Why won’t my baby sleep past 4 am? This is our most popular blog post, and for good reason. If you’ve gone down the internet research rabbit hole, you’ve likely been dealing with early morning wakes for a while now. At different times you may have wondered the following: Is it a developmental milestone? A regression? Is my baby getting too much sleep during the day, or not enough? Maybe he’s just hungry. Maybe she’s too hot, or too cold. Or maybe they were born an early riser?
Here at the Sleeper Teachers we’ve helped hundreds of families resolve their children’s early morning wakes. If you’re exhausted by the internet search for solutions and have tried everything you can think of — moving bedtime earlier, later, adjusting nap schedules and wake windows, adding a noise machine, ruling out hunger — but nothing seems to be working, this detailed 12 Step Guide to Getting Rid of Early Morning Wakes is for you. The guide will walk you step-by-step through troubleshooting your child’s exhausting early morning wakes so that your little one can get the sleep they need, and so can YOU!
While this blog post serves as an overview, the guide provides a deep dive and checklist for determining what is causing the early wakes. Read on for some more information about the reasons why they occur.
First We Need to Understand the Basics of the System of Sleep
About three hours before we’re naturally prone to waking up for the day, our bodies begin to secrete a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a stimulating hormone and produced in times of stress to elevate the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system. In the morning, its job is to get us started. Think of it as mother nature’s caffeine.
If cortisol is our morning cup of coffee, melatonin is our evening glass of wine. Once the sun starts to set, our bodies recognize the onset of night and begin to produce melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone that helps us fall asleep and stay asleep until morning, when the whole process starts over again. Melatonin production increases on the days we get plenty of natural, bright sunlight.
What Does This All Have to do with Sleep Past 4 am?
You now understand the basics of sleep science and the hormones at play. But what does this all have to do with my baby waking at 4am?
As beautifully crafted as our sleep system is, it’s not perfect and it’s easily disrupted. To ensure our little ones are able to sleep until morning (defined as 6:00am or later), we need to make sure they are going to sleep with optimal levels of melatonin and low levels of the stimulant, cortisol. This is often easier said than done, and is tied to many factors including sleep schedule, individual sleep needs, environment, incentives, and more.
Before we dive in, it’s important to know that your child’s early morning wakes could be related to one of the following factors, or it could be a combination of several of them. Sleep (for all ages) is tremendously complicated!
Overtiredness is Not Our Friend
As a baby’s body produces melatonin, there is a narrow window of time when the body expects to be going to sleep. We call this optimal time period a wake window, and they change as your little one gets older and is able to spend longer periods of time awake. Once a child surpasses their optimal wake window before bed, they have likely entered into overtiredness territory. This often manifests as a big burst of energy right before bedtime. You probably know what we’re talking about – your little one goes from normal to wired in the blink of an eye. And you’re thinking, what’s she got to stay awake for? She doesn’t watch Netflix and she hasn’t discovered TikTok yet.
To ensure your baby isn’t going to bed overtired, put them to bed at an appropriate time for their age. Early to bed does not always mean early to wake. In fact, it’s usually the exact opposite! Children need a minimum of 11-12 hours of sleep per night, so if you expect them to wake up at 6:00am or later, they should go to bed at least 11-12 hours prior to the desired wake time.
How Low Daytime Sleep Leads to Early Morning Wakes
Another factor often overlooked when it comes to early morning wakes is daytime sleep. Is your child getting enough for their age? Or are they a chronic short napper, sleeping only 20-45 minutes at a time? Getting too little daytime sleep will cause raised cortisol levels and often impacts nighttime sleep. Again, this may look like hyperactivity before bedtime which is counterintuitive to what you’d expect. That’s cortisol at work!
Cycles of overtiredness are vicious, and most often look like chronic short naps, low night sleep, followed by the same cycle the next day. It’s a chain reaction: overtiredness produces excess cortisol, excess cortisol interferes with melatonin levels, and melatonin is what keeps us sleeping through the night. If you’re struggling with low daytime sleep and early morning wakes, we recommend fixing naps first. Head over to this blog post about helping your child nap better.
Undertiredness and Early Morning Wakes
In our work with families we see overtiredness impacting early mornings far more often often than undertiredness, but it’s still worth mentioning. If your little one gets too much daytime sleep, they may be undertired when bedtime rolls around, and after 8 or 9 hours of sleep they’re ready to go. We look at sleep needs in a 24 hour period, so an excess amount of daytime sleep can certainly reduce the need for night sleep.
So You’ve Determined Your Child Isn’t Overtired or Undertired, Now What?
If you’ve determined your child is not going to bed under or overtired, it’s time to look elsewhere. Environmental factors such as light and noise are common culprits for waking our little ones up too early. Avoid any TV, iPhone, tablet, or screen time of any kind for at least an hour before bed. These devices emit a geyser of blue light that stimulates cortisol production right at the time you’re trying to avoid it, and they prevent melatonin production right when you want it. That is double trouble!
It also helps to ensure that all sleep sanctuaries (aka bedrooms) are as dark as you can get them, and start turning down the lights in the house at least an hour before bedtime. Simulating the sunset will help to cue melatonin production so that it’s in full swing when bedtime routines are complete. This is especially important in the summertime, as daylight hours extend later and later into the night!
But above all, the number one way to help your family make it through the night and sleep past 4 am is to get everyone on a predictable, consistent and appropriate sleep schedule, and to teach the skills they need to fall asleep independently.
Ensure Your Child Can Fall Asleep Independently
As you already know, cortisol functions to get our bodies going in the morning. Assuming your baby’s circadian rhythm is scheduling a 7 am wake up, her body ceases to produce melatonin and begins secreting cortisol around 4 am. Around that time she will naturally complete a sleep cycle by moving from a stage of deep sleep back into a “slightly awake” state. For most of us, we may turn over in bed and fall right back to sleep without any recollection of the wake once we’re up for the day. For a baby who hasn’t learned to sleep independently, this is the hardest time to fall back to sleep. With a little bit of stimulant (cortisol) and no natural sedative (melatonin), baby lies in her crib frustrated and unable to fall back to sleep. And now you’re both up for the day.
The bottom line is we all wake up briefly throughout the night, regardless of our age. As adults, we have the ability to calmly assess the situation when we wake up in the dark, realize where we are, see that it’s still nighttime, and go right back to sleep. Most of the time we don’t even remember the wake up the next morning.
So although we can’t prevent your littles from waking up at night, studies show we can safely and effectively help everyone to learn to recognize that they are comfortable, in familiar territory, still tired, and capable of getting back to sleep on their own. There are solutions to your child’s sleep struggles.
Resources to Help Solve Your Child’s Early Morning Wakes
If you’ve checked all the boxes you can think of, and those early morning wakes are still happening, check out the Sleeper Teachers 12 Step Guide to Getting Rid of Early Morning Wakes. The guide will walk you step-by-step through what you need to do to put an end to early waking (and all of the reasons behind why they happen), and finally get your early mornings back.
If you’re looking for personalized support, reach out to the Sleeper Teachers for more information about how we can help. After all, we are certified sleep consultants and spend our days (and nights) supporting and educating families in finding sleep solutions. You can also head over to our reviews page to read how impactful teaching independent sleep was for our clients. Lives change when everyone in a family sleeps!