Why is My Toddler Waking Up So Early?

JanelMS, RD, LDN, CBS

Read time: 4 minutes

What should I know about early rising in toddlers?

  • Why early morning wake-ups are a common occurrence for toddlers

  • Learn effective strategies to lessen early morning wake-ups

Early morning wake-ups are quite common for toddlers. During this exciting stage of exploration and discovery, your toddler has so much to see and do during the day that staying in bed to sleep is usually not at the top of their priority list.

Why do some toddlers wake up early?

Our natural sleep rhythm is to cycle through 4 stages of sleep, starting with our lightest stage of sleep, progressing through to our deepest stage of sleep, and ending with REM sleep, or our active dreaming state of light sleep.2 It’s normal to cycle through these stages 4 to 6 times per night, each cycle taking about 90 to 120 minutes.1 Each time we cycle through, our deep sleep stages get shorter while the final light REM stage gets longer.

Biologically, toddlers (and adults too) naturally experience lighter sleep in the early morning hours.1 When your child arrives at this lighter sleep stage, they’ll be more likely to come to a fully awake state and less likely to fall back asleep.1 After all, they’ve already logged several hours of sleep through the night, so the need to fall back to sleep (known as sleep pressure), just isn’t as strong in the morning as it is in the beginning or middle of the night.3

Read More: What are Typical Sleep Patterns for Toddlers?

How can I get my toddler to sleep later?

Use a white noise machine to mask disruptive noises

A disruptive noise (anything from the squeak of a floorboard, a chirping bird, a pet roaming the house, an apartment neighbor’s alarm clock, or an early garbage pick-up) in the early morning hours may be the culprit in waking your toddler. Many caregivers choose to use a sound machine or fan to help conceal these offending sounds.4

Be mindful of how close you are putting the sound machine to your baby, as a recent study found that all but one sound machine was above the recommended sound levels (decibel) for infants.5 To protect your little one’s ears, lower the sound machine volume and keep it at least 200 centimeters (about 6 feet) away from them.5

Read more: How do I Create a Bedtime Routine for my Infant or Toddler?

Keep your toddlers room dark

Use black out drapes or shades to prevent light from coming into your toddler’s room in the early morning. The room should remain dark enough that you are not able to read.

Exposure to light and dark has the strongest impact on our natural sleep rhythms.6 The light that enters our eyes in the morning signals a biological wake-up call for the following morning.7

Keep your child in the dark until the desired wake-up time. Even if your child wakes up early, stay in the darkened room with them, quietly playing games or rocking in a chair. This may help your child sleep a little later each day that you keep them in the dark in the morning as a natural result of the effect of light exposure on circadian rhythms.8

Limit screen time

Our modern-day electronic devices all contain artificial light (or LED lights) that impact our body’s biological signal to be awake.9

While toddlers generally enjoy TV, as well as phone and tablet games, try to limit them first thing in the morning to avoid reinforcing an early morning wake-up.10 Instead, offer your child quiet, low-stimulation games or activities in their room or somewhere else in the house that is dark.

Avoid feeding your toddler in the early morning

Instead of offering milk or food right away, try to hold your child off with quiet distractions for 10 to 15 minutes and extend this time a little each morning until you notice they are sleeping later.

Hunger and digestion are part of our natural sleep cycle, so if your toddler wakes early and eats or drinks, their body will send a natural signal to wake up due to hunger each morning.11 Delay this hunger cue by waiting to offer breakfast a little later each day.

Try an auditory alarm

Try an “ok to wake sound” with music instead of an “ok to wake clock” with a picture or light.

Many alarm clocks can be set so that gentle music plays as the alarm sound. Play this music or gentle sound for your child before they go to bed and tell them to stay in bed until they hear the ‘wake-up sound’. Place the alarm or clock out of sight if it has a bright digital display.

The chances of your child closing their eyes and falling back asleep while listening for their sound are greater than if you ask them to lay and look at a clock or picture, especially with a light!

This method may work best with older toddlers between 2 and 3 years of age, depending on development.

Learn More: How Can I Help My Toddler Sleep Well at Night?

Know that for some kids, an early bedtime and early wake up are normal!

Not all early sleep patterns are abnormal. Some toddlers need to go to sleep earlier and therefore wake up earlier.12 As long as they are getting enough sleep, this should not be considered a sleep problem.If waking that early is not an option for the family, the solution may be slowly pushing bedtime a little later until wake up time also moves later.12

Note that sleep patterns change often, so if your little one is an early-to-bed-early-to-rise child, that their bedtime and wake time will likely push back to later times as they grow.

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

What are Typical Sleep Patterns for Toddlers?

How do I Introduce Milk to my Toddler?

What Type of Milk Should my Toddler Drink?

Meal Plan for 18 to 24 Months Old Toddlers

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