One of the most common sleep problems we encounter is early waking...... Mums and dads just don't want to get woken up at 5.30am every day!
Elizabeth Pantley (author of the No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers) says in her article on our website, some children really are larks and will always wake earlier than you would like. But many toddlers wake from habit and from parents inadvertently reinforcing the early waking....by letting the child in for a cuddle, making them a bottle etc etc.
So before you decide your toddler's early waking can not be changed and you are in for years of 5am wake-ups, we believe there are a number of things that can make a huge difference. And like any habits, the quicker you start to tackle them, the better.
First have a look at how much sleep you expect your child to have. We recently had a customer who was putting her children to bed at 5pm and wanted them to sleep in until 7am.....just not going to happen, as the children had already had 12 hours sleep when they woke at 5am!
7pm bedtime is ideal for children up to age 5.
Stick to the same bedtime and get up time every day, regardless of weekends and holidays. Your aim is to set your child's body clock to sleep in longer, so avoid messing with the body clock by changing your times.
Aim for a 7pm bedtime, so your child isn't getting over-tired in the evening. This gives you a goal of getting up between 6.30-7am for babies and toddlers. Children over the age of 4 could go to bed at about 7.30pm.
Also have a look at your toddler's sleep times during the day. If they are still going down for a morning sleep at 9am, then this is going to impact on how early they wake. Try moving the morning sleep back by first 30 mins, then a week later try an hour later. If your toddler is over 18 months, it may be time to drop the morning sleep and move to a sleep at 11.30-12 ish.
You decide when morning comes to your house, not your little one. If you think a reasonable start to the day is 6.30am, then ensure that your actions and behaviour consistently demonstrate this to your toddler.
For example, if your toddler currently wakes at 5.30am and comes into your bed...waking you up, then letting him do this reinforces that 5.30am is morning in your house. If you put him back to bed, saying it's still night-time, then this sends a completely different message to your child. By consistently giving the message that 5.30am is still night-time and behaving accordingly, you are both going to treat waking at that time differently.
We recommend that you treat any waking before your designated morning time the same as you would night waking. So if you wouldn't let your toddler out of bed at 2am, then don't do it at 5am!
As with all sleep changes, consistency is incredibly important when trying to change early waking. As in the above example, you need to put your child back in their own bed every time they come into your bed earlier than your designated morning time. If you sometimes let them come in at 4am or 5am...how do you expect them to learn what you want? Toddlers will always push the boundaries and try to get what they want, but consistently showing them the behaviour you want will eventually get the message through.
Carrying on from above, there are a number of actions that parents take that reinforce early waking in toddlers. Yes it may seem like the easy option and it may seem like it will give you 30-60 mins more peace before the day starts...but if your actions reinforce the early waking, your child will continue to wake early.
Giving toddlers a bottle when they wake early is a common example. Your child wakes at 5am screaming for you, you give them a bottle and he settles back to sleep. Unfortunately now you're awake for the day.....but at least he's still in bed and quiet. But the same thing happens tomorrow and the next day, until you stop the behaviour that reinforces the waking - ie getting up to him and giving him a bottle.
Other common reinforcing behaviours are - letting toddler in your bed, letting toddler get up and play, getting yourself up for the day with your toddler, having breakfast really really early etc.
There may well be noises in your neighbourhood or house that cause your little one to wake from the light sleep that is common between 5-5.30am. You may not hear these same noises due to the location of your bedroom, that you are in a deeper sleep or may not have the same sensitive hearing that your child has.
Common noises include birds, dogs barking, traffic, other family members getting up, plumbing, neighbours leaving for work etc.
We recommend you try playing white noise or sleep music on repeat in your child's bedroom to mask any of the noises that may cause waking in your house. Try this for at least a week to see if it has any effect. View white noise and sleep music options.
Waking between 3-5am is often due to the cold, as this is the coolest time of the night. Much early waking has been easily solved by adding an extra layer or two of clothing, or using a warm toddler sleeping bag.
Our toddler sized merino PJs are a good option for children who kick off their bedding and will no longer sleep in a sleeping bag. Plus we have a range of winter sleepsuits, made from merino or fleece.
View our range of toddler winter sleeping bags
If your toddler is under 18 months, it may be that they are moving about in the cot, standing up and finding it hard to get back into a sleepy position in bed. If that sounds familiar, we recommend looking at one of the attached sleeping bag options, which stop crawling and standing in bed.
Using an attached sleeping bag means you can be confident that your child is safe and still in a sleepy position in bed, so you are less likely to feel you need to check on them if they wake early. Just leave them to go back to sleep on their own and you will be surprised at how quickly the early waking may be solved.
We recommend using thick black-out lining on your child's curtains, so they can't see what is happening outside. Even if you also use a night-light, using black-out lining keeps the bedroom feeling cozy and 'night-time' even when the sun starts to come up.
You can buy black-out lining at Spotlight or other curtain fabric stores. We also sell the handy gro anywhere blackout blind, which suctions to the window.
Children do not know what 'time' they can get up!! So make it easy for them to learn when getting up is OK and also give yourself something objective that decides if it's getting up time. A Sleep Trainer clock is a child-friendly clock specifically designed to let your child know when getting up is OK.
Sleep trainer clocks have simple ways of showing wake-up time that mean toddlers can easily understand - ie changing colour, showing a different image or see Momo Monkey - his eyes open at the set wake up time.
With older toddlers and preschoolers, you can teach them to read a digital clock. Make it clear when they are allowed up and stick to this religiously (not just on the mornings you can be bothered!!). With younger children, you may find it easier to cover the last 1 or 2 numbers on the clock, eg so you just have the 6 exposed.
Another option with a clock is to have the radio or music come on at the time you say is morning. So it's a very clear message to your child when they are allowed out of bed and in to see you.
It pays to think of early waking the same as night waking, and in many cases it is a matter of teaching your child they can resettle themself at 5 or 5.30am. This is particularly true if you have been reinforcing their early waking with bottles or letting them get in your bed, and now have decided to get tough!
For starters read our information on teaching your child to self settle. This covers the different techniques, such as controlled crying, cry it out and more gentle approaches.
We also have a detailed article on Gentle Sleep Training Techniques for toddlers, which can be good for the early morning if you use them consistently.
1. Just ignore the waking! Yes your toddler is likely to have a screaming tantrum that you are not coming in to get them out of their cot for a cuddle and a nice warm bottle. But just ignore the tantrum the same way you would if it was a tantrum for lollies at the supermarket..... It might last for an hour and then they go back to sleep. The next morning may last 30 mins etc. But often it is simply a matter of ignoring the waking so your child gets the message that you are not coming in with whatever they usually get at that time.
2. Verbal reinforcement - go in after 5 minutes and say 'it's still night-time, please go back to sleep'. Put them back in bed without making a fuss, shut the door and wait 10 minutes. Yes they may be hammering on the door or screaming. Go in and again put them back in bed, say 'it's still night-time, go back to sleep'. And repeat after 15 minutes. See the Sleepeasy Solution DVD for this technique or the CD Sleepeasy 2-5 years. You will need to shut the door or use a stairgate, and even perhaps lock the door from the outside at this time for a few mornings until your child learns what you expect.
If despite all the above suggestions, your child continues to wake earlier than you like, you may choose a plan of keeping them in bed until morning time (even if they are not asleep).
The best option for this is to leave a pile on books on their bedside table or at the bottom of the cot, so they can have look at these until the radio comes on or the clock shows morning time. You might want to put the books in bed after your toddler is asleep, if they would otherwise want to read them at bedtime.
Older toddlers and children can also be easily taught to turn on a DVD or the TV.....eg DVD is allowed from 6am, not to wake mum up until 6.30am etc. (And yes I have used that technique when my Jack was going through an early waking phase!).
If your child is over the age of 3, they may respond well to some positive reinforcement along with the above suggestions.
Keep the process really simple - either a simple reward for staying in bed until a set time, or a simple star chart with 3-4 days on it.
Make the rewards simple and desirable, such as small car, sheet of stickers etc.
The Morning Fairy might work well with your child - say if you can stay in bed until the music comes onto the clock, the Morning Fairy will have left you a little treat with mummy.