Late bedtimes and early rising – these are some of the most common problems I hear about from parents. When your little one wants to wake up super early or refuses to sleep until the wee hours, it can really throw off your schedule and result in less sleep for everyone in the family (not to mention the neighbours).
Sleep and Wakefulness Rhythms
Did you know that people at different stages of life have different sleep/wake rhythms and “biological clocks?” These different circadian rhythms are sometimes referred to as the owl/lark tendency: ‘eveningness’ (owl) or ‘morningness’ (lark).
The vast majority of babies and kids are ‘larks.’ Over time, they will gradually shift towards a later circadian rhythm, sometime between 10 and 20 years. Many parents find that their sleeping rhythm and their child’s sleeping rhythm are not in sync. That’s when a little bit of detective work is needed.
Remember – most kids are hardwired to get up around 6 am. That means that anything before 6 am is considered early rising.
Factors That Affect Your Child’s Body Clock
The key to treating early rising or late bedtimes is correctly identifying what is going on with the child’s body clock. Then, you need to manipulate the factors which influence it, including:
- Eating times
- Light exposure
- Social cues
All of the above variables are easy to manipulate. There is a lot of very robust evidence to support the links between all of these environmental, biological and social variables and their influence on circadian rhythmicity. How can you help your little one – and yourself – get more sleep at more appropriate times?
Treating Early Rising
Here are ten strategies that can help you to deal with and correct early rising.
1. Review their bedtime
A very early bedtime may be one cause of early rising. While some children sleep 12-13 hours per night, there are the outliers! Most children will struggle to achieve more than 11 hours, and some may sleep less than this per night. You could try shifting the bedtime later in small 15-minute increments, to see if this alters the morning wake up time.
2. Is their bedtime too late?
Paradoxically, overtired children often wake early. It is common for parents of an early rising child to make the bedtime later, as they assume that their child may compensate for this by sleeping in the next day. While this may work for children with low sleep needs, it is a risky strategy, as some children will then become sleep deprived. That’s no fun for anyone in the house!
3. What time are their naps?
Make sure your little one naps (if age-appropriate) in the middle of their awake period. There is a balance between sleep pressure and over-tiredness. Often, early rising is linked with poor nap timing. An early morning nap will reinforce early rising. Conversely, a late afternoon nap, caused by a buildup of sleep pressure, will make the bedtime later, and perpetuate the vicious cycle.
4. Keep them in the dark – literally
When your child wakes too early, try to keep them in the dark, and do not turn the lights on immediately. If they’re waking up at 4.30, wait quietly with them in the dark for 20-30 minutes, then turn the light on and cheerfully say ‘Good morning!’ and start the day. This can be extremely hard for parents, and is often done through gritted teeth! But it is incredibly essential, as it sends the message that they are getting up because of the environmental cues. When it’s light, it’s time to get up. Keep making the time the lights go on, and the day starts later and later to reach your goal.
5. Rouse them to reboot the sleep cycle
Try ‘rousing’ your child about 15 minutes before the usual wake up time to see if you can reboot the sleep cycle and delay the wake-up time. This is called ‘wake to sleep’ and can be done in conjunction with the other sleep techniques. Understandably, you might be nervous to try this one, but it really can work!
6. Don’t serve food until the normal breakfast time
There is an abundance of evidence that eating times strongly influence the circadian rhythm, so try to keep mealtimes regular and at sensible times. You may need to shift this gradually – so if your child is used to eating at 5:30 am, initially delay breakfast until 5:45 am, then 6 am, then 6:15 am, and so on, until everyone is eating at a reasonable time.
7. Keep things bright at night
If your child falls asleep very early in the evening to compensate for their early start, then keep the lights on brightly in the evening until 1 hour before the bedtime routine starts.
Most people experience a DLMO (dim light melatonin onset) about 1-2 hours after the light levels fall. You can help a child who is falling asleep early to delay their DLMO by keeping the lights on for longer.
8. Get a lot of daylight (even if it is artificial)
Our circadian rhythms are affected by natural light, so expose your kids to as much natural bright light as possible in the daytime. In winter, when the light is dim, keep the lights on, or consider a bright lightbulb in lamps.
9. Leave them some toys and quiet activities
For older kids that can be trusted to play on their own, you might choose to cope with early rising by leaving some toys and quiet activities out to keep them occupied. While this doesn’t address the root problem, it means that you will get the sleep you need!
10. Try the above strategies for 3-5 days
Give it three to five days to see some improvement. You may need to troubleshoot a little bit to determine precisely what the issue is for your child’s unique situation.
Sometimes we have to look at the overall schedule; bedtime may be too early if the child typically sleeps only 10 hours at night. While it can be frustrating dealing with an early riser, the above tips can really help. If you are struggling to implement them, or just need some support, feel free to get in touch.