Common Causes of 5am Wakes with your Infant or Toddler

5 am is one of the toughest times for new parents. Is it nighttime? Is it daytime?

What do you do when your baby wakes at this time?

This is going to vary a bit by age. If your baby is under 3-3.5 months, then we treat this as a middle of the night (MOTN) feeding and feed fully and get them back to sleep. If they're close to 3 months (over 10 weeks at least), you don't think they're hungry, and have no other night feeds, you can try rocking them back to sleep to delay the feeding until closer to 6. This can help to “move” the feed to “morning” and get you consistently sleeping.

Once they go back to sleep, we want to make sure we wake them by 7:30am (at the latest) to start the day with a full feeding and full wake window before their first nap.

For babies over 3-3.5 months, well, first we want to figure out why your baby is waking at 5am. We don't feel that babies are “just early risers.” We feel that there is always something that causes these wakings and we're here to help solve it!

If your baby is waking early, we want to focus on a few things:

    1. Are they hungry?
    2. Did they get too much daytime sleep?
    3. Is their last wake window too long and/or bedtime too late?
    4. Is their last wake window too short and/or bedtime too early?

Let's get into it.

Is your baby hungry?

Babies often wake early in the morning because of slight hunger. That's one of the reasons why this time of day is so challenging. If your baby is waking at 5am and they're hungry, you should feed them and work to make the feeding full. We never withhold food from a hungry baby for any reason. They will not sleep through the night faster if they are hungry.

If you do feed at 5am (and your baby is over the age of 3 months old with no other night feeds) then we want to temporarily use that as your start of day. You will not need to wake at 5am forever. However, feeding and putting your baby right back to sleep at this time can cause them to “get too much daytime sleep” as the body typically counts this time towards daytime sleep and not nighttime sleep. It can also get in the way of establishing their circadian rhythm because once we feed during this time, if they don't have a full wake window, anecdotally we see babies continue to wake at this time because the food signals “daytime” and this just reinforces the early start of day you are trying to avoid.

Instead, we want to feed fully and have a full wake window before their first nap. We know this is hard when you're up at night, but it really is an important step in your baby sleeping through the night and being fully fed.

If your baby is over 3 months WITH other night feedings, we want to work on making the earlier MOTN feeds and the dreamfeed full. By increasing those feedings, your baby is able to be fully fed earlier in the night, which helps us to move the milk closer to the daytime, which is our ultimate goal. This should help us to naturally push the 5am feeding/wake closer to a more acceptable start of day.

Did they get too much daytime sleep?

Too much daytime sleep can cause your baby to wake early because, they've already slept a lot and their bodies don't feel like they need more sleep. This is why it's important to wake your baby during the day, so we can limit that daytime sleep (and get them fully fed during the day).

If you're an Online Program member, this means limiting daytime sleep to what's called for on your age-appropriate monthly guide. Like all people, babies have a certain amount they can sleep in 24 hours. If they get too much of that during the day, it will cause them to have trouble staying asleep at night and could be the culprit of the early morning wake.

If you aren't a member, start shortening one nap by 10-15 min to see if that helps.

Is their last wake window too long and/or bedtime too late?

When babies are overtired, they can wake more often overnight, which leads to further over tiredness and this can cause them to have trouble staying asleep early in the morning thus causing the early start of day.

Under 6 months old, the period between their last nap and bedtime is the shortest of the day. I know many programs have this as the longest, but we feel like this time is when they get overtired the fastest. If you think about it, it's been almost 12 hours since their last long stretch of sleep. Yes, they've had naps and naps are certainly refreshing, but it isn't the same as overnight sleep.

And often, when the last wake window is too long (age-appropriately), it can cause bedtime to be too late and this can also cause the undesirable early start of day

Try a shorter last wake window + earlier bedtime to see if that helps with your early start of day.

Is their last wake window too short and/or bedtime too early?

Too short of a last wake window can also cause them to wake early because their bodies weren't as tired when they went to sleep and or they went to bed too early.

Over 6 months old, the last wake window does become their longest period of the day, around 2.5 hours for a few months after they turn 6 months. If your baby is over 6 months and their last wake window is shorter than 2.5 hours, try gently extending it to see if that helps.

If your baby is going to bed before 6:30pm, try to gently extend that as well. Most babies do between 11-12 hours of nighttime sleep, so if bedtime is too early, it can lead to an earlier start of day.

As with all things, we wouldn't want to jump from a 60 minute last wake window to 2.5 hours, but you can try adding 20-30 min every few days to gently get them to the longer awake window they may need.

We know it can feel really overwhelming when your baby is waking at this time. However, it's usually best to take a step back and evaluate what could be causing the wakings, so you can help your baby to sleep longer overnight.

In the short term:

  1. If you think they're hungry, you should feed and start your day while you work to increase total daytime intake
  2. If you don't think they're hungry, try rocking them back to sleep and then working on figuring out if they're overtired, under tired or getting too much daytime sleep!

We know how challenging it is to wake at 5am and we don't want that for you either! It just may take some simple tweaking of the daytime routine to get you both sleeping overnight.

If you want to learn more about troubleshooting common infant sleep problems, our Infant Online Program has some amazing content and if you need help with troubleshooting your baby's sleep, we would love to teach you The Full Feedings Method®