Baby wakes up too early - causes & what you can do

Published
Updated
Hanna Pauser
Written by
Kajsa Palmkvist Kaijser
Medically reviewed by
Mother putting a hand on babys belly in the crib

Having a baby wake up too early in the morning can be incredibly frustrating for a parent. There can be several different reasons behind it, and often, multiple factors may play a role.

Fortunately, there are several practical things you can do to help your baby sleep longer in the morning.

Here, we'll go through the most common reasons for early wake-ups and tips to extend your baby's morning sleep.

What Regulates a Baby's Sleep?

Sleep Pressure

Sleep pressure is the human physical need for sleep that increases the longer we are awake. It's a key factor in when a baby feels the need to sleep.¹

Sleep researchers believe that babies main reason for sleeping during the day is because they are more sensitive to sleep pressure than adults. When the baby takes one or several naps during the day, the sleep pressure is slightly reduced but ideally not reset completely, allowing the right amount of sleep pressure to build up for the longer sleep at night.²

At night, sleep pressure gradually decreases an resets fully. Since the sleep pressure may be low in the early morning it makes it easier for babies (and adults) to wake up at that time than in the beginning of the night.¹

Circadian Rhythm

Another important factor is the circadian rhythm - the body's perception of the time of day.

The circadian rhythm is our internal clock that ensures the body's processes are in line with what is expected to happen. For example, it triggers the digestive system to start before it's time to eat and releases melatonin for sleep at night, and cortisol for wakefulness.

The circadian rhythm is mainly regulated by our eyes perceiving light or darkness but also by the routines we keep. It strengthens over time and functions best if "trained" towards regular times.³

Causes of Early Waking in Babies

To address early wake-ups, it's often necessary to consider various reasons and experiment with adjustments.

Consider if any of these could apply to you:

Your baby has met their sleep quota

A baby has a certain number of sleep hours needed per day, distributed between night and day. The number of hours a baby needs depends on their age and can also be influenced by individual factors.

As babies grow, their sleep need decreases, and the distribution between night and day shifts so that a larger portion of sleep occurs at night.

If a baby has used up their total sleep hours for the past 24 hours, the sleep pressure may be reset early in the morning - before you as a parent consider it time to wake up.³

Solution adjust total naptime or bedtime

The most common reasons that the baby has filled up their sleep hours is either that they slept too much during the day or that they went to bed to early. By researching (or using napper to automatically calculate) how many hours your baby needs to sleep you can determine if your baby might be sleeping too many hours during the day.

Reducing daytime sleep can be achieved by shortening naps or reducing the number of naps within the recommended total hours. This is considered safe as long as you are mindful of the recommendations for each age and your baby is over 4 months ( If they was born healthy and full-term).

It might feel wrong to wake a sleeping baby during the day (especially when you need all the personal time you can get). However, gently waking the baby and helping them adjust their sleep hours can offer many benefits that might outweigh the downsides, such as helping them develop a stronger circadian rhythm and providing more rested and present parents.

If your baby seems to be sleeping an appropriate number of hours during the day, you might also look at recommended awake window lengths to see if it would be appropriate to put the baby down a bit later in the evening. Sometimes extending the longer awake window just before bedtime may be necessary.

Remember, some babies might be a bit ahead of the average and ready to sleep less before others. If you notice your baby seems ready to reduce daytime sleep, you can try cutting back a little and evaluate - but remember, there can also be other reasons for early waking - we'll get to that.

In Napper, you get an automatic calculation for the optimal number of sleep hours, number of naps, length of naps, length of awake windows, and bedtime based on age.

The calculation is based on recommendations developed through research and data from millions of logged sleep moments from babies of the same age. But we also take into account your baby's individual rhythm aswell as your preferences. We also adjust continuously as we detect changes and as your baby grows.

Untrained or out-of-phase circadian rhythm

Babies are born with an undeveloped ability to differentiate night from day. From about 2 months of age, a baby can begin to develop their internal clock, facilitated by regular times and appropriate stimulation from light and darkness.³

Solution: Support your baby's circadian rhythm

Try to implement regular times and carefully darken the room where the baby sleeps. Use a night light with red or pink light and avoid blue light (e.g., daylight, standard lamps, and screens). Even a little light seeping in through the window in the morning can wake a baby when sleep pressure is low during the early hours.

Being outdoors in daylight during the day also strengthens the circadian rhythm.

Difficulty resettling without help

Both children and adults usually wake up more easily during the early morning hours - but the younger the baby, the more difficult it generally is for them to fall back asleep without parental help. The more assistance a baby needs at bedtime, the more likely they will need help during night wakings as well.

It's completely normal for babies to need support to fall asleep - but sometimes, a little training can help the baby to resettle more easily on their own.

Solution: Practice independent sleep. Supporting babies to resettle themselves is often referred to as sleep training and comes in various forms. Gentle ways to support more independent sleep can include reducing the help they receive from you as a parent at bedtime.

Some examples might be:

  • Practicing gently stopping rocking in your arms just before the baby falls asleep

  • Slowing down and stopping the stroller just before the baby falls asleep

  • Laying the child down in their sleep space just before they fall asleep

  • Trying to separate feeding/nursing from direct bedtime during the day

  • Be mindful to give the baby a chance to resettle themselves after a wake-up. This might mean not being "too quick" to pick up the baby or provide a lot of support to resettle. Listen carefully - has the baby really woken up, and what response do they need from you? Sometimes the baby might "talk" a bit in their sleep but hasn't fully woken up. What happens if you wait a moment? Or could it be enough to shush, offer a pacifier, and touch?

Overtiredness

Sleeping too little (or having too long awake windows during the day) can make a baby overtired. When babies are awake for too long, despite high sleep pressure, can affect sleep quality and contribute to early waking.²

Solution: Counteract overtiredness. To reduce overtiredness, you might:

  • Be extra attentive to your baby's early signs of tiredness and put them to bed then.

  • Support the baby to sleep at regular times. Calculate your child's sleep needs, awake windows, and sleep schedule, or use Napper for an automatic calculation.

  • Understand the signs of overtiredness and try different ways to calm and help the child fall asleep when it occurs.

Discomfort

One reason for waking up during the early morning hours can be a combination of the lower sleep pressure in the early morning and certain things that may make the baby feel uncomfortable.³

Temperature

Sometimes the reason a baby wakes up too early is that they are cold. Our body temperature drops slightly when we sleep, and the room temperature can also drop as the outdoor temperature decreases, depending on how the room is heated.

Solution:

Read about the optimal room temperature and see if your baby seems cold, adjust the room temperature slightly, or switch to a slightly thicker sleeping bag.

NOTE - to prevent the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, it's very important to avoid the baby becoming too warm. Therefore, read carefully about what applies and closely monitor so your baby does not show signs of being too warm. Feel with you hand!

Wet Diaper

As morning approaches, a full diaper can start to feel wet and cold. Some babies are more sensitive to this than others and wake up easily from it, especially if their sleep pressure is low.

Solution:

Prevent a full diaper before morning. You might try to be diligent about giving the baby a fresh diaper before the night and at any wake-up for feeding. Using a diaper that is one size larger at night might also help prevent the diaper from becoming full.

Hunger

Hunger can make the baby uncomfortable, and combined with low sleep pressure, it might be enough for the baby to wake up for the day. If your baby seems very hungry in combination with early wake-ups, it might be a sign that hunger plays into the early waking.

Solution:

Consider if there are ways to help your baby not become as hungry towards the early hours - could it be that your baby needs to eat more during the day? Could you add a "dream feed" - a last feeding with formula/breastfeeding while the baby is sleeping, before you go to bed yourself?

Summary

Dealing with a baby waking up too early can be tough - but with some determined detective work, it's often possible to help the baby sleep longer in the morning.

In Napper, you can log your baby's sleep and get recommendations for sleep times based on your baby's age, individual history, and data from millions of logged sleep moments. You can also choose to log other things like feeding/nursing and diaper changes, providing invaluable relief to get a good grasp of your baby's needs.

1. Weissbluth, M. H. How Babies Sleep. New York: Ballantine Books; 2015.

2. Durham University. What’s really going on when a child is overtired – and how to help them go to sleep [Internet]. Durham: Durham University; 2022-12-07 [cited 2024-03-14]., https://www.durham.ac.uk/research/current/thought-leadership/whats-really-going-on-when-a-child-is-overtired--and-how-to-help-them-go-to-sleep/

3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (n.d.). Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep., https://www.ninds.nih.gov