Sleep. Not getting enough? Here’s how to make your baby sleep longer

sleep coffee

What do you do if your baby decides to get up for the day at 5am? Or 4am? Or even… 3am? Sleep expert Kerry Secker shares her wisdom on getting your baby to wake up later in the morning, using gentle and adaptable methods…

If you’re up at the early hour with your small you certainly aren’t the only one hoping for a more civilised time to start your day. We all need sleep and yet…

1 in 5 families who are referred to me start their day between 3am (yes, really!) and 5.30am.

The first step to seeing a later hour is to work out whether your small sleep stealer is an early bird or an early riser:

Early bird: If your small wakes raring to go and makes it to their nap or bedtime without begging for bed it’s likely they’re an early bird. Sorry folks, grab yourself a coffee, plan the day. 

Early riser:  If your small wakes up unsettled, whingy and begging for bed 30 minutes after waking then it’s likely they’re an early riser. They wake but not because they want to be and would much rather be back in the land of nod.

Are keeping your sleeping expectations in check?

There’s a lot of pressure to get your small to wake at a certain time and if they wake before this it’s easy to think there’s a problem that needs fixing. All little ones are different and the time they wake will naturally differ. It can depend on what time they went to bed and whether they’ve had a decent night’s sleep.

If they wake up at 6am having slept well, whilst it’s a bit of a ball-breaker it’s not that unacceptable, either. On the other hand, anything with a 5 – or dare I whisper a 3 or 4 – in the get-up time signals that there’s probably room for improvement.

Why does your little wake early and not settle back to sleep?

The answer to this is all about biology, baby! Your small’s sleep is at its lightest between 3am and 6am because they stop producing their melatonin (sleep hormone) and their wake hormones take over to prepare them to wake up.

How you can you to help prevent early wake ups?

The number one cause of early waking is your small is overtired.

When they are overtired, their system produces cortisol AKA Baby Redbull. This cortisol is a shot of adrenaline designed to keep them awake because when they’re overtired their reactions and reflexes slow down and they may not be able to run or crawl away from any danger that comes their way. 

If your small gets overtired they…

May do the bedtime battle and fight going to sleep.

Can take longer to settle down to sleep. In fact, a small who is overtired can take up to 6 times longer to settle!

The cortisol can wake them at any time during the night but usually they wake more frequently post-midnight as their melatonin levels decrease rapidly.

What can you do to prevent early rising?

Nail Your Naps

Nailing your naps is the first sleep step because they prevent the build-up of cortisol and your small getting overtired.

This is a rough guide to naps by age:


Nap Needs per day

6 months and younger

3-4 hours’ sleep over 3 to 4 naps

6 to 9 months

2-3 hours’ sleep over 2-3 naps

9 to 18 months

2-3 hours’ sleep over 1-2 naps

18 months to 3 years

1-2 hour nap

3 to 5 years

Sometimes 1 nap (most lose between 3 & 4 years)

Best time for bed time

Pushing bedtime too late can quickly undo all the good work of the naps

From six-months-old, their sleep system (circadian rhythm) is fully established and their melatonin rises at 3pm to prep them for bed. It is at its peak between 4/4.5 hours later. Ideally we want to get them settled down for bed when their melatonin is at its peak.

With older ones you can push bedtime slightly later but for under-fives I usually recommend no more than five hours from 3pm.

Best bedtimes by age:

Under 6 months           

Keep to their nap gap. So if they go 2 hours between naps during the day bedtime no more than 2 hours from their last nap of the day

6 months to 18 months      

Ideally no more than 4 hours from 3pm

Over 18 months                 

Bedtime can be pushed to suit your little one but I generally advise between 4-5 hours from 3pm

If your small is fighting or finding it hard to settle at night you could try an earlier bedtime; just 10 -15 minutes can make such a positive difference to how they settle to sleep, their night sleep and the time they wake up.

Post 3am, their melatonin level is non-existent and it may take a while for them to link their sleep cycles at this time. If there is no emotional need i.e. they are chatting, cooing or just awake I always suggest giving them the sleep space they are asking for (they aren’t asking you to support them!) because if we go in at this time:

It may prevent them getting back to sleep.

We can disturb them.

It can over stimulate them.

It can be impossible to settle them once they’ve seen you; they get FOMO and – understandably – want to play with you.

If they need some emotional support (i.e. they are crying) or a feed:

Feed or reassure them but try to…

Keep everything as if it is night time.

Keep conversation and interaction to a minimum.

Only change their nappy if they really need it.

For older early risers, having clear and consistent boundaries can help you all move forward. Rather than letting them get up early and play – encourage them to go back to sleep.

Fingers crossed your early hour turns into a civilised start soon.

You can find out more about me and my sleep support services here: