The Case of the Early Riser

The Case of the Early Riser

By Brittney Stefanic


Why in the world is my kiddo waking up at 4 am?

Is it a developmental milestone? A regression? Are they getting too much sleep during the day, or not enough? Maybe they’re just hungry. Maybe they’re too hot, or too cold. Maybe they are just an early riser?

Honestly… It could be any of those things that is causing your little one to wake before the sun. And it could also be any combination of several of them. What that means, and what you’re probably already aware of, is that infant and toddler sleep is tremendously complicated. In fact, sleep science is complex at all ages. But with littles, their bodies and brains are rapidly going through significant changes and growth, and by the time we have one sleep struggle sorted out, a new one surely pops up to take its place. Welcome to motherhood! 

Of these potential causes for early rising, there are a few factors you can control. If baby’s too chilly, you can put them in a Zipadee-Zip to give them an extra layer for warmth. If they’re teething, a little pain reliever can often solve the problem, at least temporarily. But those are the simple fixes. The reason most parents have such a tough time with their babies’ sleep is because of problems that are more in depth and without super obvious solutions.

Picture this…

Your 22 month old gets tons of fresh air and sunlight during the day, goes down easily for a long, restful 2 hour nap after lunch, and spends lots of time exploring and being active. However, when bedtime rolls around, suddenly they turn into the energizer bunny and want to play nonstop. When they’re told it’s time to get out of the bath, they get upset and bedtime becomes a cry fest. Once they finally get to sleep you count your lucky stars, but sure enough they wake up several times at night and never sleep until sunrise.

So what’s gives? Is baby’s nap too long? That would be the reasonable assumption, for sure. After all, if adults were to take a 2-hour nap in the afternoon, there’s a good chance we’d have a hard time falling and staying asleep later that night. But with little ones, the opposite is almost always the case. What this toddler is showing is that she actually need MORE sleep, not less. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but stick with me… Overtiredness causes early rising!

The science of sleep

In order to understand this backwards reasoning, I'll provide to you, first, a little background on the science of sleep. Don’t worry, I won’t geek out on you too hard, but the scientist in me really does LOVE this stuff!

A few hours prior to our natural wake time, our bodies start to secret a hormone called cortisol. If you think back to your high school science class (or any other blog you’ve read about infant sleep), just seeing that word typed out might make you want to cringe a little.

Cortisol is a stimulating hormone and is produced in times of stress. Its role in the body is to elevate the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system in times of need. But at this time of the morning, the role of cortisol is to prep our bodies to get us started for the day. You can think of this hormone as mother nature’s caffeine.

In this analogy, cortisol is our morning cup of joe, and melatonin (the sleep hormone) is our evening glass of wine while we Netflix on the couch. Once the sun begins to set, our bodies recognize the onset of night and begin to produce melatonin. This is the key played that helps us get to sleep at night and stay asleep until morning, when this whole process starts over again for another 24 hour cycle. In general, melatonin production is increased and initiated earlier in the evening on the days that we get plenty of sunlight and activity.

Sleep hormones

But scientifically awesome as this system is, it is far from perfect and it can be easily confused when we mess with it which is what is happening in the case with the toddler mentioned above.

This tot is taking a great nap during the day, which is obviously wonderful (hello naptime hustle), and she’s getting lots of time outdoors, so her little body is ready to crank out some melatonin as her bedtime rolls around.

To some, that burst of energy/hyperactivity seems odd. But to me it is clear that we’ve missed her ideal sleep window. See, when her little body started increased production of melatonin around dinner time, there is a particularly short window of time when the body expects to be going to sleep. After all, she’s a toddler. There isn’t much for her to stay awake for… She doesn’t scroll Instagram and she doesn’t need to online shop!

Her brain instinctively decides that if she’s up beyond her “sleep window” something must be up.  Her brain signals that baby can’t sleep because of whatever is keeping her up (like predators, stress, fight or flight), and so her body adds a quick a burst of cortisol to help increase her chance of making it through this stressful time. So that’s exactly what it does.

Her little system starts secreting cortisol as a biological response, and before you know it, she’s one giant ball of toddler energy. This often shows up in the form of playfulness and an abundance of hyperactivity. It can be cute and comical. I mean… those deep belly laughs as she runs away from her dog are precious.

The short answer… She missed her sleepy window and now she’s going to have a hard time getting back to that point, but her behavior indicates anything but sleepiness because of the hormones secreted by her body!

But what about the early rising

Here’s what happens... Assuming your little one’s circadian rhythm is scheduling a 7 am wake up, they start to secrete cortisol about three hours before that. At this point, the melatonin production has ended (until the whole cycle begins again tomorrow).

So when babe hits the end of one sleep cycle around 3:30 or 4:00 am she gets to that “slightly awake” state which is totally natural and normal. Because of the timing of the wake, there’s a little bit of cortisol (a stimulant) and not enough melatonin (a natural sedative). This combo is paired with a lack of independent sleep skills, and the result is that she is going to wake full, be unable to put herself back to sleep, and start to cry for you as if it is the start of the day.

How do we stop the early rising?

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for adjusting baby’s hormone production schedule, you can definitely help her out by getting her outdoors during the day as much as possible. As I mentioned above, natural light during the day is the big cheerleader for melatonin production at night.

It also helps to ensure that baby’s room is as dark as you can get it at night, and start turning down the lights in the house at least an hour before you put her to bed. Simulating the sunset will help to cue that melatonin production so that it’s in full swing when she goes into her crib.

Avoid any TV, iPhone, tablet, or screen time of any kind for that same hour (preferably even longer) before bedtime as these devices emit blue light which stimulates cortisol production (oh no) and prevents melatonin production (double oh no).

But above all, the number one way to help your baby sleep through the night and get past the very early morning wake up is to get her on a predictable, consistent sleep schedule and teach her the skills she needs to fall asleep independently.

The truth is... You’re never going to prevent nighttime wake ups because no one EVER sleeps fully through the night.

Teach baby to be an independent sleeper

We all wake up in the night, regardless of our age. As adults, we have the ability to calmly assess the situation when we wake up in the dark, realize where we are, see that it’s still nighttime, and go right back to sleep. Most of the time we don’t even remember the wake up the next morning, unless we have to get up to pee because #momlife.

So although we can’t prevent baby from waking up at night (or the dreaded 4 am hour), we can safely and effectively help her learn to recognize that she’s comfortable, in her own crib, still tired, and absolutely capable of getting back to sleep on her own. We can TEACH HER how to get back to sleep as soon as we commit to teaching her how to fall asleep on her own!


Brittney Stefanic is a certified whole-family sleep consultant. She gets that early risers can cause your day to start off exhausted and frustrated.  As an educator, Brittney believes in the power of teaching and loves to support families in meeting their sleep goals through her customized sleep plans. You can follow her on Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook @brittneystefanicsleep for access to her free sleep tips and tricks and opportunities for free sleep Q&A sessions. 


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