This month, I wanted to answer one of the most common questions I get around infant and toddler sleep.
This question comes from Amy, and she writes:
“My one-year-old is waking up at 4:00 a.m. and won’t go back to sleep, even after I nurse him. He then struggles to make it to his first nap of the day. He goes to bed at 7:30 p.m. and has two solid naps during the day. How can I fix this?”
First of all, Amy, you are not alone with this struggle! Luckily, I have a few tips to help your little one start extending his morning sleep and get out of this rut for good!
TIP #1: KEEP IT DARK!
Have a look at the darkness level in your baby’s room. That is always the first place I look, especially during summer months when the sun is waking earlier than we are (or we want to, anyway). It is very important to keep light out!
People often think they have it dark enough, but it can always be darker! Even the slightest change in light variation can stimulate waking. As an adult, you can look at the clock and notice that it is not time to get up yet. You can roll over and go back to sleep, but your baby does not know to do that. Take whatever means possible to blackout the windows and eliminate any artificial AND natural light. Ideally, it should be as dark during the day as it would be in the middle of the night.
TIP #2: DO NOT OFFER A FEEDING UNTIL IT IS TIME TO START THE DAY
At a certain age and weight, most babies are physically capable of going all night without feeding (consult your pediatrician to see if your baby is ready).
So, Amy the fact that you are nursing your one-year-old at 4:00 a.m. may actually be making his early rising problem even worse! Assuming your little one does not have a health issue that would prevent him from going all night without feeding, then he really shouldn’t NEED to eat during those early morning hours. In fact, many parents find that the 4:00 a.m. feeding starts to get earlier and earlier instead of buying you more time in the morning. This is because in your baby’s mind, there is no difference between a 4:00 a.m. feed and a 2:00 a.m. feed. I recommend not offering a feeding until the official start to his morning.
In fact, when feeding in the early morning hours, you might actually be stimulating him and waking him up. After nursing, he likely feels refreshed and ready to start the day, which will only make your struggles more difficult. Having a minimum wake up time of around 6:00 a.m. is a good start. Better yet, encourage him to go back to sleep to complete one more sleep cycle and then start your day when he wakes naturally at a more reasonable hour.
TIP #3: ADJUST THE MORNING NAP TO BREAK THE CYCLE
You’ve mentioned in your question that your son is having a really hard time making it to his first nap of the day. I find that if a baby wakes up too early in the morning, gets up and therefore starts his day too early, he is going to be fatigued fairly quickly.
It is tempting to start putting him down earlier and earlier for that morning nap, but I recommend pushing him to a more normal naptime to help break the cycle. If you put him down too early it is more like giving him an extension to his nighttime sleep, rather than an actual nap. You will likely get stuck in this viscous cycle of him waking up too early, going down for a nap at 7:00 a.m., and therefore throwing off your schedule for the entire day. In addition to throwing off your day, it will also throw off your son’s body clock and make it difficult for him to make it to bedtime.
Even though it can be a challenge, you should fight to hang on to his normal nap time. If he normally naps at 9:30 a.m., then don’t offer a nap until then, even if he has been up since 4:30 a.m. When you notice him starting to get tired in the morning, try giving him a bit of fresh air or activities to distract him. Make sure that you give him enough snacks to keep his energy levels up and encourage him to stay awake. Some fresh fruit is a great way to get some natural sugars in his system and help him make it to nap time.
TIP #4: TRY AN EARLIER BEDTIME
Many parents decide to move their child’s bedtime later in hopes that they will sleep later in the morning. It is very tempting to try a later bedtime when you’ve got an early riser, but I encourage you to first try an EARLIER bedtime. Keeping babies awake longer in the evening hardly ever works. In fact, all you end up doing is creating a huge amount of over-tiredness in your child, which leads to more fragmented sleep and even earlier morning wake ups. When children are too tired going to bed, it actually makes falling asleep and staying asleep even more difficult, so try putting your baby down 30 minutes earlier at night for at least 3 nights and see if that helps him extend his mornings.
Keep in mind that any changes you make to your little one’s sleep habits can take anywhere from 3 days to a few weeks to see results, so stick with your new schedule for a bit before determining whether or not the changes are helping. Be patient and persistent and you and your little one will start seeing the sunrise at a more reasonable hour soon!