When you’re in the midst of dealing with baby sleep, you think you can’t possibly be more tired. But then your baby becomes a toddler, and you’re in for a surprise once again. That’s the thing with kids: they’re constantly changing. And all of those changes can sometimes leave you, and them, pretty exhausted.
When children are transitioning from babyhood to toddlerhood, they often go through a phase of early-waking. All of a sudden, your sweet baby who was waking up at 7 a.m. is now up and ready to start the day at 5 a.m. (or earlier!). Why is this, how much rest does your toddler need, and how can you get them to sleep later?
We spoke to sleep consultants Nicole Johnson from The Baby Sleep Site and Riki Taubenblat from Baby Sleep Maven to get the details on how to get your kids to sleep past 5 a.m.—read on for their expert tips.
How Much Sleep Does My Toddler Need?
Toddler sleep needs vary by age quite a bit, says The Baby Sleep Site consultant Nicole Johnson. Around 13-14 months old, toddlers are still taking two nap times and need about 10-12 hours of rest per night and 2-3 hours total nap sleep during the day. Once toddlers transition to one nap, they need around 11-12 hours of nighttime sleep and 2-3 hours of daytime sleep. In general, nighttime sleep needs tend to go up as nap sleep goes down.
“After 2 years old, schedules start to vary quite a bit with some 2- and 3-year-olds needing 10-11 hours of sleep with a 2-hour nap,” she continued. “While others will still be sleeping through the night for 12 hours and take a long afternoon nap of 2-3 hours.” It’s at this point when you can really begin to see how sleep needs vary in your children; many are pre-disposed to sleep longer or later, while others (like mine) just don’t seem to need as much sleep.
Why Is My Toddler Waking Up So Early?
The first thing to consider is what actually constitutes an early rising. Sleep consultant Riki Taubenblat of Baby Sleep Maven explained that “anything that is less than 11 hours after bedtime should be considered an early waking. For example, if your toddler’s bedtime is 7 p.m., any time before 6 a.m. is considered early.”
You also have to take into account how your baby is waking up. Some toddlers, just like adults, are simply early-risers. If your little one is getting enough combined daytime/nighttime sleep and is waking up happy and refreshed, they’re likely just a morning person. Of course, this is tough on you, particularly if you’re not a morning person, but there’s not much you can do about it.
On the other hand, if your little one wakes up cranky or crying or is visibly tired during the day, they’re likely not getting enough shut-eye. According to Taubenblat, both internal factors, like over-tiredness, and external factors, like light and sound, can all be contributors towards early waking. Early wakings are the most difficult to resolve, and it can often take a few weeks to see improvement in this area, says Taubenblat, but it is possible.
How to Get Your Kids to Sleep Past 5 a.m.
1. Block out external stimuli
When the sun is out bright and early but you don’t necessarily want your kid to be, keep an eye on how much light comes into your child’s room early in the morning. Since daylight signals “wake up time” to our bodies, it could be the biggest contributing factor to your toddler’s early waking. Blackout curtains could be a game-changer for you.
Noise could also be a factor. “The lightest stages of sleep occur after 4 a.m.,” Taubenblat said. “So, it’s very easy to be awakened at that point by light or noise and make it difficult to fall asleep again.” If you don’t already use a white-noise machine and you think early morning noise (birds, the neighbor’s dog, or you or your partner leaving early for work) might be waking your kiddo up, try one out. It might be just what you need.
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2. Limit stimulation after dinner
“Being overstimulated at bedtime can cause sleep disruptions for
the entire night’s rest and lead to early wakings,” Taubenblat said. Wind down after dinner with dim lights and quiet play before starting your bedtime routine. This lets your little one’s body begin to calm down and prepare for sleep.
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3. Invest in a toddler clock
Toddler clocks, which you set to light up green at a certain time, are great for older toddlers. If they wake early and see that the clock is not green, they’ll get a visual signal that it’s not yet time to wake up. If you’re lucky, they’ll go back to sleep. But even if they just lay or play quietly, at least you get another few minutes to stay in bed.
This alarm clock turns green when it's OK to get up, which is an easy concept for a toddler to grasp.
4. Make their bedroom boring
If they wake up to tons of toys and books, they’re likely not going to want to go back to sleep, noted Taubenblat. Clearing their room of any sort of excitement or stimuli will create a more relaxing environment that signifies a place for rest and calm.
5. Shift bedtime later
You can try shifting bedtime 15 minutes later per night for one to two weeks. Keep in mind that it’ll take time for their little bodies to adjust to a new routine, so don’t expect change overnight.
6. Or move bedtime earlier
If your toddler is going to bed too late, their over-tiredness could be the reason they’re waking up so early. It sounds weird, but an earlier bedtime could help them get the rest they need and promote a healthier (and longer) night’s sleep.