For the past week, we’ve been woken at crack of dawn each day by a terribly persistent pest. No, not one of our kids—it’s a woodpecker, drilling away at the downspout right outside of bedroom window. This vexing bird makes an unholy clatter at 5 a.m., wakes our entire family, then flies off on its merry way. I’m a pacifist, but I’ve never been more violently inclined toward another living creature.
Waking at 5 a.m. can do that to a person. Many new parents feel my pain. Early waking is one of the most frustrating sleep issues for parents of babies and young kids. The hour of choice is often 5 a.m., because small children are tuned in to the same prehistoric biological clock as our woodpecker, one dating back to the days when we rose with the sun to start a fire or begin start gathering food for the day.
Bianca has taken a few forays into the world of 5 a.m. wakeups. It’s no fun, but I’ve always been able to get her schedule back on track. As a moderator for an online sleep forum, I helped tons of parents with this very problem. (It never ceases to amaze me that kids everywhere, and I mean EVERYWHERE, have the same sleep problems. I’m telling you, their little clocks are synced up. We need to figure out how they do it.)
I addressed 5 a.m. wakeups this week at ParentingSquad.com. But it’s such a big problem for so many of my fellow parents that I want to go into more detail here. Read on tips on keeping the 5 a.m. monster from moving into your house. You won’t find any tips on getting rid of woodpeckers. We’re still working on that one.
Early to Bed, Later to Rise
Tons of parents—along with mothers-in-law, well-meaning strangers, even some pediatricians—assume that a child who wakes at 5 a.m. must need a later bedtime. Please, please don’t follow this advice. At least not without trying a few other things first. The fact is, most kids who wake early are overtired. They need to go to sleep earlier, not later.
Stay with me. When babies and small children are sleep-deprived, their little bodies fight to stay awake by pumping out adrenaline. Soon, they’re so wired that it’s difficult to reach and maintain deep, restorative sleep. When these kids hit the naturally-occurring period of light sleep that happens in the early morning, they wake up and stay awake.
The best offense in the war against early waking is an earlier bedtime. Try moving bedtime earlier by at least 30 minutes every day for a week. Stick with it; changing a pattern takes time.
It's not Party Time
I’m fascinated by the connection between light exposure and sleep, and I’ve discussed the topic at length with many a sleep doctor. Light is one of the strongest factors influencing our biological rhythms. Mealtimes also help sync our inner clocks.
So greeting your early riser by flipping on the lights, turning on cartoons, and shoving a bowl of cereal at them is the absolute worst thing you can do. It's like telling their brain “Yay! It’s wake up time! We’ll see you tomorrow—same time, same place!” That’s why this is such a frustratingly persistent problem for many families. If you reward early wakeups with TV, interaction, toys, and food, you can bet they'll want to do it again. (If they're starving, feed them, of course. But don't offer it first thing just to distract them or buy yourself more sleep.)
I’m convinced that the reason Bianca never became a permanent member of the 5 a.m. club (she tried, believe me) is that I did my absolute best to keep her in her darkened bedroom when she woke early. I snuggled in her bed with her, rocked her in the glider, and sand her lullabies until my throat went numb. Anything to avoid taking her out of her room and starting the day, thereby programming her little brain to keep it up.
No Napping the Day Away
Waking before dawn makes for a brutally long day. And I know I count the minutes until naptime on those groggy mornings. But don't allow your child to nap for hours on end to “make up” for lost sleep—tempting though it may be. Naps that are too long (I’m talking longer than 2.5 hours) make for a late bedtime and diminish nighttime sleep, actually fueling more early waking. The best recipe for breaking the cycle: naps that are restorative but not overly long, combined with an early bedtime.
Black Means Black
I’m a huge fan of blackout curtains, but I’m confused when someone tells me they have “blackout curtains” that allow in enough light to read a book. Why bother? Research has shown that even tiny beams of light can disrupt sleep. And you can bet your buttons that your early riser will detect the smallest ray of early morning sunlight.
If you want your little rooster to sleep longer, cover their window completely. My $5 solution: buy a twin-sized flat sheet in black from a discount store and fold it in half. Tack it up around the edge of the window. This works well and buys you some time to arrange for nicer, more permanent blackout shades.
For most kids—except a few natural-born early birds—5 a.m. wakeups are just a phase. But your child may never sleep until 9 a.m. on a regular basis. Sorry. Again, little kids’ biological clocks date back to a time when it was desirable to wake up early. In the days before electric lights and DVRs, adults went to bed and woke a lot earlier, too.
So, while you can and should try to correct a 4:30 or 5 a.m. wakeup habit, you may have to accept 7 a.m. But only until they reach the school years, when they actually do need to get up early. Then, you will have to drag them out of bed by their heels. Promise.