How to keep children from waking up too early

Have an early riser on your hands? Here’s what to do when your toddler is waking up too early in the morning.

Teresa Pitman May 1, 2020

How to keep children from waking up too early

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:

Shift bedtime

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.

This article was o riginally published in 2010.

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You’ve officially left the infant days behind and are — hopefully — beginning to enjoy longer stretches of sleep at night.

While sleep can vary dramatically from one toddler to the next, most fall into a pattern that parents can handle. If that pattern includes unusually early wakeups, however, you may be feeling nearly as exhausted as you did during the newborn days.

Depending on the nature of your toddler’s sleep, you may need to adjust your child’s wake windows, nighttime environment, or your expectations.

How Much Sleep Do Toddlers Need?

While a variety of factors can cause toddlers to wake up early, the amount of sleep they’re getting each day often comes into play. Most toddlers sleep somewhere between 11 and 14 hours in a 24-hour period, with between 10 and 12 of those hours occurring at night.

These numbers can range, however, with research suggesting that perfectly healthy toddlers can sleep as little as 11.4 hours within a 24-hour timeframe, while other also healthy children in this age group get over 16 hours.

If your toddler seems cheerful upon waking up early in the morning, the total amount of sleep probably isn’t an issue. Cranky wakeups are another story and might be telling you that they need more high-quality sleep at night.

If you’ve determined that your toddler isn’t getting enough sleep and that unusual circumstances such as teething are not to blame, you might be able to fix the problem by making a few strategic tweaks to your sleep strategy.

Tips for Managing Your Early Riser

Try for a later bedtime. Often, the chief culprit behind an early wakeup is an early bedtime. Going to bed later can help, but you risk causing your toddler to be overtired if you make the switch too quickly.

Instead of suddenly switching to a later bedtime, try putting your toddler down for bed 15 minutes later each night for several nights in a row until you reach the new bedtime. Don’t ditch your bedtime ritual — just start it later. Keeping bedtime predictable even when making changes can make your child feel safe and secure.

Adjust naps. If nightly shut-eye isn’t causing early wakeups, daytime snoozing might be the problem. This will shift as your toddler grows older. Around twelve months, your child will probably still take two naps per day. Soon after they’ll start to shift to just one nap. This can cause significant sleep disruptions.

By 18 months, your toddler should nap once in the afternoon. Typically, this daily nap will last about two hours, although some toddlers sleep for just one. How long this nap lasts and when it ends may influence bedtime and even when your toddler wakes in the morning. If your toddler is regularly napping for more than two hours per day, it may be time to cut a nap or try for shorter naps.

After the age of 2, your toddler may be ready to drop napping for good. Some research suggests that as toddlers reach their preschool years, naps may actually harm nighttime sleep.

Consider your toddler’s sleep environment. How comfortable is your toddler’s room? Mattress firmness or room temperature might not bother your child at the beginning of the night, but these issues could make it harder for them to stay asleep in the morning.

Don’t forget light levels. If you notice your toddler waking earlier as the days get longer, consider installing blackout curtains or determine whether lights from other areas of the home or from devices could be waking them up. Research shows a clear link between TVs in bedrooms and sleep problems, so if you have a television in your child’s room, consider moving it.

Serve a healthy, filling dinner. Processed foods high in simple carbs probably won’t keep your child full through the night. Introduce high-protein foods, healthy fats, and complex carbs to stave off nighttime hunger.

If your toddler wakes up early to nurse, consider that both hunger and comfort may be required. Some toddlers wean at night, but waking up to nurse is also normal for extended breastfeeding.

Avoid wet diapers. Some toddlers are sensitive to the feeling of a full diaper. You can minimize this problem by using nighttime diapers or using a diaper one size larger than their usual size. Some parents also limit liquids in the evening. Even if your toddler is potty-training and using underwear during the day, they may still need diapers at night.

Show Sources

JAMA Pediatrics: “Factors Associated With Fragmented Sleep at Night Across Early Childhood.”
Mayo Clinic: “Potty Training—How to Get the Job Done.”
Pediatrics: “Television Viewing, Bedroom Television, and Sleep Duration From Infancy to Mid-Childhood.”
Pediatrics: University of Missouri Extension: “How to Establish Good Sleep Habits for Your Children.”
Stanford Children’s Health: “How to Help Your Kids Get a Good Night’s Sleep.”
The Washington Post: “Should Your Child Be Napping?”