By Sarah Ockwell-Smith
How do you stop early morning waking? This is probably one of the top three questions I get asked by parents. Unfortunately it’s not one I have a positive answer to, but don’t let that put you off reading the rest of this post!
You see early morning waking is the human biological norm. We are meant to wake with the rising of the sun, just as we are meant to go to sleep shortly after it sets. The problem is that we, as adults, just don’t do that any more. Our sleep is abnormal. Our circadian rhythms bear little resemblance to what is truly biologically normal for our species. Modern day inventions have allowed us to create artificially light evenings and artificially dark mornings. We stay up far later than our predecessors who relied solely on moon, star and fire light to brighten their nights. Modern electric lighting, with its blue tinged wavelength, tricks our bodies into believing it is still daylight long after the sun has set. Our bodies secrete cortisol in an effort to stay awake and alert. When we do finally retire to bed we cover windows with blackout blinds and thick lined curtains, keeping the early morning sunlight at bay for as long as possible and so too allowing melatonin secretion to continue so that we can repeatedly hit the snooze button on our alarms. Pre-children, non work days commonly start at nine, ten or even eleven am. This modern-day adult sleep pattern is abnormal.
Babies’ and toddlers’ bedtimes are far more in sync with sunset and so too their wakings are far more linked to sunrise. Mornings commonly start at some point between 5 and 6 am. This is normal. This is how we, as adults, should sleep and have done for many hundreds of years. The problem most adults have is that their child’s normal sleeping habits are at odds with their abnormal ones. The most simplest answer to the question “how do you stop early morning waking” is simply “when your child learns and adopts your abnormal sleep patterns”. Commonly that takes until they are around 4 years old.
There is another point to consider here that rests once again on adult expectations. Many expect (hope?) that their children will go to bed at seven pm and wake at seven am. For many however twelve hours sleep per night is just too much sleep. An individual baby or a toddler has a fairly unique set sleep requirement per twenty-four hours. Some may need only eleven hours, others may need eighteen. Both of these are within the realms of normality. A twelve-month-old baby, who has a two-hour long nap in the day and who only needs eleven hours sleep in a twenty-four hour period, will only need nine hours sleep per night. If said baby goes to sleep at seven pm, it is fair to expect that they will be ready to start the day at four am. They simply won’t go back to sleep because they are not tired. They have fulfilled their sleep need. A twelve-month-old baby (with similar nap timings) who needs fourteen hours sleep in a twenty-four hour period will wake at seven am. All babies are different. Charts and tables provide only educated estimates, if your child naturally needs less sleep per day then you have two options: continue to put them to bed at seven pm and accept the early morning waking, or adjust their bedtime to a more natural sleep time of around eight thirty pm in the hopes of the waking reaching nearer to six am. As a general rule, it is fairly unrealistic to expect a baby or toddler to sleep much past six am whatever time they go to bed.
See next page for more tips that may help early morning waking…