There are plenty of reasons why toddlers and preschoolers wake up too early. Maybe they’re going to bed too early. Maybe they’re ready to shorten or drop their nap. Maybe they’re just in the habit, or they have FOMO, or they’re slowly but surely trying to suck the life out of us.
As long as they aren’t waking up grumpy, it’s all good, right? Sure—for them. But parents can’t be blamed for trying to find a way to get their kids to sleep in just a wee bit later.
How much sleep do kids need? Enter the Gro Clock. On the surface, it appears to be a simple, cute kid’s clock. But it’s more than that. Using images of the stars and the sun, and colours to represent each (blue and yellow, respectively), the clock teaches your kid when he’s supposed to be sleeping and when he’s allowed to wake up, using the times you’ve preset. It’s not the only product of its kind on the market, but the Gro Clock is the most popular in its category, and has been for years.
Got one, or thinking of getting one? Here’s what you need to know and some tips for getting the most out of it.
1. Don’t start using the Gro Clock too early
Your ten-month-old may be waking up at 4:30 a.m. every day, and that suuucks, but they’re way too young to understand the Gro Clock. Some parents report using it successfully with an 18-month-old, but most say two is around the right age to start.
2. Before you use the Gro Clock, teach your kid about the sun and the stars
For kids to understand the Gro Clock, they have to understand that at night, the sun goes away, the stars come out, and that’s when we sleep. In the morning, the sun comes back, and that’s when we’re allowed to wake up. Work this info into conversations each day in the weeks before you buy or begin using the Gro Clock.
3. Explain the Gro Clock to your kid
The Gro Clock comes with a book you can read to your kid to help them understand (and get excited about) how it works. It also has a demo feature, which allows you to practice using it before actually using it. “We practiced going to sleep after saying goodnight to Mr. Sun and then waking up when he comes back,” says Toronto mom Tanya Skinner. “Doing that a few times right before bed helps for the first few nights.”
4. Change your kid’s wake-up time slowly
If your kid is waking up daily at an ungodly hour (we’re looking at you, 4:30 a.m.) and you’ve purchased a Gro Clock to solve this problem, you might be temped to set the clock’s sun to appear at 6:30 a.m. on the very first morning. Woot, two extra hours of sleep for you! Er, not so fast. That doesn’t set your kid up for success. Expecting your toddler to lie patiently in her bed for two hours more than she’s used to just isn’t reasonable.
On the first night, set the clock’s sun to rise for the time your kid usually wakes up—even if it’s ridiculously early. “This way, your child will wake up and see the sun come out, and create a positive association with their clock,” advise the makers of the Gro Clock. Then, give lots of praise.
After that, increase the time by five or 10 minutes every morning. If you can be patient, stick with five. The Gro Clock works well for most kids, but it does require patience at first in order to give kids a chance to adjust to their new wake up times.
5. Be consistent with the rules you set out
You’re teaching your kid that they have to stay quiet in bed (ideally asleep, but quiet is better than nothing) until Mr. Sun wakes up. But if they don’t—for example, if you hear him yelling for you—try not to go into their room! Doing so teaches kids that they can ignore the clock if they want to. When Skinner’s son used to wake up and call for her before the sun appeared on the clock, she’d go his door and tell him that Mr. Sun is still sleeping, so everyone else must still sleep, too. “As he’s gotten older, I’ve started letting him play quietly in his room if he wants, but luckily that doesn’t happen very often,” she says. Other parents use the intercom on their baby monitor to tell their kids they have to wait for the sun.
Of course, there will be times when you have no choice but to go into your kid’s room before the sun on the Gro Clock comes up—maybe your kid is sick, or they’re yelling about a leaky diaper or wet bed. In this case, you may be worried that your kid will realize that there are, in fact, occasions when he’s allowed to get out of bed before the sun comes up. If you think your kid will milk this for all it’s worth, here’s a hack for you: Try to avoid it in the first place by manually waking up Mr. Sun when your kid isn’t looking. “You have to be super sneaky about it,” says Skinner. Enter your kid’s room and distract them with something while saying something like, “We have to wait until Mr. Sun comes up”—maybe get them to lie down with closed eyes, or ask them to look for their lovey—and then, when they’re not looking, press the button to wake up Mr. Sun. “The important thing is to stick to how it’s not up to you—it’s up to Mr. Sun,” says Skinner.
6. Use rewards
The makers of the Gro Clock offer a free, downloadable reward chart that you can use to positively reinforce your kid’s good behaviour. Use stickers or draw a smiley face to mark each day.
7. Don’t expect the Gro Clock to work miracles
It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Every kid is different. Some will simply never pay attention to the Gro Clock. In other cases, it works beautifully at first—then, suddenly, it stops working. Like every parenting tool, it probably won’t work miracles, but hopefully it helps, even a little.
At up to $60, the Gro Clock isn’t cheap. On top of that, some parents report that the set-up instructions are overly complicated. If your budget is tight, look for a second-hand Gro Clock on Kijiji, Craigslist or a Facebook buy-and-sell group. Alternatively, try this parent hack: Buy an inexpensive timer from a hardware store, and attach it to your kid’s table lamp. Then, use the lamp just like you would the Gro Clock, setting it to turn on at whatever time you choose, and teach them that they’re only allowed to wake up when the lamp turns on. (You can even put some sun stickers on the lamp shade to reinforce the idea.) The downside of this hack: If your kid happens to sleep in one morning, the bright lamp might wake them up.