03/30/2012 10:11 am ET Updated May 30, 2012

Solving Early Baby Waking, Part I: The Christmas Morning Theory

As a new parent, you knew the goal was to get your baby to sleep through the night. What nobody told you was that "sleeping through the night" often means "waking up for good at 4:30am." Speaking as a father of three, early morning waking is perhaps the most debilitating baby sleep issue parents face. Until you solve it, expect to be ravaged by sleep deprivation. You've tried everything: black-out shades, white noise machines, even the old trick of sprinkling Cheerios in the crib for baby to munch on when she wakes up. No luck? It's time to consider what I call "The Christmas Morning Theory."

Kids wake up early on Christmas morning. The anticipation of being showered with gifts infuses them with an excitement that they cannot contain. Their sleep is lighter, and they will themselves to wake up earlier, so the present-opening can begin as soon as possible. It is actually a physiological phenomenon: the anticipation of something good/fun/exciting happening upon waking leads to early waking. If you think about it, it makes sense. Who wouldn't wake up early to get a huge reward?

Now think about your baby. What exactly happens when she wakes up? Do you greet her with soothing light? Do you sing to her? Do you feed her? Play with her? Get her dressed and read to her? Any one of those greetings is Christmas to a six-month old. And if every morning is Christmas morning, she is going to wake up early every morning. The sooner she can experience Christmas, the better. In fact, she will keep waking up earlier and earlier. She is testing you, to see how early she can wake up and still enjoy Christmas morning.

Yes, your baby is manipulating you, and you need to nip it in the bud. Take my friends' ten-month old. After a month or so of modified Ferberizing, the baby was going down to bed without too much fuss at 7:30pm and was sleeping through the night until about 6:15am. Mom and dad were pleased. Soon, though, the baby started waking earlier and earlier. First, it was just 6:10 or maybe 6:00am. Within a week, she was waking up at 4:30am every morning. Every family is on a different schedule (I define "early" as anything before 6:00am), but nobody wants to be up every morning at 4:30am with a crying baby.

The parents knew their baby was capable of going 12 hours without eating, because she had been doing it just days earlier. Why, then, was this happening? It turned out that they were unwittingly rewarding their baby for waking up at 4:30am. Dad would come in, all gentle and comforting, and try to give her a bottle. The baby humored him for a few minutes and then demanded mommy, who would come in and nurse her. That's the baby version of the best Christmas ever.

The solution was to stop rewarding the baby for waking up at 4:30am. Here's the advice I gave my friends:

When the baby wakes up at 4:30am, dad goes in (not mom; that's a reward); turns on the bright overhead light (no soothing or playful rotating lamp; that's a reward); takes her out of the crib in a businesslike manner without talking (no cuddling or cooing or morning songs; those are rewards); and walks her around the house, or even outside, in the most boring and least stimulating manner possible. Dad should avoid both the kitchen and mom, with their connotations of food, until at least 6am.

I knew from experience this would be a miserable couple of mornings. I have vivid memories of walking around the house with a screaming baby from 5am to 6am. Just walking -- not feeding, not talking, not even comforting. But it works. After a few days, the baby starts waking up later. And then you can push the feeding gradually back to 7am. In my house, we tried to be very strict about not feeding the baby before 7am.

What you want going through your baby's little mind is this: "If I wake up before 7:00am, I get boring dad coming in and walking me around a cold house for an hour or two. I think I'd rather stay in my crib." (In our house, like most, dad was the "least favored" parent. In your family, it might be different, but it is almost always the non-nursing spouse.)

The dirty little secret of all sleep training is that it is not easy. It is classic short term pain for long term gain. It sounds harsh and it is not fun while you're doing it. Keep in mind, though, that -- as with nighttime sleep training -- these are temporary (and sometimes excruciating) measures that you only need to take until your baby is back on track. Once she's on a schedule you can live with, your household will experience fewer tears and more sleep -- and you can save Christmas morning for Christmas.