Every week in clinic families ask me about strategies to help with children who awake before the sun is up. We all thrive with improved, uninterupted, prolonged periods of sleep at night. Particularly on those Saturdays where an extra hour or two of sleep can be life-sustaining for exhausted parents to toddlers and preschoolers. Because of our boys’ early schedules, late last year Santa conveniently dropped off an incredible tool: a toddler teaching clock. The clock has helped our 3 year old know when 7 o’clock rolls around. And we’ve made a deal with boys for 2012: no leaving their bedroom until 7 appears on the screen. And so far, it’s working–we’re batting about .900. Learning to play quietly on their own in the early morning has been a great benefit, too.
Toddlers and preschoolers between 1 and 3 years of age need about 11 to 13 hours of total sleep within 24 hours (night time and nap combined). Sometimes no matter what time bedtime starts, early morning awakenings continue to happen. As many parents learn, moving bedtime later doesn’t always shift the time a child awakens in the morning. But with time, shifts in schedules sometimes improve that Saturday morning sleep…
Dr. Craig Canapari, a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep expert in Boston helps explain some reasons for these uber-early wake-ups and what we can do about it:
Why does my toddler get up so early in the morning?
This is a common, and challenging issue. When assessing these issues, 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. To expect your child to sleep past 6:30 AM is usually unrealistic. Some children naturally wake up between 5:30-6:30 AM. I have a couple of suggestions to help relieve this reality:
- Minimize ambient light. Those black out shades are expensive but they may be worth it. Most kids are really light sensitive.
- Adjust the sleep schedule. Children 1-3 years old will sleep between 11-13 hours a day, with 9.5-10.5 hours at night. If your child is going to bed before 7-7:30 PM I would move the bedtime a bit later, although it may take a week or two for this strategy to bear fruit.
- Wake up clock: This may work with older toddlers or preschoolers. Set up a timer with a light that indicates an acceptable time for them to expect you.
- Check sleep associations: If your child wakes up quite early then seems tired and irritable in the morning, they may have a sleep association as noted above. This is most common in a child who is brought into the parents’ bed at 4-5 AM. Pretty soon, they start to wake up looking for this. We went though a month with my son at six months of age where I was laying on the floor with him with a pillow and blanket every day at 4:30 AM (pathetic, I know). It didn’t get better until we started just getting up with him at that time.
Sleep problems are common in this age group, with 30% of parents reporting issues. If you are consistent many of the issues will resolve with time. If you are having difficulties, definitely see your pediatrician who can help you out.
Thanks for this post. My little one will sometimes wake up at 4.30 and not want to go back to sleep again. And then he’ll sleep to 6 for a few days. I think a blackout blind would be great, as it will getting lighter earlier where we live. (Norway – short summer days.)
A blackout curtain is essential for getting kids to sleep in. We use one for all our kids for naps and nighttime. Both my toddlers sleep past 7 or 7:30 after going to bed at 8 and then take 2-3 hour naps. It’s not that expensive to get one. Get a nice lined dark curtain to start with then I got a black out panel really cheap and use sewn on magnets to attach it to the blinds. Then no light can get in the room at all. Even my 9 year old doesn’t complain about going to bed by 9 in the summer.
I agree about the blackout curtain. A friend taped and stitched the material to our blinds, and it was smooth sailing after that. I think there is also a kid’s temperament. Both kids slept 10-11 hours at night starting at 8 weeks for one and 11 weeks for the other. I cannot complain when the toddler wakes up early after being told how difficult and tricky and exhausting it has been for other parents all night long. If I could bottle and sell it, I’d still give it away for free after hearing the bleary-eyed stories of other parents we know! On occasion, with big milestones, there are some minor disruptions but we stick to the routine and they get back on sleep track pretty quickly. My mom advised us to never use the bed as either a time out area or threaten them with bed if they are poorly behaved (very tempting), and to avoid taking them out after nightmares or awakenings implying that the bed=nightmares and it seems to have been a good strategy. We will have to pay somehow, so I am worried our come-uppance will come in the teenage years…!
Wendy, these two posts on toddler sleep have been timely and excellent – thank you.
We bought a “teaching time clock” for our son, but it does not seem to be effective. Any tips on getting him to understand that when the light turns green he can get out of his room. Do we walk him back to his room when he gets out in the AM and hope he doesn’t start crying? We also have a nine month old that I don’t want to wake up at 5 or 5:30 when he strolls into our room. Any advice would be great!
How about giving him an incentive for every time he gets up at the right time. Wow! wish I had the teaching clock when my girls where growing up
my son is very moody and irrabitle when he wakes up in the morning. after he has been sleeping with the light on all night. what causes this?…and he will get up in the middle of the night to turn it on..he will not sleep with a normal night light.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
I suppose he wakes like this because he isn’t complete in a sleep cycle or he awakens a bit tired. Unsure about recs because I don’t know how old he is, but my advice would be to keep asking “why” he is turning the light on, inquire about alternative solutions you can make together and then work to incentivize the behaviors you want: ie — if he sleeps or simply rests and stays in bed until 6:30am he gets a reward.
I am having waking issues with my two year old son recently as well but my frustration is that he was going to sleep alone and now he won’t. He has slept through the night just fine until recently. I used to hold him for a few min put him down and he would go to sleep. Now we have to rock him to sleep usually and when I try to put him down he flips out and will not stop crying. When dad does it he’s ok. I’m very confused as to why he was fine going to bed alone and sleeping through the night and is now not. he is still in a crib he just turned two in December. We don’t co sleep, he actually thinks it’s fun to lay in bed with mom so as a last resort when I’ve tried that at 2am it doesn’t work. Any ideas would be appreciated.
Jenny G says
Hi, Dr. Swanson, In your post above you mentioned that your child had made an association with waking up at 4:30 and coming into your bed. This did not get better until you started getting up with him at 4:30. Can you say more about how that worked? We are trying to break our daughter’s association with coming into our bed at that time. It is the only way for anyone to get back to sleep. I thought that if I perhaps just got up with her for the day she would soon realize it isn’t a great time to be awake. What do you think?
Jean Maxer says
Thank you! My son always seemed very light sensitive and it’s nice to know it’s commonplace with his age.
Hi. Reading your posts are great. My trouble id a 2.4 yr old. Waked up at 4.30am and screams the house down that he doesn’t want to go to sleep. I’ve tried the clock. Change bed time to later. Day sleep no day sleep. He still walks in with his pillow I always put him straight back but screams at me I don’t wanna sleep. He is in the same room with brother who is 3.7yrs. Who doesnt stir. Im not sure what else to do im running out of patience.
I wish I could talk to Dr.Canapari! Our 2 year old has been waking up in the middle of the night for almost 2 months now (time varies between 12:45am to 3:45 am) and starts screaming for mama/papa to get her out of the crib (and most nights doesn’t fall back asleep…she wants to play!)
In the article it says:
We went though a month with my son at six months of age where I was laying on the floor with him with a pillow and blanket every day at 4:30 AM (pathetic, I know). It didn’t get better until we started just getting up with him at that time.
We can’t just get up in the middle of the night! 🙁 I don’t know what to do.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Maybe you can! Dr Canapari’s blog is here: https://drcraigcanapari.com/
Agreed that waking up in the middle of hte night is not ideal. In my mind it’s your job to continue to do as little as you can for your toddler in the middle of the night so they learn with days to weeks more and more that they can trust themselves to self-soothe and get back to sleep. The awakenings aren’t unusual it’s just that you want them to go right back to sleep without even remembering it. The more we do the more we enforce the awakening…
My 3.5 years old daughter keep getting around 4.30am -6.30am she does not go back to bed. This happened Last Winter and now its October she start to get up again at that time. All summer she was sleeping all through the night and till 8-9am.
I will try to put black out curtain in her room and i m hoping she will sleep.
I’ve got a bit of my problem with my 1 year old going to sleep . He never had this issue but in the last 3 or so months everything has changed . He had a constant routine since 4 months of age . Dinner , walk the dog , play time , shower , milk and bed. I’d put him down in his room with his milk and eventually after 3 times of going in intervals to sooth him he would fall asleep . He is now waking up at 5.45am and continues to be grumpy all morning as he is tiered . He has his black out curtains , he has a white noise playing in the background and also has a night light. I’ve even left a bottle by his side for when he wakes up as I’ve noticed he sometimes have a night time snack. He eats well and has all his meals and snacks through the day . We started off getting up with him and getting the day started . Never taking him into our room may I add . This has not proven to be the best method as after a few months it’s taken a toll on us both . The environment in his room is pleasant and he has plenty of toys in his crib for comfort or when boredom arises . Normally he would go to sleep at 7-7.30 and I’ve even tried shifting his bedtime till 8-8.30 but still to no avail . I’m not too sure what else to do next? can anyone help ?
I have a 2-year old son with early rising issues. He takes a nap from 1-3pm every day and goes to bed at 7/730pm but has been waking consistently for a few weeks between 330-430am (right after we switched him to a toddler bed). No chance he will go back down to sleep. If I don’t get him, he screams at his door and wakes his 3 year old brother. I’m pretty desperate to figure things out stat since I am due with my third son in 3 months! Any advice would help!
My two year old consistently wakes up around 5 am or earlier. We have blackout curtains and the okay to wake clock, which goes off at 6. We had to switch her to a big girl bed at 18 months because she kept climbing out of her crib. We started using the clock right before she turned 2. She is technically 27 months. When we first started using the clock she would come into our room and tell us she’s not supposed to get up until her light turns green. So then we put a gate on her doorway to keep her in her room because she can open doorknobs even with those plastic childproof doorknob locks. She just hooks her finger in one of the wholes and pries it off. The gate has kept her in her room but she just starts singing or playing or yelling that she needs to go poopoo so we will come get her. We’ve tried ignoring her but then sometimes she poops her pants. Although I’d say most of the time it’s just a ploy to get us up with her and she doesn’t really need to go. How do I get her to go back to sleep until her light turns green? any advice? Her early morning risings are being modeled in my 9 month old and my husband and I really need more sleep.
I would love to hear a response from the doctors as well. I have a 3 1/2-year-old who gave naps last winter and since then I have been putting her to bed at 6:30. For the past month she’s been waking up between 445 and 530 and waking up her 2 1/2-year-old sister as well. I have blackout curtains, two layers in fact. I also bought the top o’clock, which did help them stay in their room. Now, with so much time on their hands before the clock says they can come out of the room, they are doing things like ripping the carpet up, getting into their closet and making a mess. We are desperate to get more sleep.
Hi- my 16 month old has been waking earlier and earlier. Yesterday it was 4:15 am. I try to be really consistent and treat these early morning wake ups as nightwakings – I let him cry for a bit, go in there to soothe and tell him it’s time for sleep, then leave. This always makes the crying worse – he ends up screaming wildly. I do the timed checks as long as I can, usually till 5:45, then go in turn on all the lights and say good morning! I have black out blinds, he takes two good naps a day totalling 3 hrs, and is in a good mood most of the time – but will be fussy/clingy in the morning for the first hour after he wakes up. It’s been 3 weeks of this early crying wake up now. My plan isn’t working. Advice???
Sabrina S says
We had a problem with our 14 month old waking up earlier and earlier. A sleep coach told us not to do any more checks after 4am and only go into the room when it was 6:30am. At that time, open the curtains, say good morning and get the day started. Seemed to work for us.
Sounds like too much daytime sleep with naps. Probably have to transition to one or cap each nap at 1 hour.
Needing Help says
My 3yr old little one, has started waking up early for no reason it seems. She used to sleep till 8 am most mornings, now it seems she thinks it is time to wake up at 6-6:30am, every morning. We have black out curtains, and her bed time is around 8-9pm. Need help getting little one to sleep later like she used to. Any advice would be much needed help.
It doesn’t matter what time we put our son to bed, he’s up at 4 or 5. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is due to my father in law staying up all hours of the night, light on, tv in in the other room. He refuses to go to bed at a decent hour and just sleep at NIGHT. I have no idea how to address this.
I have done sleep training twice, once when he was about 15 months and we are doing it again now. He wakes up consistently at 3:30-4 am and absolutely will not do anything but scream until I get up with him. He is in his own room, own crib, by himself, no noise, only night light. He was still taking two naps until this past week. I let him take one nap and don’t let him go down for an afternoon nap. Bedtime is 7pm. Even if he would sleep until 5 I would be ok. Help please!
Allene mcallister says
My granddaughter is waking up every night anywhere between 1230 and 130. She always wants water and to have me rock her back to sleep. I need to get her to sleep through the night how do I do this? I sleep on the sofa so that I am near her when she wakes up.
Katherin Garrett says
Hi, Thanks for your top-notch article. I want to add something with you. I think starting your day early improves your concentration. In addition to being able to focus on goals and task lists without being interrupted by family members or coworkers, getting up early means that by the time you get to work or school, you’ve had hours to properly acclimate yourself to the day. You’ll be more alert during peak hours as a result. Am I right?
It is so refreshing to see someone post that 9.5-10.5 hours per night for toddlers tends to be the norm as that is what my current situation with my son is, he sleeps 9-9.5 hours nightly (wakes up ready to party) and takes a 2 hour nap at day care. All other sites tell me that he should be sleeping 12 hours nightly PLUS napping during the day. Thank you for the reassurance!
A. Simmons says
If a child is under 3 and sleeps 9.5-10.5 hours at night but bedtime is 7-7:30, that means they will wake up between 4:30-5:30AM! That’s a little scary & ridiculous. I just don’t get it. I’ve tried bedtime between 7-7:30, even 8-8:30 and my child will not sleep past 5:30. His nap during the say is typically 1.5 hours long. He’s too young to make it all day without a nap. We have blackout curtains, sound machine, nighttime routine. He’s potty trained but we get up in the night to use to potty so that his bladder isn’t waking him in the morning. These early mornings are rough. I don’t expect him to sleep until 7, but 6-6:30 would be nice!