Have you ever had your baby suddenly start waking up (too) early in the morning? It usually starts with something manageable like 15 minutes - then the following day they wake up an hour or more earlier than they are "supposed to"... and you think to yourself, "Where did my good sleeper go?"
Let's talk about the dreaded early morning waking.
Why does it happen? And more importantly, what can you do about it!
The reason early morning wakings are so tricky is because they are so close to normal wake time that it is really hard to get your baby settled back down to sleep.
If normal wake time for your baby is 6:30am, it will be really hard for them to fall back asleep if they wake up for some reason at 5:45am. Many adults experience this as well - if you are woken up early for some reason (typically within an hour of your normal wake time) it is often very difficult for you to go back to sleep. If you were not woken up early, you would easily sleep for a longer period of time. Therefore what you have to do is try to figure out what is causing your baby's early waking, and try to fix it.
I like to divide reasons for an early waking into two categories. I call the first category Simple Solutions because they are simple fixes that can result in extra sleep in the morning. I call the second category Not So Obvious... because... you guessed it... these causes are not as obvious.
1) Your child's room is too bright in the morning. There is a wonderful invention called "blackout shades" that help to limit the amount of light that comes in through the window. They are thicker than normal curtains and do a better job at blocking out light. (PS - I have also found they do a good job of insulating the room from the cold/hot air that seeps in through the window). Babies are particularly affected by natural sunlight, therefore if they see some rays of sun peering in through their poorly covered window in the early morning they could get a false sense that it is "wake time".
2) There is external noise that causing your baby to wake up. If you live in a condo/apartment building or townhouse, this is a biggie. The early waking could be caused by a noisy neighbor, an alarm clock in a nearby room, someone walking around in the room/apartment above your child's room, birds outside of your child's window, a loud car or motorcycle revving outside, etc. Obviously some of these things are hard to fix. What you can do is try to drown out the noise using a white noise maker. I am an advocate of white noise makers for babies anyway, so if you are a previous/current client of mine you likely already have one of these in your child's room.
3) Your baby is hungry. If your baby is at the age where night feedings are still appropriate, this may simply be a waking due to hunger. You could try implementing an early evening dreamfeed to offset the early morning hunger. You could also try offering a night feeding prior to the early waking in an effort to push them past the early waking. If you baby is old enough to sleep through the night without any feedings he/she is likely waking out of habit at this early time.
4) Your baby is uncomfortable. Wet diaper? Try putting your child in a larger sized diaper when they go to bed. That often helps keep the wetness IN the diaper versus seeping out onto their pajamas - not comfortable. Some of my clients use diaper booster pads in addition to a diaper at night to help absorb more wetness as well.
5) Your baby is just an early bird. If your baby has always woken up early, this may simply be their body's natural wake time. Some babies are just early risers and will always be that way - those same babies will typically always need an early bedtime. FYI - I do not think a baby's natural wake time is 4:30am. That type of early waking is more of a night waking and steps should be taken to eliminate that. However a 6:30am waking is a fairly natural wake time for many babies - so even if you want their wake time to be closer to 10am, 6:30am may be all you will get from some babies (and if that is the case for you baby, make sure they have an early bedtime).
Not So Obvious
As mentioned earlier, if you are faced with a sudden early waking and none of the Simple Solutions work (or you are already using them) there is likely another, less obvious cause for your child's early waking. Here are the most common "other causes":
1) Your baby's bedtime is too late. As children grow, they need different amounts of sleep at different points in their development. What was a perfect bedtime for three months could suddenly be too late one day. If you are faced with a consistent early waking, you may want to try to push your child's bedtime earlier by 20-30 minutes. An earlier bedtime helps children settle into a more natural (earlier) part of the first sleep cycle and often helps them sleep longer throughout the night. Late bedtimes are particularly problematic for younger babies with regards to early morning waking.
2) Your baby is ready to drop a nap. There is only so much sleep a baby needs in a 24-hour period. Once they have met their sleep quota, that's all you are going to get. Signs that your baby is getting too much sleep often appear in the form of nap time resistance, bedtime resistance, and the dreaded early morning waking. As your child grows their sleep needs change. Younger babies need more sleep, and older babies and children need less sleep. For example: a 14 month-old baby needs about 13.5-14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. So if your child is sleeping 11 hours at night and then taking two 2-hour naps during the day, I would assume an early waking would mean too much daytime sleep. I would take steps to decrease the amount of daytime sleep by transitioning down to one nap (which is appropriate for a 14-month old).
3) Your baby's bedtime is too early. Whaaaa? I know, I know... I just said in #1 that your baby's bedtime is too late. Well, it can either be too early or too late - clear as mud? This goes back to the idea that there is only so much sleep that a baby needs in a 24-hour period. If your baby is at the top end of their sleep quota for a 24-hour period you could try pushing bedtime slightly later and seeing if a later wake time results. Bedtimes that are too early are typically an issue for older babies/children, not younger babies.
4) Your morning nap is too early. If your morning nap happens too close to the morning wake time, it can steal sleep cycles from nighttime sleep. In essence, your baby is waking up (too early), taking a feeding, and then finishing their nighttime sleep when the first nap is supposed to be taking place. If you create more space between wake time and the first nap, the early waking should begin to diminish.
5) Your baby is going through a developmental milestone. When babies are learning new tricks they want to practice them! Rolling, sitting, pulling up, standing, walking... all of these things cause sleep to get temporarily thrown off. Be patient with your baby as they "figure" these things out - but don't intervene to much. For example: If your baby suddenly begins sitting up in their crib, go in and show them how to lay back down (many times they learn how to sit or stand up in the crib but don't necessarily know how to lay back down). But after showing them how to do this a few times you need to give them space to figure out how to do it on their own. If you keep going in and shifting their position each time they sit or stand it will become a game of cause and effect. Once the novelty of the new development has worn off, sleep should get back to normal.