Why does my baby keep waking up at 5am?

23 Jun 2021

Is your baby waking early most mornings? Does it feel like they are always awake for the day at 5am and there is no getting them back to sleep? Certainly, one of the most common questions I get asked by social media followers and prospective clients is:  ‘how do I stop my baby waking early every morning as I am drained?’.

When this happens consistently, it’s so tough. It’s tough for your little one as it means they are tired for the rest of the day. And it’s tough on you because we all need our wind down time, but you get to the evening and after an early start, you are exhausted yourself and just want to go bed.

What IS Causing My Baby To wake Early?

Their Sleep environment ISn’t Optimal

Their sleep environment is often a good place to start when trying to establish what might be causing them to wake early. Is the room dark all night or does it gradually get lighter as the sun rises? If so, one of the cheapest and most effective ways to resolve your baby waking early is to install blackout blinds for your baby’s room. They can be purchased reasonably cheaply and can sometimes be all your infant needs to sleep longer in the mornings. Just like for adults, sleep patterns for children are interrupted by light.

Sticking with the environment you also need to look at noise. If their bedrooms are at the front of the house for example, noise from the street will likely to get louder from about 5:30am. Other examples of noise could be siblings, pets or simply the little birdies in the trees outside having a morning natter. If noise is something that disturbs their sleep it’s ok to use white noise. Often white noise is seen as a way to get your child to sleep, but after the 4th trimester – where white noise is very useful to help a baby self-soothe – white noise should be used primarily to block out external noise which could wake your baby, rather than as a way of helping them sleep.

My key tip here is to make sure you invest in a machine that stays on all night. This is critical otherwise you might find your little one needs you to keep going back in to turn the machine on all night! In our house, we just use our Alexa machine by asking her to “play white noise”. You can even do it in whisper mode by whispering to her and she whispers back – very useful when you want to put it on without disturbing the baby!

Your Baby’s Daytime Routine Isn’t Quite Right

This might sound a bit counterintuitive, but the other big driver of a baby waking early is them not getting enough sleep in the day – read here to see how much your baby should approximately be sleeping. I won’t go into the science of it here, but essentially overtiredness will lead to increased cortisol levels (the ‘awake’ hormone) in your little one’s body leading to them being ready to wake up earlier than they otherwise would. The reverse is also true – too much day sleep can also contribute to early wakings and it might be a sign that your little one is ready to drop one of their day naps. However, too much sleep is more applicable to toddlers as they start to need less day sleep. I have lots of suggested day routines on my Instagram page depending on your child’s age – pop over and give me a follow.

Recent Cognitive & Physical Development, or ‘Leaps’

Sometimes it isn’t anything that we can control that leads to our baby waking early in the morning. Cognitive and physical development leaps can often be the cause. Our infants go through such a huge amount of advancement in their first few years and their little brains are in constant overdrive. When my youngest son Rafferty first started clapping he would wake at 5am for a clap! He wasn’t upset; he just wanted to practice his new skill. It’s how parents react to these changes that determine if these wakings are only temporary or become a longer term habit. As Rafferty wasn’t upset, we left him to clap. After a while he drifted back off to sleep. If we had reacted to him and assumed he was up for the day, he easily could have thought 5am was an acceptable time to wake going forward (and I can assure you it isn’t an acceptable time for Mummy and Daddy!).

Baby Teething

The other culprit that we all know and love is teething. Before becoming a Dad I thought a bab teething was something that happened in fits and spurts. I didn’t realise that it’s pretty much constant for 2 years! But what’s important to remember is that little ones typically sleep through what I like to call ‘normal baby teething’. It shouldn’t be a reason to put off or delay encouraging your baby to practice independent sleep. There are times when them little baby teeth are pushing through the skin. This can be such a tough time for babies and you should give them as much extra support that they need. Use your parental instinct – it’s the best tool you have in your bag!

How To Stop Your Baby Waking at 5am…

OK, so we have established some of the causes, but what can you do to help encourage them back to sleep when they wake early?

Start with looking at the sleep environment: blackout blinds, white noise and temperature (ideally between16-20 degrees Celsius) are all reasonably easy fixes.

Focus on day sleep. Finding the ideal day routine for your little one is a huge component of long and restful night sleep. My online courses start from just £29 and they contain all the information you need to help your little one get into a great routine for them. It also has a big section on settling techniques to help your baby get back to sleep when they wake at 5am. As I mentioned above, I also have lots of free content on my Instagram and Facebook pages to support you. 

Make sure bedtime isn’t too late. I often hear parents say they put little ones down later to stop them waking early but as we learned above, overtiredness can have the opposite effect – if anything put your baby down up to an hour earlier than their normal bedtime, it really won’t mean that your baby wakes an hour earlier
I also get asked if you should feed your baby when they wake at 5am? This is optional and for older babies, but I do encourage a ‘no feed zone’ between 5-6am (if your baby’s schedule is 7pm-7am). Feeding too early in the morning will kickstart your baby’s metabolism and they can begin to ‘need’ that early feed which reinforces them waking again and again. If they wake between this time, encourage them back to sleep with settling methods such as rubbing their back, shushing and repeating a consistent sleep phrase such as ‘sleepy time’. 
Work out what time of the day is acceptable for your family to wake up. As a guide I tell my clients to count forward 11 hours from bedtime e.g. if little one goes down at 7pm then 6am is an OK time to start the day (hence the 5-6am no feed zone). It might be hard but try and not rush to get them up before then and instead help settle them back to sleep. Getting them to drift off is the powerful response your baby’s body needs to shift the body clock – think about it as the things you’d need to do if you went on holiday to a different time zone. Once it gets to your agreed ‘wake time’, burst into the room happy and sunny to start the day. 

I’m a baby and toddler sleep consultant specialising in designing gentle sleep training programmes for babies and toddlers. I work with clients on a one to one basis and I also have a series of age-specific online courses for you to implement at your own pace.