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You’re finally out of the infant, waking up 5 times a night phase and getting some decent sleep. There really is nothing better than getting a full night’s rest and being able to snooze until 7am or so.
Except now your toddler seems to think that 4am is a perfectly logical time to wake up, ready to start the day. ARG! The sleep regression your toddler may experience around the age of two is difficult to deal with, especially when you’ve just gotten used to a more consistent schedule.
The Reasons Why
There are several different reasons why your toddler may experience some sleep regression around this age, or why they may be waking up too early. Among those are that your toddler is going to bed too early, getting plenty of sleep already, or there have been recent life changes that have made them a bit uneasy.
Going to bed too early
If your toddler is going to bed willingly at 7pm and waking up at 5am ready to go, that may be an indication that bedtime is a tad too early. If it were adjusted to be an hour or so later, you might enjoy an extra hour of shut eye in the morning.
Getting plenty of sleep already
Your toddler is getting a full 10 hours of sleep at night, plus naps during the day if they’re sleeping from 7pm to 5am. That’s just about the right amount of sleep for this age, so they’re waking up according to what their body feels is a full night.
Recent life changes
If something has happened recently that may be affecting your child mentally or physically, they could be waking up early because it’s disrupting their sleep cycle. It doesn’t have to be anything as dramatic as a separation, divorce, or death, although those are all possibilities.
It could just be a recent adjustment in naptime or nap length, a new baby in the family getting some extra attention, or the removal of a pacifier or bottle. Your child won’t sleep as well if something has them stressed out.
Things to Remember
There are several things you can do to adjust your child’s sleeping schedule. Although you’ll never be able to match their schedule to yours, you can make it a bit easier on yourself. Here are some things you should focus on when trying to fix the problem:
- Remember that your toddler may need less sleep than others. Just like adults, children have varying needs. If your child is an early riser, that may just be them falling into their natural sleep habits.
- Be encouraging through the process. While you don’t have to be happy about them waking up too early, you also shouldn’t condemn them for it. This is especially true if they don’t know how to tell time yet.
- Give them visual cues. For some toddlers, it’s much easier to conceptualize something if you can see it in action. Many of the things you can try involve bringing the idea of “sleeping in” to life.
- Have patience. Your toddler’s sleep schedule won’t change overnight. It may take a month or so for their habits to slowly change and resemble something you feel is reasonable.
Recommended Sleep by Age
While every child is different, the recommended amount of sleep varies by age. Infants younger than 12-18 months are always a wildcard. While they need a lot of sleep, their sleep isn’t as consistent as older children.
At 18-24 months, your toddler needs between 12 and 14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. That includes 1-2 naps and 10-12 hours at night.
From ages 2 to 3, your child needs about the same amount of sleep during a 24 hour period (12-14 hours), but they’ll be awake for longer periods in between rest times, and they may have transitioned down to one nap a day already.
Children 4-5 years of age need 11-13 total hours of sleep in 24 hours, but they may or may not still be taking a nap during the day. Some will still need one while others will be fine for 12 hours or more without. Many times, you’ll find that children this age will still take the occasional nap once in a while.
Once your child reaches 6-7 years, they’ll need 10-11 hours of sleep and likely won’t be taking a nap at all anymore.
What You Can Do About It
So you’re ready to see if there’s a way you could encourage your toddler to sleep in a little later? Well, there are a lot of things you can do. This list may seem overwhelming at first, but you don’t have to do them all.
Pick and choose what you think your child will respond best to and start there. Give it an honest try before deciding it doesn’t work and moving on to something else. Unless it ends in disaster within the first few days, stick with it to see if it works.
Set up a clock together
For some children, getting a new clock in their room and learning to tell time will be exciting enough to convince them to sleep later. Even if they’re not sleeping, they may stay in their room quietly until it’s time to wake up.
Use a digital clock so your child can see the numbers. Agree on an acceptable time to wake up in the morning. Using a post it note or a sheet of paper, write that number down.
Secure the paper to the digital clock, covering up the minutes and lining it up next to the hour display. Show your child how the clock will look when it’s time to wake up. When the hour on the digital display matches the hour you wrote on the paper, they can get out of bed.
Coach your child right before bedtime again, making sure they understand how waking up in the morning will work. Make sure they understand that if they genuinely need you, they may come get you, but otherwise, they need to wait until there are two sixes (two sevens, two eights, etc.) before they can get up.
Your child may be getting plenty of sleep already, and if that’s the case, you can make bedtime later to see if they sleep later. At first, this idea will likely backfire. They’ll continue to wake up early while going to bed later, meaning they get even less sleep.
They may be grumpy, irritable, and difficult to handle during the day. That also means that by the time their regular bedtime rolls around, they’re even more tired. And you have to try to keep them up later?!
The easiest way to do this is adjust bedtime by 15 minutes every few days. It can be difficult to keep them up an hour later all at once. This gradual adjustment will ensure a smoother transition for everyone, even if it’s tough at first.
Keep in mind that there is a “sweet spot” between too early and too late. It’s likely between 8 and 9pm, but a bedtime that’s either too early or too late could result in waking up at an unreasonable hour.
Change nap times
If your child is still taking two naps, maybe it’s time to move to one. You could also gradually shorten nap lengths, much like you might adjust bedtime.
If your toddler is already taking only one nap a day, you may need to adjust its length or time of day. If it’s happening too early, that means your child is waking up too early and ready for a nap early. It also means they’ll be ready for bed earlier.
Gradually move this nap to later in the day. That way, your child will go to bed later and, hopefully, sleep later, too.
Stay busy during the day
Toddlers have a ton of energy. If your child isn’t sleeping like you think they should, maybe it’s because they’re not tired. They need to run, play, and burn off all of that energy every day or they won’t sleep well at night.
They don’t have to run around all day long, but an hour of exercise in the morning and then again in the afternoon should be sufficient. Whether that’s climbing on the playset, taking a walk with you, or running around with the neighborhood kids, it should wear them out.
If it’s rainy, give them a way to get some exercise inside. A fun workout video can curb the craving for screen time and get them moving. Watching TV or playing video games all day can make it hard from the brain to relax.
Other good indoor activities that can help wear your child out mentally are games, puzzles, coloring, building with blocks, painting, or playing with Play-Doh.
Have a bedtime routine
Winding down in the evenings is just as important as being busy during the day. It’s critical to prepare the mind and the body for sleep. Establishing a bedtime routine with a bath, pajamas, a few books, and some singing can help prepare your toddler for a peaceful night of rest.
If your child is overstimulated at bedtime, it can mean they don’t sleep as well and may wake up too early.
Set up their room for sleep
For some children, going to bed before it’s dark out can be distracting and stimulating. Or they may have trouble sleeping in after the sun comes up. If that’s the case, you can install black out shades in the room to block out the light.
Light is a strong biological clue that it’s time to wake up. However, some people are of the opinion that their child should get used to the light because they won’t always be in a place where they can block out the light for sleep. Follow your instincts to decide if this is right for you.
If the trash truck comes at dawn, there’s construction in your neighborhood, or you have some very excited birds, you may also want to consider a white noise machine to block out some of that activity.
White noise is actually proven to help babies sleep better. It’s safe to use and it can block out sudden noises like noisy siblings or barking dogs.
Use bedtime snacks
If your child is hungry right when they wake up, that could be what is waking them up. Put their tummy at ease right before bedtime by implementing another snack. A snack high in protein like yogurt, peanut butter on toast, or hummus with vegetables will help keep them full for longer.
Add in a cup of milk to make sure they don’t go to bed thirsty either. This could help them sleep longer in the morning rather than waking up ready for breakfast right away.
Push breakfast back gradually
Much like you might delay bedtime gradually, you can push breakfast back gradually until the time you want them to have breakfast. If you feed your child right away, their body will become accustomed to eating at the time, waking them up in the morning when it’s time to eat.
Delay breakfast for 15 minutes every couple of days until you reach the desired breakfast time. This, coupled with a bedtime snack could encourage them to sleep for longer.
Don’t rush in every time they wake up
If they’re waking up for attention, but there’s not an emergency, don’t attend to them right away. As long as they’re staying in their room by themselves and they don’t need you, you can leave them there until it’s time to get up.
If there’s an emergency or they’re hurt or upset about something, you can soothe them and reassure them that you will come get them when it’s time to wake up, but that they need to stay in their room quietly until then.
Offer quiet alternatives to sleep
When your child wakes up early and you ask them to stay in their room, you may need to offer a quiet alternative to sleeping so they can occupy themselves until it’s time to wake up. This doesn’t solve the problem of waking up early, but it may mean they don’t come bother you right away or wake up the rest of the house.
Quiet toys, books, or puzzles will give them something to do and could even lull them back into a quick catnap before you get up. My last child wakes up pretty early, but if there’s not a lot of hubbub around the house yet, he’ll lay in his bed quietly and read. Often he’ll fall back asleep for 30 minutes or an hour.
No early fun
In conjunction with a quiet alternative, don’t make waking up early fun. It’s tempting to bring your child into bed with you and turn on some cartoons for a precious extra 30 minutes of sleep.
Resist this temptation at all costs. No judgement here. I’ve been there and done that. But the more fun you make waking up early, the more they’re going to do it.
Toddlers can’t tell time, so establishing these habits now won’t help you in the long run. Unfortunately, because they can’t tell time, their body will get used to a routine and run off of their biological clock instead.
Treat waking up too early much like you would treat waking up in the middle of the night when they’re not supposed to. Don’t give them any extra attention, don’t take them out of their crib, and don’t start the day.
Ditch overloaded diapers
If you’re experiencing soaking diapers in the morning, this discomfort could be waking your toddler up too early. Many manufacturers make overnight diapers that have a larger capacity than regular diapers.
You could also use “diaper doublers” which are inserts you can put in the diaper to increase their absorbency. Reducing the amount of liquid they consume closer to bedtime may also help.
Eliminate sleep regression
Sleep regression happens frequently for many reasons. If nothing else works, you may want to rule this out. You could start here, but your pediatrician will likely ask you what you’ve tried at home first before referring you to a specialist.
Sudden disruptions in your toddler’s sleep cycle are typically associated with certain developmental milestones, so it’s often completely normal and like any other phase, something you just have to get through.
However, if it continues for a prolonged period or begins to affect other aspects of your toddler’s life, you may need to seek additional help.
Getting Some Sleep
Most kids won’t get it right away, so coaching in the morning is a good idea if they continue to wake up early. Gently take them back to bed and tell them it’s not time to wake up yet. It will be hard to make changes.
Children thrive on consistency, so these changes could make things worse for a time. Stick with it.
Reinforce good behaviors. If they sleep or stay in their room until it’s time to wake up, praise their independence and ability to follow instructions. Point out how smart they are and how quickly they caught on to the new routine.
Choose the wake up time that works for your family, be patient, and very soon you should have a later wake up time!