Toddler early morning awakenings are one of the most challenging sleep problems for parents to deal with. They can also be a big problem in preschoolers. Fortunately, you can get your child to sleep later. Here’s how.
When I meet other parents socially, there is one question I get asked more than any other. “Why does my child get up so early in the morning?“ and, more pressingly, “What can I do about it?” I’m going to talk about toddlers and preschoolers here (1-5 years of age).
When should toddlers and preschoolers wake up in the morning?
When assessing this concern, I always see if the parents have realistic expectations. Most little children are morning people, which is a real challenge if you are a night owl like me. Expecting your toddler to sleep past 6:30 AM is usually unrealistic. An age appropriate wake time in this age group is probably between 5:30-7:30 AM. If your version of acceptable wake times on the weekend is 8 AM, you will probably be disappointed. Some children naturally wake up between 5:30-6:30 AM. If your child sleeps a little later, it is generally not cause for concern. Some kids’s circadian rhythm is naturally phase advanced– colloquially, we call them early birds.
Another thing to consider is how much your child is sleeping at night. In generally, toddlers aged 1-2 need between 11 and 14 hours in a 24 hour period. Preschoolers need 10-13 hours. Note that this also includes naps. Some children may fall outside of this range. (Here’s an article on normal sleep duration in children).
Practically speaking, it is very useful to track your child’s sleep schedule for a few days to see how much they are sleeping in a typical 24 hour period. I would recommend doing this on a two typical weekdays and one weekend and figuring out the average. Most children are pretty consistent about their sleep needs. For example, if your toddler usually sleeps 12 hours when you measure it, this will likely remain consistent until they get a little older. Measuring your child’s sleep needs will help with your next steps.
How to address early morning awakenings
Step One: Make sure your child’s bedroom is set up to avoid early awakenings.
Make your child’s room as dark as possible. Those black out blinds are expensive but they may be worth it. Most kids are really light sensitive, especially if they are morning early risers, and limiting light exposure can make a huge difference. One spring, my kids were getting up earlier and earlier with the longer days. This was getting a bit painful until daylight savings time bailed us out and magically made 5:30 into 6:30 AM.
Some children really like the feeling of being enclosed. If you can, avoid switching your child from a crib to a bed until they are three or four, unless they are jumping out of the crib. Changing from a crib to a bed is often a “Hail Mary” move for desperate parents, but in my experience it often backfires. If your child is in a bed, sometimes a bed tent can be very helpful to make your child less conscious of changes in their surrounds.
A white noise machine may be useful if a parent needs to get ready for work before the appointed hour, if the garbage truck comes by at 5 AM, or if one child tends to wake another. We use this one, which appears to be indestructible. Some concerns have been raised about the possibility of these machines affecting children’s hearing. Based on my own very unscientific research, I suspect that this is pretty safe for most children.
Step Two: Schedule adjustments
Schedule adjustments tend to work best if your child is getting enough sleep in a twenty-four hour period. Here’s how you know your child is getting enough sleep:
1. When you track their sleep over three days, it is falling in the normal range.
2. When they wake up in the morning, they are happy and in a good mood.
Broadly speaking, there are two schedule changes you can make. Both increase sleep drive (also known as sleep pressure) to help your child sleep in later in the morning.
Shift bedtime later: A later bedtime can definitely help, but it may not work right away, You also need to move slowly– by say 10 minutes a day with the goal of moving bedtime later by 30-60 minutes. Generally, the “sweet spot” for bedtime for most kids this age will be between 7:30-8:30pm. I would make your move then wait a week or two to see if it helps.
Giving up or limiting napping: Sometimes, your child’s daytime nap is shortchanging your sleep at night. Most toddlers give up their morning nap between 18 and 24 months of age. A child older than three may be ready to give up their nap altogether. If you feel like your child is ready to give up their nap (they are fighting you at nap time) you can try dropping them. Alternatively, if the naps are excessively long (more than 3 hours) I would try limiting the last nap of the day to two hours and making sure your child is awake by 4pm. Reducing daytime sleep will lead to sleep extension, usually in the morning. As with a later bedtime, note that you may need a week or two to see the full benefit. Here’s more information on dealing with napping problems.
Step three: changing how you respond when your child wakes up early.
Your child may be awakening because of behavioral reasons, especially if they are not getting enough sleep at night or are irritable in the morning. Often child who wake up irritable are waking up out of the NREM part of their sleep cycle, where it is normal to awaken out of REM sleep. If you take your child into your bed every time they wake up early, they are not going to start sleeping in on their own.
In other posts, I’ve talked about sleep onset associations. These are essentially bad habits which can be changed. (For more on how the psychology of habits affects sleep in children, read this article). This means that if your child requires a certain set of conditions to fall asleep, they will need them again whenever they wake in the night. If your child needs you to fall asleep at bedtime, I would actually consider sleep training at bedtime first. Teaching your child to fall asleep independently at bedtime WILL improve early morning wakings.
Even if your child is falling asleep independently, you can still inadvertently create a need for comfort from you in the early mornings. When a child is brought into the parents’ bed when she wakes very early ( before 5 AM), they will soon start to wake up anticipating this comfort. We went though a month with my son at ten months of age where I was lying on the floor with him with a pillow and blanket every day at 4:30 AM (pathetic, I know). I was essentially trying to have my cake and eat it too– get to sleep some more but avoid a sleep association. It didn’t work. The next step was ignoring him until a later and later time until he got to 6 AM. So we got up with him at 4:40 AM, then 4:50 AM, then 5 AM and so on, until he slept until a more reasonable time. He fussed a bit but it was not a terrible amount of crying. If your child is in a crib, you can just start moving the time you get your child out of their crib later. Again, go slowly.
For older children (three and up) a wake up alarm clock may work with older toddlers or preschoolers. Set up a timer with a light or just try out one of these OK to Wake Clocks . Our older son tends to rush out of bed if he hears his brother stirring or me getting ready for work. He likes his new clock and will wait for it to turn green. The key in being successful with this is going slowly and being realistic. That is to say, buying one of these clocks will not make your two year old sleep until 9 AM on the weekends. I would recommend picking a time about ten minutes later than your child’s current wake time, then moving it later by ten minutes every day or two until you reach your target wake time. This maximizes your chance of success and your child’s sense of mastery. A sticker chart can be helpful in this context, or even (!) an M&M or jelly bean every time your child gets up when you wish them to.
Don’t neglect negotiating with young elementary schoolers. When I first wrote this post my boys seven and four. This has made mornings much better. My older son understands time very well and will actually take his brother downstairs or read him stories if we ask him to. This is simply lovely. On the weekends we ask them not to get us before 7:30 AM and, unbelievably, they have complied. Once your children are old enough that they do not require direct supervision, I don’t have a problem with parents turning on a show for their kids for 30 extra minutes of sleep on the weekend.
Other questions and answers
What if my child wakes up hungry?
A light bedtime snack (something not too calorically dense but with some fat and protein) can be helpful. Think a glass of whole milk or peanut butter on a cracker.
What if my child started waking up early all of a sudden?
Although I don’t like the term, this may represent a sleep regression. Here’s an article on how to deal with this.
What if my child’s diaper is soaking wet?
Night diapers can be very helpful.
The keys to success are having realistic expectations, keeping your child’s room dark, and responding consistently to how your child wakes up in the morning. If you have persistent early AM awakenings (e.g. 4-5 AM or earlier) it is worth discussing with your pediatrician, especially if your child seems really cranky and tired during the day.
Have you struggled with too early mornings with your child? What has worked for you? What hasn’t?