You’re aroused from your pleasant dream about margaritas on a Mexican beach by the screeches of, “MOMMY, I’M AWAKE!”
You roll over and look at the clock: 5:15AM.
No, just NO.
Last week it was 6AM, then a day later it was 5:50, the day after that it was 5:35. And here you are, 5:15. You think there’s no chance your toddler is going back to sleep, so you stumble into his room as quickly as your exhausted body will take you so he doesn’t wake up the whole house.
You turn on Mickey Mouse so you can at least mainline some coffee. Give the kid a banana and try to doze on the couch until the rest of the world wakes up.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Early rising is one of the most common toddler sleep issues and it's a tough nut to crack.
There are a hundred causes, and it’s often the last piece of the sleep puzzle when I work with families. It can be stubborn in its persistence because by 5AM, your kids have slept many hours, and their “sleep tank” has been filled. It doesn’t need much more.
So if they wake up around that time, it’s just harder to roll over and go back to sleep. Lets break down the most common causes of early rising and how to fix them.
1. Bedtime is too late
This is the #1 cause and one that is counterintuitive. Weissbluth was right when he said, “Sleep begets sleep;” I’ve seen it many times. If your child goes to bed later than their natural rhythm expects and needs, they get less restorative sleep early in the night, leading to less restful sleep in the early AM hours. A teenager is able to go to bed at midnight and wake up at noon, but a toddler…not so much.
Most toddlers should be in bed between 6 and 8 PM. If they’re cranky, and can barely make it through dinner...make it 5:30PM. I know it sounds uncivilized and ridiculously early. Trust me, you want to speed through their nighttime routine and get them to bed or you will pay in the morning as you wake before the roosters.
Many parents think they’ll wake for the day at 4AM if they shift bedtime that early. It really doesn't work that way. And it’s important to watch your child’s cues—tired trumps the clock every time.
2. Too much light, improper room temperature, or outside noise
Even a sliver of light entering your toddler’s eyes from outside can signal the brain that it’s time to wake up. Rooms that get too chilly between 4 and 6AM when our core temperature is at its lowest can certainly cause a wake up. Is there a trash truck or a pesky bird that’s making noise? Get some thick black-out shades, set the room temp between 68 and 72, and think about a white noise machine or a loud fan to mask any outside noise. These are the easy ones to fix!
3. Insufficient or too much day sleep
Kids under 3 DEFINITELY still need a nap. Most kids up to 4 need them. If their growing brains and bodies don’t have the chance to rest during the day, they’re most likely going to bed overtired. And over-tiredness at bedtime can easily cause early rising (see the reason I noted in #1). On the other hand, if they’re making up for insufficient night sleep with a 3-4hr nap, you may be continuing the cycle of early rising—their sleep is distributed improperly.
Sigh...I know—it’s complicated.
These are the most common causes and solutions for early rising, but as I said, it’s not always an easy fix. If you’re still doing the zombie shuffle after making these adjustments, I can help with a more in-depth look at what’s causing the issue and we can work together to make a plan to deal.
Cory Greenberg is a Certified Child Sleep Consultant and helps families from pregnancy through age 4 with a variety of sleep challenges.