This is a post for the new weekly First Time Mommy Group sleep poll. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to answer all your excellent questions!
Why does my baby struggle to sleep between 4:00 am and 6:00 am?
As a baby/toddler sleep consultant, I typically work with babies aged 14 weeks to 2 years. Regardless of the child’s age or whatever other issue the parent is facing (short naps, needing to feed to sleep, fighting sleep in general, etc) an overwhelming majority of my clients share one single issue – their child seems to struggle with sleep at some point within the hours of 4:00 am to 6:00 am. For some children their sleep is simply lighter in the early morning hours, for others they seem to fall back to sleep easily from all feedings that take place until that elusive 4:00 am hour, at which point they seem to wake every 30 to 60 minutes until the sun comes up, or worse, they never go back to sleep once woken up any time after 4:00 am.
Why is it so hard for kids to sleep deeply the closer they get to 6:00 am? The answer lies in the brain’s melatonin secretion. This hormone, which is responsible for making us feel sleepy, peaks between the hours of 2:00 am and 4:00 am. From the hours of 4:00 am on there appears to be a precipitous drop in melatonin secretion. Less melatonin means the body has a harder time staying asleep.
While this drop in melatonin makes it harder for some children to stay asleep, it doesn’t mean that those children are incapable of sleep during that time, or that they should be starting their day any time before 6:00 am (no one should be starting their day before 6:00 am ;)) It simply means that many children find it harder to stay asleep during those hours.
I recently spent the night with a set of twins I was helping to sleep train. As I shuttled between the two of them, observing their sleeping and waking periods, I witnessed first hand how difficult it can be for little ones to remain soundly asleep in those early morning hours. This particular mother I was working with decided to employ an extinction based method which meant that while I was physically present in the room with the babies the entire night, I was there to observe them instead of interfere while they were learning how to put themselves to sleep. While each twin worked through a few night wakings in the early part of the evening, it was readily apparent how hard it was for each one of them to stay soundly asleep as we approached the 5:00 am and 6:00 am hour.
While these twins were clearly waking frequently around 4:00 and 5:00 am, I also noticed that they repeatedly cycled from being awake and crying to appearing totally asleep. In fact, many times while they were crying out their eyes remain closed. Even though their sleep was irregular, it was still mostly sleep with some errant cries of between 5-10 minutes.
Just because a child is struggling to stay asleep in the early morning does not mean they do not want to be asleep. They’re simply having a harder time sleeping than they normally do. Their circadian rhythm most likely has them set on a cycle where they are meant to be asleep for about 11-12 hours at night (regardless of brief wakings at night for feedings). If they are waking before those 11-12 hours are up then they almost certainly need and want to fall back to sleep, they are simply having a hard time doing so.
Now, what do you do to eliminate this early morning waking? An excellent way to help your child conquer early morning waking is to make sure they know how to put themselves to sleep during the rest of the day and at bedtime. One of the other reasons it’s so tough for babies to sleep early in the morning is because when they wake up they’re unable to fall back to sleep because they are reliant on some thing or some one to put them back to sleep. Due to the lack of melatonin causing them to feel sleepy, many babies will find it all the more difficult to fall back to sleep, even once presented with their normal sleep helps (nursing, rocking, pacifier). That is why it’s vital for children to know how to fall asleep completely on their own – if they’re capable of putting themselves during the day, then they are all the more likely to employ that skill at 5:00 am.
Next, parents should aim for an earlier, not later, bedtime. While it may seem counterintuitive to put a child to bed earlier in order to compel them to sleep later in the morning, the truth is that children are likely to wake up at the same time in the morning regardless of what time you put them to sleep at night. If you put a child to bed too late in the evening you are simply robbing them of sleep. Most children aged 4 months to 4 years need a bedtime of between 6:00 pm and 8:00 pm. The younger they are, the earlier the bedtime, generally speaking. Having a bedtime that is too late also increases the likelihood your child will experience nightmares, night terrors, and random night wakings. An earlier bedtime usually produces healthier, longer, and higher quality night sleep.
A word of caution – many parents who are unable or unwilling to attempt Cry It Out for naps or bedtime often find themselves attempting it for these early wakings. Moms and Dads are sleep deprived and miserable and finally decide to give in and see if crying will do what they are unable to do, which is put the child back to sleep. Cry It Out is the LEAST effective when tried for the first time in the middle of the night or for naps. Please do not try to deal with early morning wakings with CIO unless you are also using CIO at bedtime and for naps.
If your child is really struggling with early morning waking I would urge you to look at their sleep habits in totality. Make sure you are finding a way to help them learn to fall asleep for naps and bedtime without your help whatsoever. Also put them down for bedtime earlier rather than later. Once these two things are in place, you’ll then want to reduce or eliminate your interaction with them during the hours of 4:00 am to 6:00 am.
I would love to hear any questions you’d like answered in upcoming posts! Please comment below and let me know what questions you’d like featured in upcoming polls.