Sleep deprivation can leave us short-tempered, devoid of energy and struggling to cope. Once sleep is sorted, parenthood becomes a whole lot easier. So Annie Ridout called in sleep consultant Kerry Secker to advise on her early rising baby…
According to the NHS, most babies can sleep through the night from six months. Speak to all your parent friends, though, and the picture may look a little different. You will get people who say their baby has slept through since exiting the womb, but they’re probably lying.
However, my daughter was genuinely sleeping from 7pm until 7am by six months old. She’d been sleeping fairly well from around four months, and she’d have two good naps each day. So I assumed I was a brilliant parent, proficient at sleep training and that my son would also sleep well.
Only, I was wrong.
He tricked us when he was eight weeks old by sleeping through (7pm-5am) two nights in a row. We thought this was the start of something great but then he woke up the next night for a feed. And the next night. And we were back to where we began: two/three night wakings, and very early – 4.30/5am – starts.
He’d intermittently sleep though the night, but only once every few weeks. Then at five months, we tried him on solids. I thought if he had more food in his belly he might sleep through. He took to food but he didn’t start sleeping through. At least not every night.
My early rising baby was up by 5am every day
By the time he was nine months old, he was mostly sleeping through but I’d had enough of the early starts. Getting up at 5am every day was becoming tiring. People had told me to treat it like a night waking – feed him, put him back in the cot – but it didn’t work. He was wide awake and raring to go.
Also, he started waking up his three-year-old sister when we did try to get him back to sleep. One baby awake at 5am, I could handle. Two children at that hour? No thanks. So I started going to bed at 8.30am every night, and just accepting my early rising baby. Well, for a while.
I still had an inkling that with the right help, I could get him sleeping later in the morning so I got in touch with Kerry Secker, founder of Kerry Cares Parenting. She’s a sleep consultant, with over 18 years experience working with families, and favours a gentle approach to sleep training.
The science of sleep
Kerry talked me through the science of sleep. She explained that for the first three months, baby sleep will be quite unreliable. They may sleep for longer stretches of four hours but this may then be followed by a 15-minute cat nap. And this happens day and night.
Most babies take about 12 weeks to regulate their melatonin production (the sleep hormone), and to sort out the difference between day and night. This is called the circadian rhythm – the physiological changes that follow a 24-hour cycle (awake in the day, asleep at night – when it’s dark).
From six months old, babies have a set schedule in terms of melatonin production. From 3pm they start to produce melatonin, it gradually rises, peaks at 7pm and stays consistent until midnight – so this is the deepest part of their sleep.
This means that if your baby wakes before midnight, it shouldn’t be so hard to resettle them. But after midnight, sleep gets lighter and they move around more. If they wake at this time, they will be harder to settle, as there’s less of the sleep-inducing melatonin.
Why was my baby waking so early?
But what I wanted to know is why my baby was waking every morning in the hour of 5, or sometimes even 4am. And how to get him to sleep until at least 6am. By this point, seeing a ‘6’ on my clock would make my feel overjoyed. However, It was rarely happening.
Kerry told me that because my son was napping quite well (1.5 hours in the morning, same in the afternoon) and mostly sleeping through – there wasn’t a huge amount of work to be done. But that the reason he was waking early was because he was overtired when he went to bed.
When babies are tired but don’t sleep, they produce cortisol (‘baby Red Bull’, as Kerry calls it) to keep them awake. This cortisol remains in their system when they go to sleep at night, meaning the smallest sound can rouse them. It’s their body’s way of protecting them from danger, even when asleep.
The sleep solution…
So putting my baby to bed a bit earlier – by 6.45pm – would mean he was less tired at bed-time, would have less cortisol in his system, and so wouldn’t be on high alert. Because once the melatonin’s gone around 3am, the cortisol remains, so the dustbin men arriving at 4am, for instance, will make him jump into action.
And this then leads to a ridiculously early start for us all, followed by a baby wanting a nap at 7am, not getting it – because of people having showers, nursery drop-offs etc – so getting overtired again and the cycle perpetuating. More tiredness; more cortisol, fighting sleep, shorter naps. Tired at bedtime, wakes early the next morning.
Kerry suggested giving him a cat nap (15 minutes) around 4pm if his earlier naps had been shorter than 1/2 hour. And to ensure he was in bed, for the night, by 7pm. Ideally, he should be waking from his second nap around 3pm, then not sleeping again until bedtime. The cat nap was just a buffer in case his afternoon nap hadn’t gone so well.
Napping routine: 2/3/4
In terms of timings between naps, Kerry said that at nine months old, what often works well is a 2/3/4 routine. So he wakes up, has breakfast, two hours later has his first nap. He wakes from that nap, has a three hour gap – play, walk, lunch – then sleeps again. And four hours after he wakes from the afternoon nap, he goes to bed.
Being given this routine was helpful. I’d done a load of googling and had spoken to all my mum friends about nap times and bed-times but sometimes, having one person (with a lot of experience) set your routine makes is simpler. I needed clear guidelines.
Apparently the reason bath-times were always fairly fraught – tears, wriggling, desperate to feed when I was in there with him – were due to…. Yeah, him being overtired. So bringing the routine forward, and ensuring he wasn’t exhausted would create a more calm bed-time routine.
Also, he’d then have a proper breastfeed before bed rather than a quick suckle to send him off to sleep.
Our new bed-time routine
Timing-wise, we were working towards 5pm dinner, 6pm bath, which Kerry said should be no more than 10 minutes, then book/boob/bed by 6.45pm. She told me to do the whole routine in his room. Until then, I’d been feeding him on my bed then transferring him to his cot once he was asleep, so he was waking in a totally different room.
I wondered whether feeding him to sleep at night was an issue but Kerry said because he was sleeping through, this meant he was able to get himself back to sleep at night without relying on suckling. All babies will wake briefly between sleep cycles but if they go back to sleep it means they are able to join their cycles together without a sleep prop (dummy, boob, bottle etc).
Ask google anything about feeding or rocking to sleep, and you’ll be told to STOP IMMEDIATELY. I liked that Kerry was saying if it worked for us, which it did, feeding him to sleep was fine. That it was only an issue if he wasn’t able to get to sleep without it. I’d stopped feeding him to sleep for naps, so knew he could go off alone.
I only had one phone consultation with Kerry, so we couldn’t cover everything and an additional change I made independently was to give more dinner. As well as the mushy savoury meal, I’d give him a big bowl of banana and yoghurt afterwards. Just to rule out hunger as a reason for early morning wakings.
Also, we moved him into a new room at the back of the house. It was further from the noise of us, his sister, the street and our neighbours.
But we’re three weeks into the new routine, and guess what? He wakes every morning at 7am. SEVEN AM! I’m like a new woman. I don’t have to go to bed at 8.30pm. I sometimes go to bed at 9pm anyway, and get a blissful 10 hours sleep.
As with anything baby/parenting-related, there are many factors. We made our own changes, we implemented Kerry’s advice, but we can’t discount the simple passing of time. Maybe last month, he wasn’t ready to sleep longer in the mornings and now he is. Who knows. But having one voice (Kerry) advising us on sleep was hugely reassuring.
If you’re also struggling with getting your baby to sleep, or to sleep later in the mornings, or to wake up less at night – here are some helpful tips from Kerry…
- For the baby’s night-time routine, keep it short and sweet. Dinner, bath (no more than 10 minutes), a book in the room they sleep in then say goodnight to three objects in the room. We all love little routines, baby’s particularly. This is a nice one to make their room feel cosy and familiar each night before bed.
- Be aware of an overtired baby. Signs to look for: takes a long time to fall asleep, wakes up crying and arching his back. This means he’s tired and wants to sleep but doesn’t know how. There are gentle ways to lull him back to sleep – try to keep him in the cot, stroke or pat him, make a shushing sound. But if it doesn’t work, get him out to rock or feed him – whatever usually gets him off.
- If he wakes in the night, go to him. He’s asking for support. Sleep is stressful (we know how important sleep is for us. It’s the same for babies; they want it too). It’s not bad to feed a baby through the night, if that’s what they need. Or to comfort them if they’re teething or ill. Crying it out often goes against a parent’s instinct. Do what feels right for you.
- There is often a combination of factors determining why your baby is waking up throughout the night. It might be that he’s overtired, or teething, or hungry, or just wants more comfort than usual, or has a ‘bedtime boundary’. So sometimes all these areas will need some work.
If you’re looking for help with an early rising baby, or a baby who is waking through the night, visit Kerry Secker’s website Kerry Cares Parenting. You can also follow her on Instagram: @careitoutsleepconsultant.
Do you have an early rising baby? What time are you being woken in the morning, and how do you feel about it?