How to get a toddler to sleep — it’s one of the great conundrums of parenthood. Sleep is important for everyone in a family, but when there’s a toddler (or two) in the picture, getting enough of it can be a challenge. Parents may be willing or able to adjust their schedules around toddler sleep habits, but those habits are apt to change week to week, even day to day. Just when parents feel they’ve established a solid sleep schedule and reliable wake time, their toddler may suddenly start struggling to fall asleep at bedtime, throwing everything out of whack again.
In short, toddler sleep patterns can be wildly unpredictable, with nighttime disruptions and waking too early. 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 Toddlers 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 can even be linked to your child’s unique 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 to all of the worm-getters in a person’s lineage, there are a few global factors regardless of who the parents are.
Children React to Sleep Schedule Shifts
A schedule can shift for huge variety 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 10 hours at night.” She notes that would make 5 a.m. a completely reasonable wake time for a kid going to bed at 7 p.m.
Nap Duration and Frequency Can Lead to Toddler Sleeplessness
While naps are connected to a kid’s schedule, they have their own special magic. This is particularly true as kids begin to transition from two 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.
Physical Factors Can Disrupt Toddlers’ Sleep
Waking because of physical factors, such as 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.”
Environmental Factors Can Wake Children Up
As human beings we’re still subject to timeless, natural rhythms. Some persistent instincts sneak through. Moore notes that kids will wake when they sense the sun. It’s a downside of having those pesky circadian rhythms. Also, kids can 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.
4 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.
- Fix the Room: 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 OK if it blocks out the noise.”
- Renegotiate Nap Schedules: A kid should probably not be napping for four hours before their bedtime. “Avoid sleep past 3:30 if their bedtime is around 7 or 8 p.m.,” Moore says. “You can shift bedtime a little later. But only shift it by 15 minutes each night until you get the wake-up time you want.”
- 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. The unfortunate fix to this issue is to get up when they wake and do your best to re-create the sleep associations as quietly and gently as possible.
- Adjust Physical Factors: Limiting fluids before bed. If a kid is potty training, using the bathroom just before sleep is also helpful. Pushing snacks before bed might even cause digestion issues that cause a wake-up. So stick to the normal food routine.
3 Tech Solutions for Better Toddler Sleep
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.
Moore adds, “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 well-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 persuaded 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.