Tips for early rising in toddlers and young children.

Early rising in older babies, toddlers and children is a very common sleep issue that parents have to deal with in their little ones. Lots of clients have reported 4-5am wakings being a daily issue that signals their day is starting rather than being able to settle their child back off to sleep. It’s a killer starting your day so much earlier than you are used to. I had 5am wakings with my son when the mornings got brighter this spring, but have now managed (using the same strategies as below) to get him back to 7am!

Many young children are biologically tuned to wake up at around 6-6:30am, which is why a bedtime of around 7-7:30pm ensures they are getting a minimum of 11 hours night time sleep which is healthy for their growth and development (see my Importance of Sleep blog post for more info on sleep and development). If your child is waking at around this time happy and refreshed, have had at least 11 hours sleep and aren’t grumpy within an hour of waking (due to tiredness – with toddlers there could be a million other reasons for grumpiness!) then your child has likely had enough sleep. However, if your child is waking up still tired and grumpy, especially if it’s before 6am, it’s worth looking at the tips below to see if you can help extend their night time sleep.

First of all, check that any of the following aren’t possible external causes of your early riser:

Light is one of the biggest sleep cues that is given to your child’s body clock to signal when it is, and isn’t, time to sleep. You can use this to your advantage at bedtime and naps by reducing lighting levels and inducing those lovely sleep hormones to help your child realise that night time is coming. Unfortunately, the reverse happens in the mornings, especially during the summer months when the sun is up before you and your child have completed a full nights sleep. If your early rising issue has started during the summer months, or the issue has gotten worse, consider that the light may be a factor and invest in blackout blinds or curtains (or both!) that let in as little light as possible into your child’s bedroom.

Sound from external noises can cause your little one’s sleep to be cut short. During the last few of hours of nighttime, your child is in a much lighter sleep than they were at the beginning of the night. They are more susceptible to being disturbed by noises such as the birds, traffic and parents/ neighbours getting up early for work. Whilst there is nothing you can do about their biological lighter sleep at that time, nor can you stop many of the noises at that time of the morning, you can help to block out disturbance using white noise. White noise can be a really useful sleep cue with younger babies, but many parents don’t think about using white noise as a sound buffer for their older baby or child. If you think that sound is a possible cause, consider using a sound machine or a white noise app that starts at bedtime and plays continuously throughout the night so that it is already creating that sound buffer when the noises start in the early hours. The volume of the white noise also needs to be louder than you would expect – around the noise level of a running shower in the bathroom is a good comparison.

Sleep associations are the biggest cause of night wakings in toddlers and young children. Although many parents view a waking at around 5am early, I have found that if they can’t settle their child back to sleep then they just start the day at this time. However, waking at this time should still be treated as a night waking (see more on this below). If your child is waking up regularly throughout the night, or is just waking up early, check to see if your child has any unhelpful sleep associations at bedtime. Unhelpful sleep associations are any sleep cues or props that your child cannot recreate when they stir during a sleep transition through the night. This can include milk (bottle or cup), dummies, light projectors that switch off after bedtime, and parental input or presence (rocking/patting/sitting by your child). If your child has any of these sleep associations at bedtime, work on removing these at bedtime first before tackling early rising as you may find that once your child is settling independently, they stop waking altogether.

One of the biggest factors that contribute to early rising is either not enough sleep, both day and night, or sleeping at the wrong time. Even if one of the above are a contributing factor of your little one waking early, it’s also likely that their sleep schedule needs adjusting too.

Not enough nap time. If your child isn’t getting enough daytime sleep, this will have an effect on how early they wake in the morning. Contrary to logic, starving your child of sleep during the day only makes night time sleep worse, so by shortening their nap or cutting one or all of them out prematurely, will only exacerbate the issue rather than improving it. Only in rare situations is a child having too much sleep, so use my ‘How Much Sleep’ guide to help you work out if your child is getting enough sleep. If you think that your child isn’t hitting the nap target, work on this to help improve early rising.

Bedtime is too late. I have never yet met a family who are putting their child to bed too early! Far too often, a child’s bedtime is too late and is definitely worth considering if you have got an early riser. Usually a 7-7:30pm bedtime works for many young children, especially when you consider that they may be awake biologically from 6-6:30am. However, try to bring bedtime earlier to 6-6:30pm to help with the mornings, especially if your child isn’t getting enough overall sleep and over tiredness is the biggest factor. Bedtime can always be adjusted back again when the early rising is resolved and they are getting enough sleep. Another phase that signals the need for an earlier bedtime is when your child is going through a nap transition. If your child is in the process of dropping a nap (either from 3 to 2, 2 to 1, or dropping their nap altogether) then bring bedtime earlier for a few weeks until your child adjusts fully to having less daytime sleep.

Naps are too early/late. It can be quite difficult to hit the sweet spot with nap timing, and just when you get it right, they develop different needs and it all changes! For toddlers and young children on 1 nap a day, their naps will ideally be post lunch so they have a nice full tummy. A wake window of around 4 hours between nap and bedtime works well for most children. If your child has a 2 hour plus nap, try settling them around 12:30-1pm so that are getting their full amount of sleep they require out the need to have to wake them if it starts getting to close to bedtime. For children that are napping between 1-1.5 hours, a slightly later nap at 1:30-2pm would be better suited so that they aren’t getting overtired from the long wake window before bedtime. The best thing to do with timings is to experiment with your individual child, but always try any changes for at least 4-7 days so that any positive effects have time to adjust as it takes at least 3 days for their internal body clocks to catch up with the changes.

So how should you deal with the early rising?

Set your morning time and stick to it. A dramatic wake up to signal the end of the night/start of the day is as important for your child as the bedtime routine. Choose a morning time based on your child getting at least 11 hours sleep and make this your morning time. Any wakings before this time should be treated as a night waking. When morning time arrives, open the curtains/blinds or turn on the light, though natural light is always preferable wherever possible. Give your child plenty of praise, communication and cuddles to show them the difference between your night time approach. Ideally, you want them to know that you will be there if they need you during the night, but if it is very boring compared to the daytime then they won’t expect a party at 3am!

Choose a method that suits your parenting style. It doesn’t matter how you approach sleep training, the key is in the consistency of repeating the new boundary each and every morning. Therefore, you can use a very gentle method which involves no crying at all, or use a hands off approach using intermittent reassurance; whichever one suits you as a family and one you can stick to.

Keep them in their sleep environment. Whether they are sleeping in your bedroom or their own room, keep them in the same room until morning. Changing environments will stimulate them too much and worsen the sleep issue as they will get used to being more awake at that time.

Keep them in the dark. Whether or not you are staying in the room with them, always keep it dark until morning time so that the light isn’t reinforcing the early rising. If your child’s body clock consistently gets signals from light cues that it is morning, they will only continue to wake at a similar time. So by keeping it dark, you aren’t trying to work against their internal instincts to be awake.

Of course, the above solutions don’t work with every child, as some will still naturally wake earlier or need less sleep. By trying the above though, you will get your child to sleep as long as they possibly can and for most children that should be until at least 6am. And if all else fails you can start the countdown to Winter and darker mornings…!