There is nothing more terrifying than a small face showing up at your bedside at 5am just staring at you. But when it happens over and over again, it becomes a little less terrifying and a little more annoying. Early morning wake-ups can be a common occurrence in toddlerhood, and there are many reasons behind them. Determining the root cause(s) and coming up with appropriate solutions are your ticket to later sleep-ins.
If you have a younger baby still in a crib and are dealing with early morning wakings, check out this blog post for age-appropriate troubleshooting tips.
1. Audit their environment
Just like babies, toddlers can be very sensitive to light. If you haven’t already invested in black-out curtains, definitely invest in some (These are my favorite). Too much light coming in can not only wake a sleeping child but can also interfere with melatonin production (the body’s sleepy-time hormone) and inhibit your little one from staying asleep as the sun starts to rise. We are already at our lightest stage of sleep from 4:00-6:00am; add some creeping in sunlight to the mix and it’s game over!
Here’s your homework: go into your child’s room; close the door & the blinds and let your eyes adjust. Can you see objects around you? If the answer is yes, then it needs to be darker. But if you’re standing there and you can’t even see your hand when you hold it right in front of your face, congratulations, it’s dark enough.
If your toddler has expressed fears of the dark you can certainly introduce a nightlight. The best type of nightlight is one that has a red/amber glow. On the light/color spectrum, these warm colors are less likely to interfere with natural melatonin production and disrupt sleep. My personal favorites are the Hatch Baby Rest (set to 5-10%) or a dimmable salt lamp.
[By the way, I independently source and vet any products that I choose to share on my site. If you buy from the links I’ve provided, I may receive a small commission, which in turn supports my work.]
2. Assess daytime sleep
The older your toddler gets, the quicker their sleep needs will lessen as compared to when they were an infant. Toddlers 2-3 years old only need 12-13 hours of total sleep in a 24-hour period. If they are still taking a 3 hour midday nap, it’s feasible to think that they may only need 9-10 hours of nighttime sleep before their sleep pressure has normalized to zero. That means with a bedtime of 7:30pm, they may truly be ready to start their day at 5-5:30am.
In order to help your toddler shift some of those sleeping hours to the nighttime, I’d start to cap their midday nap in 15–30-minute increments down to 1.5-2 hours. Make sure to have bedtime about 5-5.5 hours from the end of that nap to allow enough sleep pressure to accumulate.
If you have a child between 3-4 years old, the average total sleep needs for a 24-hour period is between 11-13 hours so you may have to cap the nap even further. Many toddlers also start to drop their nap during this age range, so if you’ve cut their nap back to 1 hour and you’re still dealing with nighttime or early morning struggles, you might consider cutting it altogether and substituting quiet time instead.
3. Consider how your child falls asleep at bedtime
I know I talk about the importance of sleep independence ad nauseum, but it really is the cornerstone to so many sleep struggles. If your toddler is relying on you lay with them as they are falling asleep at bedtime, they are more likely to wake briefly during those lighter stages of sleep in the early morning hours, realize you’re not there, and need to rectify the situation. Once your toddler is able to fall asleep confidently and independently, they are going to have the tools and skills to get themselves back to sleep during any early morning wakes.
If you’re struggling to help your toddler or preschooler learn how to fall asleep independently, check out 1:1 Toddler Sleep Coaching and we can work together to create a plan personalized for your child and make sure you feel supported you while you put it into action.
4. Examine your boundaries
What happens when your toddler wakes up super early? Do you bring them into your bed? Are you falling back to sleep with them in theirs? Are you starting the day with a sippy-cup of milk and cartoons while cuddling? These moments – while sweet in the short-term – may actually be encouraging and perpetuating early morning wake ups. You may be unintentionally “rewarding” these early risings.
Instead of co-sleeping to finish the night or starting your day before the sun, set a morning minimum (I like anything later than 6:00am) and handle the early mornings in the same way you would if your child woke in the middle of the night. You can build in intentional 1:1 time during the day or 5-10 minutes of play time during the bedtime routine to help fill your child’s cup at more appropriate hours.
5. Use a toddler clock
When we as adults wake up early, we look at our clock or phones, realize we still have a while longer to sleep, and drift off again (hopefully). Toddlers and preschoolers who have no concept of time (and who are naturally unmotivated sleepers), are more likely to feel an almost fully rested body, and assume it’s time to get their day started. To help them be successful at understanding the boundaries of sleep and wake times, you can introduce a toddler or “okay to wake” clock.
Explain to your child that when their clock is off, it is time for sleep; when their clock turns on/changes color, then it is time to get up. Do some role-play practice during the day and reference this blog post on using a toddler clock for more information on my favorite ones and how to introduce them. You can even build in a reward for staying in their bed until the clock says it’s time to get up!
Early morning wake ups can be tough to troubleshoot. These solutions may not be an overnight success and it may take a few weeks of adjustments & consistency to find the right formula. If you’re struggling to find the right solution(s) or would like some help problem solving, I’d love to partner together and say goodbye to 5:00am and hello to more sleep!