Let’s be honest and say that life as a parent can be tough. Even more challenging when you’re faced with a little one who’s waking frequently in the early hours and you’re not really sure why. As a gentle, holistic infant sleep coach, I’d like to share with you six potential reasons your little one is waking early, giving you some insight into how you might be able to help them.
1. Allergy. All allergy symptoms can impact on your little ones sleep and be quite sleep disruptive for you all. CMPA (cows milk protein allergy) is the most common allergen but other foods can be a problem too whether your baby is being weaned or breastfed. Don’t forget that washing powders for laundry and clothing can cause upset too. Look out for symptoms such as grey bags under the eyes, watery eyes, runny nose, constipation, thin hair, diarrhoea, dry skin, skin rashes, hives and eczema. If you’re breastfeeding, watch out for any changes to your baby and if you have concerns, go to your GP. Usually once an allergy is acknowledged and omitted from their diet, sleep will improve.
2. Overtired from day before. This might sound like an odd one but bear with me here! If the nap and bed times of your little one aren’t quite optimised for their age and developmental needs, what can happen is they go to bed overtired. This means they’ve fallen into a lighter sleep for the night which causes them to wake more frequently and have a really unsettled night. So what does overtired really mean? Imagine your baby as having several ‘sleep windows’ throughout a 24 hour period. By that I mean an ideal time to get them to sleep, for a nap or bedtime. If they pass this ‘sleep window’ then their body creates the awake hormone cortisol to help keep them awake and although they may suddenly seem more alert and raring to go, in fact, they probably need sleep pronto! Catching their sleep windows can help a lot to minimise the early wakings.
3. Nightmares. These can be a very common occurrence for toddlers and older children. As soon as their imaginations begin to have a life of their own, so can their dreams. To a small child, this can sometimes feel very frightening. It can be hard for them to distinguish between the nightmare and reality. The best thing I’d suggest is to offer cuddles, reassurance, acknowledge what they tell you and empathise with them. Telling them ‘it was just a dream and it’s not real’ can make things worse as it feels very real to them! I’d be mindful of how easy it can be to bring them into your bed at this point. If you’re 100% ok with this, then great! But just be aware of how you may be ok with it at 6am but not at 3am and how differing rules can be very confusing for little ones. Have a clear yes or no rule, be consistent and it’ll be easier for all of you in the long run!
4. Wonder Weeks. There’s no doubt (in my mind and that of scientists and researchers) that the first years of an infants life are the most important when it comes to their development. Right from newborn, there’s some form of developmental leap happening within your little one. From emotional to physical, neurological to mental growth, it’s all happening! Sleep regressions can be mixed up into these wonder weeks too. There may be times your baby was a great sleeper then literally overnight, there’s a sleep struggle that wasn’t there before! Know this is normal. Know that you are not doing anything wrong. It’s simply that as your baby grows and changes, so do their needs. A great book to read if you’d like some deeper understanding of this topic is ‘The Wonder Weeks’ by Hetty van de Rijt.
5. Too much day time sleep. If your baby is up and seemingly wide awake and ready to start their day at 4 or 5 am (I hear you mama, that’s waaayy too early) it could be they’ve had too much day time sleep yesterday. Try to make sure they have their biggest nap in the middle of the day. Ensure their bedtime is consistent and try adjusting it in 15 minutes increments over a few days to see if that helps. If they are waking at the same early time every morning, here’s a challenging solution. Quietly go to them 15 minutes before their usual early’o’clock wake time and gently partly rouse them from their slumber, with the aim of resettling them back to sleep in a new sleep cycle. So you might ‘shhh shhh’ and rub their back for example. If you try this over the coming mornings, you should find that after a while, they are able to sleep a little longer on their own.
6. Environmental. In the early hours, their sleep tends to be lighter as they’ve had their most deep and restorative sleep from bedtime until about midnight. This means they can be very sensitive to noise and light disturbances. Things such as heating pipes coming on, birds singing, outside noise, daylight creeping through any gaps in the curtains or blinds. I suggest quiet, constant background sounds such as white noise for babies up to 6 months and pink noise for babies over 6 months. Also make sure their room is really really dark - black out blinds where possible.
The Little Sleep Coach
The Little Sleep Coach, is run exclusively by Caroline Gunston, a London based trained infant sleep consultant, former nanny and maternity nurse. She has years of professional childcare experience and sleep knowledge to help tired parents across the country. Her approach is always gentle, holistic and family-led. Her consultations offer bespoke sleep plans tailored for each unique family as well as her ongoing unlimited support for a month.