to sleep, being unable to stay asleep, and…you guessed it…waking for the day far too early. Sometimes a little one will effectively crash out at bedtime and sleep all the way through to 5am but unless they are routinely going to bed at 6pm or earlier, a little one is almost never genuinely done sleeping by then. More likely is that as their body began the drive toward wakefulness, which involves a steady release of cortisol from around 4am, the “extra” cortisol has meant they reach “fully awake” by 5am rather than the intended hour or two later.
It is typically hard for any of us to fall back to sleep at 5-something – and as adults we have the advantage of knowing what time it is. Babies and young children, on the other hand, are driven by what time it feels like. So, if it feels time to start the day that’s exactly what a little one will do.
No way out
Early-rising can become a fixed feature as not only is it usually caused by overtiredness it then maintains overtiredness by shortening the night sleep whilst stretching out the day. As a consequence, children are typically releasing more cortisol to make it through on reduced sleep.
Breaking the cycle
It is always worth checking the sleep environment for factors which may be causing or contributing to early-rising. Light, noise and temperature changes are all more likely to disturb a little one at the end of the night when their sleep is much lighter. If daylight is creeping into the room then block it out. If the spring months have brought bird happily tweeting a dawn chorus outside your little one’s window then try white noise to maintain a consistent rather than changing sound.
Then review your child’s daytime sleep pattern as this is, hands down, the most common cause of the early-rising I see. Check your child is getting enough daytime sleep and that none of their periods of awake time are too long (both of these are heavily influenced by age). Topping up your little one’s sleep tank may mean some extra naps or an early bedtime – as a temporary measure. Whilst a habitually early bedtime will also begin to drive early-waking, on a short-term basis it will not. It can be scary to bring bedtime forward with an early-riser but sometimes going to bed just 15 minutes earlier is all it takes to stretch out the wake-up time. As a general guide, anything up to an hour early to bed for a couple of nights, will not mean an earlier start to the day – it actually gives a tired little one the best chance of not early-rising as it limits the cortisol response. Always remember that sleep breeds sleep!
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