I call my daughter-in-law early one morning and she answers in that sleepy, groggy voice that tells me she hasn’t had much sleep. Not surprising, since she has a five-month-old baby—but when I ask, it turns out he’s not the problem. Two-year-old Xavier has taken to waking up before four in the morning, ready to start his day. Melanie Gushnowski, a Calgary parent educator and child development specialist, says: “It’s common for toddlers to get up early in the morning—around 6 a.m.—and many go through times of getting up even earlier.” If your toddler is waking up too early, you may have trouble getting enough sleep yourself.
The most important question, she says, focuses on whether the child is getting enough sleep. If he’s going to sleep at 7 p.m. and cheerfully hopping out of bed at 5 a.m., he may be one of those kids who needs less sleep than most. A 2007 Swiss study found that at one year of age, some healthy, normal children slept a total of 11.4 hours and others slept 16.5 hours. That’s a difference of five hours.
On the other hand, if they wake up cranky and mope around for the first while, you need to investigate other possible reasons for your toddler waking up too early.
Gushnowski suggests looking at changes in the child’s life first to see if any of those might be contributing to the problem: “Has he shifted his nap times recently? Reached some developmental milestones (such as walking)? Had a new baby added to the household? Have you taken away his pacifier or bottle?” A changed nap time may mean his whole sleep pattern has now shifted. Research shows that children who have accomplished new developmental milestones tend not to sleep as well, which can include early rising, and that the stress of a new sibling can also cause increased wakefulness. Finally, a child who had previously been using a pacifier or bottle to get back to sleep may now wake in the morning and find he’s not really tired enough to go back to sleep without his soother—so he wakes you up instead!
Whatever the cause, your first priority is probably reclaiming those early-morning hours of sleep. Here are some strategies to try for a toddler waking up too early:
If you think your toddler is getting enough sleep and might be going to bed too early, try shifting her bedtime to a later time. Gushnowski recommends moving it 15 minutes at a time for a couple of days, so that she’s not overtired by the time she goes to sleep.
Adjust nap times
Perhaps it’s time to move from two naps a day to just one. Or you might want to gradually shorten nap times.
Create a sleep-friendly environment
Install blinds to keep the room dark, or add a white-noise machine to mask the sounds of pre-dawn garbage trucks and particularly enthusiastic birds.
Address the overloaded diapers
Does your toddler wake up with a soaking diaper every morning? Try using overnight disposables or “diaper doublers” — cloth or disposable pads that are inserted in the diaper to increase absorbency. You may also want to cut down the amount of liquid she has before bedtime. Putting a barrier of cream on her bottom may help to reduce the discomfort so that she doesn’t wake up.
Two words: bedtime snacks
If he seems hungry when he wakes up, a high-protein snack, such as hummus, yogurt, or nut butter on toast, before bedtime may help to stave off hunger longer.
If your tot is still waking up early and not willing to go back to bed, Gushnowski suggests trying to get him involved in quiet play until you’re ready to get up. You may be able to leave some toys in his crib or room the night before, or you might feel safer having him in your room, playing on the floor while you get a little more rest.
In Xavier’s case, it turned out that he was ready for shorter naps. Once he’d gotten used to his new daytime sleeping pattern, he went back to sleeping in until 7 a.m. Good thing, too, because with a baby to nurse in the night, his mom needs all the sleep she can get.
Originally published in 2010.