My 2-year-old has been rising at 5 a.m.—sometimes earlier—for the past few weeks. He’s always been an early riser, but this is hard. Help!
First, the bad news: Some children are simply wired to wake up early. About 10 to 15 percent of children are natural-born early risers (though you may be able to help your early bird learn to sleep until 6 a.m., instead of popping up at 5 a.m.). Now for the good news: If the 5 a.m. wakeups are a recent development, they’re probably just a phase. Happily, you can help the phase pass quickly. Keep in mind that being overtired is the principle cause of waking too early. It’s a vicious cycle—overtiredness contributes to early waking (because, paradoxically, overtired kids have a harder time staying sound asleep), and the early waking then causes more overtiredness.
The fatigue that can fuel early waking frequently stems from missed naps or late bedtimes. Try moving bedtime earlier by 20 to 30 minutes every night for a week to help your little one catch up on sleep. It’s counter-intuitive, but children who are put to bed earlier often wake up later the next morning—and they’re less tired during the day, too.
Next, make sure your child’s bedroom environment is not contributing to the problem; ensure that it’s cool, dark and quiet, with curtains that block early morning sun. Children naturally enter a lighter period of sleep around 4 to 6 a.m., and many will respond to the slightest household noise or sliver of morning sun by waking up to start the day.
Finally, avoid exposing your early riser to bright light or feeding him breakfast right away—unless you want 5 a.m. wakeups to become permanent. Light exposure and mealtimes are two of the most powerful regulators of the biological clock, and feeding him breakfast in a light-filled room programs his brain to continue the dawn-wakeup habit. Instead, when he wakes too early, encourage quiet playtime or reading in a darkened room until normal wake-up time.
My 5-month-old always wakes from her nap after just 45 minutes. Is there anything I can do to help her nap longer?
Legions of new parents find they can barely wash a load of laundry—forget about a shower or a cup of tea—during their baby’s brief siestas. Factors that contribute to shorter-than-ideal naps are development, timing and temperament.
First, consider your child’s age. Short naps are highly common in the first few months of life. Longer naps often develop around 4 to 6 months of age as sleeping patterns begin to mature. For a 5-month-old, longer naps may be right around the corner.
Second, take a look at nap timing. Short naps may signal that your baby is ready to be awake for longer stretches during the day before being put down for a nap. Increase the amount of time your baby is awake before her nap by 10 minutes per day until nap length improves.
The final factor is temperament: Some babies are born to be short nappers (though most begin snoozing for longer stretches before age 2). If your 45-minute napper seems relatively happy during the day and sleeps well at night, stop fretting. Instead, help ensure that short naps are restorative by maintaining consistent naptimes and a cool, dark, quiet sleeping space. A short nap is better than no nap: Research has shown that naps improve learning and help babies retain new information.