What to do when your baby wakes up too early

Whether being early to rise can make you healthy, wealthy and wise, it might not feel it when your baby wakes at 5.30am every morning. Here’s how to cope.

How common is it for babies to wake up early?

There’s a big variation in the times under fives wake up, and even more variation for older children (Price et al, 2014).

One study shows the majority of babies and infants (from birth to 28 months) wake between 6.30am and 8.00am. Some babies can wake up much earlier than this though, which is hard on parents when it happens every day. Wake up times are different for all babies, although they tend to be more similar in the second year compared with the first year (Mindell and Lee, 2015).

Why does my baby wake up early?

Before taking any action on your baby’s early waking, it’s worth considering what the cause might be. Is something waking your child, such as a neighbour leaving for work or the heating coming on?

You could also consider whether your little one is actually getting enough sleep. Sleep patterns vary widely and some children need less sleep than others (Galland et al, 2012; Price et al, 2014). Maybe you just have an early riser. Sorry.

Children are more likely than adults to be early rising ‘larks’ rather than late to bed ‘owls’ (Roenneberg et al, 2007). Genes also influence our babies as larks or owls (Kalmbach et al, 2017). Is there an early bird in your relationship? 

How do you stop your baby waking too early?

If you’re not coping with your child waking early and you think they (and you) would benefit from more sleep, you could try the ideas below.

  • If they’re getting cold in the morning, a sleeping bag is less likely to be kicked off than blankets.
  • Toddlers sometimes wake because they need a wee, so putting them on the toilet late at night while they're still asleep might help them sleep for longer (this is sometimes called ‘lifting’).
  • An earlier bedtime can help some children sleep for longer (Mindell et al. 2016), even though this seems counter-intuitive. For other children, gradually moving the bedtime later might shift the sleep period to a more manageable time (Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic, 2016).
  • If your child is ready to nap within an hour of getting up, this nap might be an extension of their night-time sleep. One strategy to try can be gradually moving this nap later each morning (Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic, 2016).
  • Too much sleeping in the day can be a cause of early waking. Your toddler might be taking daytime sleep from their night quota (Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic, 2016).

The NHS also suggests a technique called ‘scheduled waking’ to help a toddler’s early rising. This involves waking them 20 to 30 minutes before they usually wake and then settling them back to sleep (NHS, 2018). So even though you’ll have to wake early yourself, you both might be able to go back to bed and snooze a while longer. It might not work for you but it could be something to try.  

What to do if your child really won’t go back to sleep…

If you feel your child is getting enough sleep, it might be that they are just waking at their natural time. Of course it's good that there’s no particular problem, but it can be hard to adjust to the fact that you now have a permanent pre-dawn alarm clock.
 
Here are some top tips:

  1. If you don’t feel ready to start the day at the same time as your early-rising child, try finding a way to persuade them to stay quietly in their own room. This gets easier as they get older.
     
  2. British summertime means it can be light quite early, so some black-out blinds could help convince your baby that it is still night time. An alarm clock, or a ‘sunrise’ clock that gradually lights up at an acceptable wake up time, could also help them wait a while before bounding into your room.
     
  3. A ‘wake up’ bag, with some favourite toys to occupy them, might also buy you a few more Zzzs. Every few minutes count, after all. Older children might respond to using a reward chart each time they stay in their room.
     
  4. Some parents choose to bring their child into bed with them in the morning, and if you’re lucky they might settle back to sleep. If not, they might be entertained by some books or a toy while you rest a little longer.

And try to remind yourself that children’s wake times do generally increase with age. As we know, the teenage years are particularly associated with later waking times (Roenneberg et al, 2007)! Then you’ll be banging on their doors, trying to get them to wake up, so look at the positives now at least…

This page was last reviewed in July 2018.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Galland BC, Taylor BJ, Elder DE, Herbison P. (2012) Normal sleep patterns in infants and children: a systematic review of observational studies. Sleep medicine reviews. 16(3):213-222. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21784676 [Accessed 18th December 2018]

Kalmbach DA, Schneider LD, Cheung J, Bertrand SJ, Kariharan T, Pack AI, Gehrman PR. (2017) Genetic basis of chronotype in humans: insights from three landmark GWAS. Sleep. 40:2. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28364486 [Accessed 18th December 2018]

Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic. (2016) Teach your child to sleep: solving sleep problems from newborn through childhood. Hamlyn, London.

Mindell JA, Lee C. (2015) Sleep, mood, and development in infants. Infant Behav Dev. 41:102-7. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26386882

Mindell JA, Leichman ES, Composto J, Lee C, Bhullar B, Walters RM. (2016) Development of infant and toddler sleep patterns: real-world data from a mobile application. J Sleep Res. 25(5):508-516. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jsr.12414

NHS. (2018)  Baby health and care. Available from: https://www.nhsinform.scot/healthy-living/pregnancy-and-baby/babies-and-toddlers/baby-health-and-care

Price AM, Brown JE, Bittman M, Wake M, Quach J, Hiscock H. (2014) Children's sleep patterns from 0 to 9 years: Australian population longitudinal study. Archives of disease in childhood, 99(2):119-125. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24347573

Roenneberg T, Kuehnle T, Juda M, Kantermann T, Allebrandt K, Gordijn M, Merrow M. (2007) Epidemiology of the human circadian clock. Sleep medicine reviews. 11(6):429-438. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17936039

Further reading

British Nutrition Foundation. (2018) Feeding your baby and looking after you. Available from: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/nutrition4baby/feeding.html?limit=1&start=7 [Accessed 18th December 2018]

Hansen AL, Dahl L, Olson G, Thornton D, Graff IE, Froyland L, Thayer JF, Pallesen S. (2014) Fish consumption, sleep, daily functioning, and heart rate variability. J Clin Sleep Med. 10(5):567-75. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24812543 [Accessed 18th December 2018]

Ly V, Bottelier M, Hoekstra PJ, Arias-Vasquez A, Buitelaar JK, Rommelse NN. (2017) Elimination diets' efficacy and mechanisms in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 26(9):1067-1079. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5591346/

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