Toddler sleep can be wildly unpredictable. Often, when parents feel as if a sleep schedule is solid, their toddler will begin struggling to go to sleep or start waking up too early in the morning. But as frustrating as it is too make a kid go to sleep when they are reluctant, it can be almost worse to have a child who wakes parents up at the crack of dawn. Sleep is important for everyone in the family. Getting less of it is a disaster. But according to Nurse Practitioner Maile Moore from Boston Children’s Hospital Sleep Center, getting a child to sleep in is an attainable goal. Parents just need the right expectations, schedule, and expert tricks.
Why Children Get Up Early in the Morning
Kids and sleep are hugely complicated bedfellows (pun intended and expertly delivered). After all, it’s hard enough to get a kid to sleep in the first place. That said, the issues that surround early rises are diverse and could even be linked to your biological heritage.
“There is a genetic tendency for people to be larks, as opposed to night owls,” Moore explains. “And that can run in the family. So because of that genetic tendency, some kids are just naturally waking up early.” But while that specific factor is related and all of the worm-getters in a person’s lineage, there is a few global factors common regardless of who the parents are.
Children React to Sleep Schedule Shifts
A schedule can shift due to an incredible amount of reasons. The problem is that a schedule shift in one area will throw everything out of whack. If a kid is suddenly popping up earlier this is the place to start. Moore suggests first looking at the amount of sleep the kid is getting in total.
“When they hit the preschool and toddler age, they may only require 11 hours of sleep total,” explains Moore. “And if they’re still napping, with an hour and a half nap in the day, they may only be able to sleep ten hours at night.” She notes that would make 5 am a completely reasonable wake time for a kid going to bed at 7 pm.
Physical Factors Can Cause Children to Wake
Waking because of physical factors like teething, hunger or pull-up wetting could certainly wake a child early. However, the idea that waking could be affected by passing milestones like walking or making strides in language development is largely unfounded.
“There’s not a lot of research proving that’s the case. Especially with early morning waking,” says Moore. “If kids have good sleep habits from the very beginning, like being able to self-soothe and go back to sleep on their own, developmental changes won’t impact their sleep.”
Nap Duration and Frequency Can Lead to Sleeplessness
While naps are connected a kid’s schedule, they have their own special magic. This is particularly true as kids begin to transition from 2 naps to one. That’s because the single nap will often shift.
Moore simplifies the idea to a simple equation: “The more they sleep in the day, they will sleep a shorter amount at night,” she says.
Also, she notes that depending on the length of the nap, a kid may be getting too much, or too little sleep. “Even little cat naps, like a 10- or 15-minute nap in the car, can give a child a second wind,” she says. “It also adds to the total amount of sleep they’re getting and may affect the nighttime sleep.” Because you can’t win.
Environment Factor Can Wake Children Up
Humans are still pretty animalistic. And some persistent instincts sneak through. Moore notes that kid will wake when they sense the sun. It’s a downside of having those pesky circadian rhythms. Also, kids could pop up if they hear a commotion. It is, after all, how they protected themselves from lions back in the day. It’s just, lions never swore about finding their keys before work
5 Tips to Keep a Child in Bed Longer
Like most things sleep-related, getting an early riser to stay down isn’t easy. But Moore is certain there are concrete steps parents can try to keep kids from crowing at dawn. That said, if a kid wakes up happy and well rested at 5:30 a.m., and remains so throughout the day, parents might just have to adjust themselves.
#1: Fix the Room
Parents that didn’t worry much about the kids’ room to get them to sleep, may want to look at it now. Moore’s tips are simple. “Have shade on the windows to block the light,” Moore says. “That said, you can’t avoid trucks coming by. We don’t like to encourage sound machines, but if you live on a busy street that’s certainly okay if blocks out the noise.” But parent’s should be careful not to use a device that often, as in the future kids might not be able to sleep without it.
#2: Renegotiate Nap Schedules
Moore suggests parents should be very careful about shifting schedules. It could throw things off even more. That said, a kid should probably not be napping for 4 hours before their bedtime. “Avoid sleep past 3:30 if their bedtime is around 7 or 8 pm,” Moore says. Also, naps should be anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour and a half long. Any longer could throw them off.
Toddlers and preschoolers need only about 10-12 hours of cumulative sleep (while parents apparently only need 4 hours of panicked shut-eye). That said, moving a bedtime can be helpful in some circumstances if done correctly. “You can shift bedtime a little later,” explains Moore. “But only shift it it by 15 minutes each night until you get the wake-up time you want.”
#3: Adjust Sleep Associations
One of the reasons your kid might wake up, and stay awake, is that they aren’t able to soothe themselves back to sleep. That’s particularly true if going to sleep in the first place requires your presence or bottles and pacifiers that are removed after they fall asleep.
“If the last thing they remember is that mom or dad was beside them, and all of a sudden they’re not there, the child is going to call out, cry and leave their room,” says Moore.
The unfortunate fix to this issue is to get up when they wake and do your best to recreate the sleep associations as quietly and gently as possible. Hopefully, you’ll be able to reduce your presence in their room in the morning until they figure it out. It could take awhile.
#4: Adjust Physical Factors
Moore offers some pre-bed tricks to diminish the physical factors of wakeing early. Cheif among them is limiting fluids before bed. If a kid is potty training, using the bathroom just before sleep is also helpful. But Moore points out that there is no fix for waking with hunger. Pushing snacks before bed might even cause digestion issues that cause a wake-up. So stick to the normal food routine.
#5: Try Tech Solutions
Some kids just need an assist with knowing when it’s morning time. Parents can help them by using a tech solution that gives them a morning cue. It’s like having a programmable robot rooster, except it’s not going to go for your eyes when it’s angry.
Morre does admit “these are more successful with school age children. Toddlers are going to have a harder time with them.” She suggests positive behavioral motivations for younger kids, which could include giving them access to a special morning toy when they wake at the right time. For all others, there a few wel regarded tools.
REMI Child Sleep Companion: This innovative tool dropped at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show. It’s basically a phone-controlled, Bluetooth-enabled baby monitor. But it can be programmed to help your kid know it’s time to get up.
Slide: This device and its accompanying app allows you to open curtains remotely. Nothing will tell your kid “you can get up now” better than cranking open the blackout curtains from your bed and blinding them with sunlight.
Smart Lights Plus IFTT: If This Then That (IFTT) is an app that allows you to program all your smart devices. There are plenty of “recipes” to chose from, including those that allow you to turn on lights with specific colors at specific times.
In the end, getting your child to stay down in the morning is about trial and error. But know there is a huge range of ways to deal with it appropriately, depending on your family dynamics. Are you okay with your kid coming into your bed for a sleep in? Can they be convinced to play quietly in your room until you’re ready?
The idea is to get creative. You may not be seeing your bedroom mimosas for another dozen years, but with some patience and planning you might at least be able to wake without seeing red.