When infants and toddlers wake at 4 am, and it isn’t diapers, hunger, or illness, it is time to consider that this is a habitual sleep pattern. Everyone is vulnerable to habitual waking, even adults. The garbage pickup can trigger it, a spouse that rises early to go work out, etc. You find yourself waking at the same time even if your partner changes his gym time. Wide awake for no reason that you can see. Babies and toddlers can also get stuck in a habit of waking early. Since bedtime really starts right after breakfast, starting the day too early can shift nap and feeding schedules and destroy what used to be a great routine. There are ways to fix this pattern, but it takes some awareness and some knowledge.
One way to know that your child is stuck in an early-waking groove is to notice that when they wake early, neither diapers, hunger or socialization are what they desperately need at that moment. They aren’t longing for the closeness of nursing/bottles or the physical need for food that signals waking out of hunger. They might not be seeking your attention very much at all; your baby is just awake and ready to play.
If you have a baby that actively protests a back to sleep message in the dark, you could have accidentally signaled to them over time that this is a great time to receive individual, undivided attention from you. It is like “pillow talk” for people who can’t talk. A quiet cuddle and looking into one another’s eyes without competition from siblings or iPhones might be such a treat to him that your baby may be looking forward to this night time love fest. That is a different blog post entirely.
For a habitual waking issue, you need to use the wake-and-put-down method: set your alarm an hour before the habitual wake-time, and go gently wake them up a little bit. No talking, no cuddling, just a tiny rousing so that their sleep clock is re-set. Do your best to get them right back to sleep (do only emergency diaper changes, no conversation and play) and onto a later wake time. This can work as quickly as one night, according to the Baby Whisperer (that Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems book is a pretty good reference).
I agree with Dr. Karp, of The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep fame, that if this reset plan doesn’t work then you have to consider that maybe your child’s bedtime is too early. It also might be too late. If it is too early, your child is waking because he just doesn’t need more sleep. If his bedtime is too late, then you have a child who sleeps fitfully and wakes up to the slightest stimulation. If you have ever been out way past your normal range of bedtime the night before, you know that awful feeling. You need and want sleep but you are wide awake. Both of these authors share really helpful plans to change bedtime routines for early or late bedtimes. My copies of their books are on the quick-reach shelf in my office.
It takes confidence and determination to execute the wake-and-put-down strategy and to move bedtimes around. You may have to change the behavior of others in the home to dim lights and lower noise, set up a white noise machine or purposely get babies out in the sun during the early part of the day to reset their wake-sleep clock. Unless you really like knowing when your newspaper is delivered and when your neighbors take a morning run, you may want to give these ideas a try!