MS, RD, LDN, CBS
Janel holds a Master’s in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University. As the recipient of the 2010 Massachusetts Young Dietitian of the Year award, she believes in making healthy eating simple, sustainable, and delicious.
Early morning wake-ups are quite common for toddlers. During this exciting stage of exploration and discovery, your child has so much to see and do during the day that staying in bed to sleep is usually not at the top of a toddler’s priority list. Biologically, toddlers (and adults too) naturally experience lighter sleep in the early morning hours. When your child arrives at this lighter sleep stage in his natural sleep pattern, he’ll be more likely to come to a fully awake state and less likely to fall back asleep. After all, he’s 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.
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Worried that you’ll never sleep in again? Fear not, read on for effective strategies to manage early morning wake-ups!
Use a white noise machine to mask disruptive noises
A disruptive noise (anything from the squeak of a floor board, 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. Place a white noise machine or fan in front of the offending sound to help conceal it. For example, put the sound machine in front of the window to mask the chirping birds, or position the sound machine in front of the bedroom door to cover noises coming from within the house.
Note that a white noise machine or fan will not help your child fall asleep but rather protect their sleep by blocking out extraneous noises. Keep your child’s sound environment the same from the time he goes to bed to the time he wakes up for optimal sleep, so avoid sound machines that change in pitch, tone, ebb or flow (like music or ocean waves) and fans that oscillate.
Don’t let your toddler see the light
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 have the strongest impact on our natural sleep rhythms. The light that enters our eyes in the morning today signals a biological wake-up call for the following morning. So keep your child in the dark until your desired wake-up time. Even if your child wakes up early, stay in the darkened room with him, quietly playing games or rocking in a chair. Your child should sleep a little later each day that you keep him in the dark in the morning (just 15 extra minutes of darkness each day will help to shift his sleep pattern).
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. From a behavioral and developmental standpoint, toddlers generally enjoy TV or phone games, but try to limit them, especially first thing in the morning to avoid reinforcing an early morning wake-up. Instead, offer your child quiet, low-stimulation games or activities in his 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 10-15 minutes and extend this time a little each morning until you notice he is sleeping later. Hunger and digestion are part of our natural sleep cycle, so if your toddler wakes early and eats or drinks, his body will send a natural signal to wake up due to hunger each morning. 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 he goes to bed and tell him to stay in bed until he hears his ‘wake-up sound’. Place the alarm or clock out of sight if it has a bright digital display. The chances of your child closing his eyes and falling back asleep while listening for his sound are greater than as if you ask him to lay and look at a clock or picture, especially with a light!
This method works best with older toddlers between 2 and 3 years of age, depending on development.
Healthy Sleep Habits: How Many Hours Does Your Child Need? Healthy Children.org. Date accessed 2 July 2018.