Is your little one an early riser? Put these steps in place before the clocks go forward, and he’ll sleep in for longer.
Meet the expert: Lucy Shrimpton is a sleep consultant, mum-of-two and author of The Sleep Nanny System: A Parent’s Guide to Creating Sleep Solutions Tailored to Your Family (£9.99, Spiffing Covers), sleepnanny.co.uk
Feeling bleary-eyed from a lack of sleep right now? If your tot has a habit of waking up too early, we have a sure-fire way of encouraging him to stay in snoozeland for a little longer. OK, so it’s not exactly a lie-in, but an extra hour of sleep in the morning is going to make a big difference to your mood – and his.
‘Between five and six in the morning still counts as night-time,’ says sleep consultant Lucy Shrimpton. ‘If you’re woken up at this time, you’re probably being disturbed out of a deep sleep. That makes you feel disoriented. By the time a baby is six months old, it’s reasonable to expect that he will sleep until at least 6am, if not 7am. You just need to work towards re-setting his sleep clock.’
And now is the perfect time to do it. When the clocks go forward on Sunday, 27 March, at the start of British Summer Time, we have an hour less night-time. So if your tot normally wakes at 5.30am, he’ll wake on Sunday morning at 6.30am. And sunrise happens later, so it will be darker in the morning too. Set our plan into action now to capitalize on this clock-change and permanently move his wake-up time to sane o’clock.
STEP ONE: Get nap savvy
‘The biggest cause of early waking is overtiredness,’ says Lucy. ‘This sounds odd, because you’d think that if a child was tired, he’d sleep more. But it doesn’t work like that. If a child gets tired, but doesn’t sleep, his brain thinks there has to be a reason to stay awake. So it releases the hormone cortisol, which stimulates your child and makes him more alert. The result is that the more tired he gets, the more wired he feels, and the harder it is for him to sleep.’
So if you have an early riser, the first thing to look at is the amount of sleep he’s getting during the day. ‘The older your child gets, the less sleep he needs, but 95 per cent of children will need some sleep during the day right up until the time that they’re three-and-a-half years old,’ says Lucy. ‘This can be tricky, because from the age of two, lots of children start resisting naps. That’s not because they don’t need them, it’s just because they don’t want to miss out on what’s going on. But it’s really worth persisting with the daytime sleep: don’t give up at the first sign of resistance. Even if he goes through a phase of not sleeping at nap-time, keep putting him down for his nap – chances are, he’ll go back to sleeping. If he just won’t nap, make sure he has quiet time, looking at books or doing a jigsaw.’
So set in place a plan to prioritise your child’s naps and make sure they happen. Adjust your routine so you’re somewhere that he’ll find it easy to sleep at nap-time. Don’t try to wear him out as a way of helping him nap, as it’s more likely to push him into overtiredness, when he’ll find it difficult to fall asleep. Watch for signs of sleepiness and learn what your tot does when he’s tired. There’s usually
a 30-minute ‘sleep window’: a period when he’s feeling drowsy and, if you put him down in this window, he’s more likely to fall asleep and sleep well. And have a consistent 15-minute pre-nap wind-down routine, to lull him towards sleepiness.
STEP two: Review bedtime
If your child is getting enough sleep during the day, the next step is to look at his bedtime. ‘Once your baby is six months old, you can hope he’ll sleep 12 hours at night, but not necessarily in one chunk,’ says Lucy. ‘So if he goes to bed at 7pm and he’s not overtired, there is a good chance he’ll wake up at 7am. But if he’s going to bed later than 7pm, he’ll get overtired and will probably wake early. So gradually bring his bedtime forwards until you reach 7pm. If your child is already going to bed around 7pm, and still waking early, not enough sleep might still be the problem, so you need to bring his bedtime even further forward.’
Lots of parents worry that if they bring bedtime earlier, their child will simply wake up earlier. But this is another of those counter-intuitive things about sleep. It doesn’t work like that. ‘There is no gain in keeping a tired child up,’ says Lucy. ‘If he’s overtired and you put him to bed at 6pm or 6.30pm, it doesn’t mean he will wake up at 6am. Instead, it gives him a chance to start catching up on his sleep.’
STEP three: Ditch the habit
‘If your child has been an early riser for ages, he might just have got into the habit of early morning waking,’ says Lucy. ‘There is a way to deal with that, but you do need to be sure that it is habit and not caused by anything else.’ Ensure your tot is napping well in the daytime, and going to bed at a reasonable time. Then give him all the help you can by using blackout curtains. And, if he’s sleeping with a dummy and he’s older than six months, wean him off it, otherwise if it falls out in the night, he’ll wake up to find it.
But if this doesn’t improve his sleep, and his early rising has been going on for weeks or months, and he wakes up at the same time every morning, it could be that your baby has got himself into an early-rising habit.
‘I use the wake-to-sleep method to deal with this,’ says Lucy. ‘If a child is regularly waking at 4am, go in to him at 3.30am and rouse him gently. Then, reassuring him, lie him back down. Do this gently so it’s easy for him to fall asleep again. You’re disrupting the sleep cycle that ends with him waking at 4am, and putting him into a new sleep cycle, so he’ll wake later.’ With some children, doing this just once breaks the habit. With others, it can take up to 10 days.
STEP four: Use the changing of the clocks
On the last weekend in March, the clocks go forward by one hour. ‘If your little one usually gets up at 5am, this will miraculously turn into 6am!’ says Lucy. ‘He won’t notice a thing, and his body clock will
shunt forwards to match. The clock-change will only bring lasting changes if you also work on steps one, two and three, and sort out any overtiredness or habitual early rising. If you do, you’ll get
to spend your early mornings in bed – bliss!’