Every morning, between 4:30 and 5:30, two-year-old Carrie stands up in her crib and cries: “Mommy, Daddy!” Bleary-eyed, her mother, Wendy Chau, talks to her through a two-way monitor: “Lie down, Carrie. It’s bedtime.” Carrie inevitably screams “No!” She’s awake and ready to start the day. Her mother, not so much. “I silently pray that Carrie will fall back to sleep on her own, or that I’m reading the clock wrong. But neither is ever true,” says Chau, who is on maternity leave after giving birth to her second child, Cameron, in July. She’d be happy if her daughter would even sleep until 6 a.m.
Hilary Myron, a paediatrician who works in the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s sleep clinic, says that some toddlers may rise and shine before the sun because of their chronotypes—a scientific term for biologically being a morning lark or night owl. In other words, their internal clocks are telling them to get up. Or it could be that your toddler went to bed early and got all the sleep she needed by 5 a.m., or that she actually hasn’t been sleeping enough. “If a toddler is waking up really early, it’s often because she’s tired, because sleep was lost somewhere,” says Alanna McGinn, a sleep consultant in Burlington, Ont. “It could be because naps were taken away too soon, or that bedtime is too late.”
The National Sleep Foundation says that toddlers need 11 to 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. That means a one- to three-hour afternoon nap plus 10 to 12 hours of sleep at night will do it. Not getting enough shuteye can lead to bigger problems than a grumpy toddler. “Over time, insufficient sleep can lead to delayed milestone acquisition and learning difficulties in school,” says Myron. “There are also medical consequences, such as changes in appetite and growth dysregulation.” Fortunately, there are things you can do to delay wake-up time and help establish healthy sleep habits in your kiddo from the get-go.
“The most important thing to ensuring a good sleep for a child is a regular sleep time and regular wake-up time, seven days a week,” says Myron. “You’ll have fewer wake-ups and fewer sleep problems when you’re consistent.” This process sets a restful sleep cycle for your toddler, cueing her brain that it’s time to snooze at night and allowing her to drift off more easily. Remember to choose a bedtime that allows her to get the 10 to 12 hours of sleep she needs a night. For example, if you’d like her to wake up at 6:30 a.m., set lights out for about 7 p.m. (Ideally, naps should be at a consistent time, too.)
A 2015 study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that children with a consistent bedtime routine tended to have better sleep. They went to bed earlier, fell asleep faster, woke up less frequently throughout the night and slept longer overall. Make sure you follow the same bedtime routine with your toddler all week—weekends included. “It should be 20 to 30 minutes and include changing clothes, nightly hygiene such as tooth brushing, and time spent with a caregiver without a screen,” says Myron. Read books, tell stories or sing songs in your child’s room, then turn the lights out at the same time every night.
If your toddler rises with the sun, cover her windows with blackout curtains. “Minimizing early morning light exposure is going to help you keep your toddler in bed longer,” says Myron. Make sure the coverings are drawn before you turn the lights out at night, as dimness signals the brain to produce melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy.
Birds can chirp so loudly in the early morning that their tweets can rouse your child out of slumber. To drown out their sounds, and other disruptive noises in the environment, plug in a white noise machine before your toddler goes to bed—the gentle hum may help her sleep in.
These cool gadgets teach toddlers the difference between night and morning using pictures set to a timer. When the moon or stars are up, your toddler can see that she needs to sleep and, when the sun rises, it’s her cue to wake for the day. “Toddler alarm clocks are great for helping kids sleep better at night and to push out that early morning waking,” says McGinn. “Choose one with a fun picture that your child will respond to and that has dim lights.”
Remember: The key to successful sleep is consistency. It can be hard to extend wake-up times, especially if your child is biologically an early riser, but with time and patience, it is possible. The reward for your hard work will be a toddler who sleeps both better and later—so you can, too.