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Baby Sleep Questions Answered

The Unhappy Early Riser

By Amalah

Hey there,

Have been following your site for a while, mostly in awe. Now wondering/hoping that in your vast array of tips, tricks and solid research you might have some advice for us.

Our son is about 4.5 months old. He’s always been a terrible sleeper, due to a combination of reflux, wind, confusional arousal an sheer bloody-mindedness. We’ve got it all mostly under control with a reasonable nap schedule he occasionally ignores and one major nighttime wake-up for food. However we just can’t shake his 5am unhappy wake-up. Like clockwork he wakes up at 5, eyes shut and unhappy, making the hoarse barking cry he does when he doesn’t want to wake up. If we hold him or bring him into bed with us he can usually sleep till 7, but then obviously we’re up and this doesn’t always work. Sometimes if we feed him he’ll go back to sleep in his cot, but that then means he won’t eat at 7 and his whole schedule is off. Worth noting he wakes up for his night feed at different times, sometimes less than 3 hours before he wakes up at 5 so I’m not sure if he’s hungry or it’s just soothing him back to sleep, and he’ll go back to sleep without food if we’re holding him. We’ve tried letting him figure it out for himself incase it’s just confusional arousal but it always escalates into full scale awake screaming that doesn’t settle down.

So I know we should be grateful it’s only twice in the night and maybe we just need to let him grow out of it, but we’ve had so little sleep for a while now that every minute counts! Anything you can suggest?

In eternal gratitude

Oh, yes, the way-too-early-whhhhhyyyy-are-you-waking-up waking. All three of my babies did this occasionally — usually thanks to a growth/developmental spurt, teething, or as early-warning sign that a cold or other illness was about to rear it’s ugly, snotty head.

But when “occasionally” turns into “EVERY FREAKING MORNING,” that’s almost always a sign that something in the sleep schedule is off and needs adjusting. A baby who wakes up grumpy but not hungry is probably an over-tired baby. And over-tired babies will NOT do the sensible thing and sleep until they are not over-tired anymore. They will just continue to fight naps and sleep like crap at night and wake up grumpier and grumpier. It’s a delightful cycle, really.

Since you didn’t give details on bedtime and nap times/nap length, I can’t make any SPECIFIC recommendations on what to tweak, but instead I’ll keep it general and give you a few of the more common scheduling “mistakes” parents make that lead to an over-tired early riser problem.

(And I put “mistakes” in quotes because come on, we’re all just desperate, over-tired pawns in the baby sleep game, and the babies KEEP CHANGING ALL THE RULES.)

1) Not enough naps during the day, or naps that are too short or poorly spaced. How many hours should your baby be napping? When should he be taking those naps?  Let these handy dandy age-based feeding/sleeping schedules at The Baby Sleep Site be your guide!

2) Too many long stretches of awake time, especially before bedtime. At four months, his awake/alert time should still be kept pretty short. Like under two hours, especially if your baby tends to get over-tired easily. Which, given the 5 am waking of misery, I’m gonna go ahead and put your baby in that category.

3) A bedtime that is too late or too early. Whenever sleep started going wonky and haywire for us, a change in bedtime was usually the first thing we tried. And we usually moved it earlier, not later. (That whole “sleep begets sleep” concept.) Babies need a set number of sleep hours, so if he’s not napping consistently for you (or naps are all super short or skipped entirely), he’s GOT to make up for that loss at nighttime. Try moving his bedtime earlier, two hours or less after his last nap and see what happens.

4) Inconsistency in parental reactions to wakings. Treat the 5 am waking like his other night waking. Unless you have a baby who naturally wakes up super early, refreshed and happy, consider anything before 6 am a “night waking.” Whatever you’re doing then to get him back to sleep at 2 or 3 am, do the same at 5 am. Keep the room dark (blackout shades maybe?) and the routine the same so he knows this isn’t playtime. The whole “if he eats at 5 he won’t eat at 7 and then his whole schedule is off” isn’t a dealbreaker here, because I suspect you’re going to look at the Baby Sleep Site and see a couple modifications you can make to the current schedule anyway. BUT  if you really think he’s not hungry at 5 am, try just patting and soothing him with your voice, or turning on a musical toy or some other sleep cue you can incorporate into bedtime. (God bless you, Fisher Price Crib Aquarium.)

That said, I distinctly remember my middle son doing the 5/6 am waking thing, and I would usually just bring him to bed with us, shove a boob in his mouth and go back to sleep for an hour or two. He’d maybe take two sucks and pass back out. But I ALSO distinctly remember that extra waking coming to an abrupt end once we figured out a better nap schedule for him. (Hint: He wasn’t napping nearly enough.) So…do as I say now and not as I did then, I guess.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Autumn

    May 4, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    I think there is this perception that babies must get up early, and they don’t always do that.  Around 4-5 months, my daughter started sleeping 9 hours at a stretch, from midnight to 9 AM.  Fortunately our schedule permitted me to stay up with her till midnight, and in the month prior to that we had an early waking which was to snuggle and snack before sleeping the rest of the time.  Now she’s almost four, and she still rarely is up before 7 (which I will say is pretty awesome for me!)

  • Melinda

    May 4, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    People throw a lot of hate at pacifiers these days, but they are amazing for those not-actually-awake-or-hungry wake ups.

  • S

    May 5, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    OP you mention reflux. That cry – that hoarse barking cry, sounds an awful lot like the way my son would cry if he woke because of reflux related pain. He used to wake around the same time each morning because of it too. Have you tried lifting the top end of his bed?

    • OP

      May 6, 2015 at 4:20 am

      Thanks S, I should’ve been clearer about the cry description, it’s more that kind of sobby heh-heh-heh that they do sometimes. His reflux is thankfully under control with a raised cot, omeprazole, feed thickener and CMPI milk (I feel like a blooming pharmacist sometimes!). Hope your LO is over his reflux, it sucks!

  • Helen

    May 26, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    My daughter was an early riser for the first couple of years of life. It just seemed to be the way her body clock was wired. Two suggestions:

    1. Blackout the room – buy some good blackout curtains or, as a cheaper temporary measure, cover the windows with aluminium foil (yes, seriously!). This really helped with preventing early morning light from waking my kid.

    2. Take it in turns to get up with baby. One parent gets up, fixes breakfast or whatever (and once kid is old enough to be interested in television you can put that on and drowse on the couch – yeah, I know, but I think it saved our sanity) while the other parent gets a couple of extra hours sleep.