How to Shift an Early Schedule

Summer is here! Which means lots of sun, lots of fun, and lots of - early morning wake-ups (boo!)  At this time of the year my inbox is flooded with parents desperate for help with children who are waking too darn early. It could be the late evening sun or the early morning sun [get that room dark parents!] that starts the problem, but it's often getting trapped in an early bedtime/early wake-up cycle that perpetuates the problem. I have a few posts here and here that address some other reasons why your child would wake early [and I'd recommend reading those first before proceeding with this article!] but this post is going to focus on one common cause of early wake-ups - a bedtime that is too early.  So if you've troubleshooted all other possible causes of the early wake-up but suspect this is your problem, read on parents!

What do we define as an 'early wake-up'?

You and me both sista!

You and me both sista!

'Early' is a bit subjective - early to one family might mean 7:00am and early to another family might mean 5:00am. For the purpose of this article, I define 'early' as a) anything earlier than 6:00am and b) a wake-up time that resulted in less than ~10-12 hours of nighttime sleep. 

What do we do first?

The first step when working to eliminate an early wake-up is to ensure that there isn't anything external that could be waking baby at an earlier hour. Is it too bright in baby's room in the evening or early morning? If you think of a scale from 1-10, one being bright and sunny and ten being pitch black, we want that room between an 8-10 for all sleep times. An 8-10, to me, would mean that any time you are in that room [for any sleep periods] and you were to have your hand outstretched in front of your face, it should be hard to make out your hand. Melatonin [the sleepy hormone] is only produced when it's dark [thus why it's called the 'vampire hormone'!] If that room is too bright when baby is trying to settle at night or trying to re-settle in the early morning, we aren't getting help from melatonin and this can lead to early wake-ups. Cheap ways to get that room nice and dark include black garbage bags on the windows, tin foil, a dark blanket, cardboard, etc. [go full ghetto on that room!] For something more long-term, check out these window covers - they work fantastic and are super affordable as well.

Once you've got your baby cave rockin', you've read my other two articles above and eliminated those factors as possibly contributing to your early wake-ups, and you're pretty certain you've got a baby stuck in an early wake-up/early bedtime cycle, your next step is a schedule shift.

What is a 'schedule shift'?

The term is pretty self-explanatory - we are attempting to shift the schedule. We never want to just push baby's bedtime later in hopes of shifting the schedule, as too-long of a stretch before bed will almost always lead to an early wake-up. We need to shift the entire schedule - naps and bedtime. Because we are stretching baby, the schedule shift can cause some overtiredness but we just have to persist - give the schedule shift a full week before deciding if it is working or not. The schedule shift looks differently for different nap schedules so I've broken it down by number of naps:

If your baby is on a 3 nap schedule:

  • Continue to leave your baby in their crib until 6:00am [if you've read the above articles, you'll know leaving them until 6:00am is important as by scooping your baby up earlier than 6:00am and exposing them to light/stimulation of any kind, we are re-setting that internal clock for 'early'!] Now, I don't mean you have to just leave them in their cribs alone, you could be comforting/reassuring during this time or even just sitting in the dark room with them!
     
  • Do not put down for baby's first nap until 8:15am. As baby progresses through the schedule shift, you'll want to push this 'no nap before' rule to 8:45am. Using an extra long wind down routine before sleep times to help calm baby if they are getting a bit overtired is a good strategy to help us make these desired nap times possible.
     
  • Do not put down for baby's second nap until 11:15am. As baby progresses, your goal is no put down before 11:45am [as a note, if your baby is currently not an independent sleeper, your goal would just be for baby to be soothed to sleep by about 15 minutes after these ideal put down times. So, perhaps you'd start rocking them at 11:45am with a goal of them being asleep by 12:00pm].
     
  • Do not put down for baby's third nap until 2:30pm.  As baby progresses, the goal would be no put down before 3:45pm [the variation here is bigger because this awake time is the least sensitive of the day, so we are able to stretch it a bit more without disastrous results].
     
  • Do not put down for baby's bedtime until 6:15pm. Our ultimate goal for put down will be no earlier than 6:45pm. Because bedtime is the most sensitive time of the day, an extra long bedtime routine is a really good idea! If you have a particularly tough day, a put down of 6:00pm would be appropriate, but keep working on it!

If your baby is on a 2 nap schedule:

  • Continue to leave your baby in their crib until 6:00am [if you've read the above articles, you'll know leaving them until 6:00am is important as by scooping your baby up earlier than 6:00am and exposing them to light/stimulation of any kind, we are re-setting that internal clock for 'early'!] Now, I don't mean you have to just leave them in their cribs alone, you could be comforting/reassuring during this time or even just sitting in the dark room with them!
     
  • Do not put down for baby's first nap until 9:00am. As baby progresses through the schedule shift, you'll want to push this 'no nap before' rule to 9:15am. Using an extra long wind down routine before sleep times to help calm baby if they are getting a bit overtired is a good strategy to help us make these desired nap times possible.
     
  • Do not put down for baby's second nap until 1:00pm.  As baby progresses, your goal is no put down before 2:00pm. The variation here is bigger because this awake time is the least sensitive of the day, so we are able to stretch it a bit more without disastrous results [as a note, if your baby is currently not an independent sleeper, your goal would just be for baby to be soothed to sleep by about 15 minutes after these ideal put down times. So, perhaps you'd start rocking them at 2:00pm with a goal of them being asleep by 2:15pm].
     
  • Do not put down for baby's bedtime until 6:15pm. Our ultimate goal for put down will be no earlier than 6:45pm. Because bedtime is the most sensitive time of the day, an extra long bedtime routine is a really good idea! If you have a day with two short naps, a bedtime put down of 5:45-6:00pm would be appropriate, but keep working on it!

If your child is on a 1 nap schedule:

  • Continue to leave your child in their crib/bed until 6:00am [if you've read the above articles, you'll know leaving them until 6:00am is important as by scooping your child up earlier than 6:00am and exposing them to light/stimulation of any kind, we are re-setting that internal clock for 'early'!] Now, I don't mean you have to just leave them in their cribs/beds alone, you could be comforting/reassuring during this time or even just sitting in the dark room with them!
     
  • For a child younger than 2 years of age: you want to slowly shift their nap later and later into the day until you are not putting them down for their nap any earlier than 12:15pm. What time did you put them down for their nap yesterday? Take that time and add 15 minutes. Every few days, add another 15 minutes until you are not laying them down until 12:15pm at the earliest [our ultimate goal is a nap occurring between 12:30-1:00pm].
  • For a child 2 years of age or older: you want to slowly shift their nap later and later into the day until you are not putting them down for their nap any earlier than 12:45pm. What time did you put them down for their nap yesterday? Take that time and add 15 minutes. Every few days, add another 15 minutes until you are not laying them down until 12:45pm at the earliest [our ultimate goal is a nap occurring between 1:00-1:30pm].
     
  • Continue to always be flexible with the timing of bed based on when your child woke up from their nap. For a child under the age of 2, we are aiming for bedtime to occur about 4.5-5 hours after the nap ends. For a child that is age 2 or older, bedtime should occur about 5 hours after the nap ends.

In summary...

Early wake-ups are tricky. The stronger your child's internal clock is, the stickier these early wake-ups will be. It can take time and patience to re-set that internal clock but it is possible! Hopefully the above strategies can help your family and I appreciate you taking the time to read! Have a wonderful summer!


Pam Edwards is a Certified Infant & Child Sleep Consultant and founder of Wee Bee Dreaming Pediatric Sleep Consulting in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Healthy sleep is addicting and she has made it her life mission to help families all across the world get the sleep they deserve - a good night's sleep doesn't have to be a dream!