Struggling with your toddler waking at 5am? You’re not stuck with early mornings. Learn effective ways to get your child to wake up later.
I thought I was in the clear. My son had been sleeping through the night through infancy and toddlerhood, waking up like clockwork at 7am the next morning.
But then the wake ups began to creep earlier and earlier. At first I didn’t think it was too bad. I figured I’d start his day earlier and adjust his nap. Except those few minutes kept stretching, and I couldn’t keep justifying waking up so early.
The morning wake ups got to the point where they were cutting into my morning routine. I wasn’t able to wake up earlier than everyone else, enjoying the quiet morning. Soon his wake ups were so early even I was still asleep.
There was no way I was going to let 5am be his new wake up time. I knew kids woke up early, but that early?
What to do with your toddler waking at 5am
Thankfully I found a few techniques to keep him in bed and sleep longer. Different ways to nip it in the bud and get him to wake up at his regular time, 7am. Once I applied these tips, the wake up times inched their way later in the morning and back to his normal time.
And even if he happened to wake up a few minutes before 7am, he knew to stay in bed until I got him up.
I hope you can apply these tips with your own toddler. Because you’re not stuck with 5am mornings. Your days can start when you determine them, not when your toddler wakes up ready for the day.
1. Aim for 11-12 hours of sleep at night
As hard as it is to admit, your toddler waking at 5am may be normal if bedtime is at 6pm. While a 12-hour stretch is ideal, not all kids need that many hours at night (especially if they’re taking long naps, too).
One simple way to handle your toddler waking up early all of a sudden is to adjust for a later bedtime. Push bedtime back in 15 minute increments so your toddler can sleep and wake up later.
For instance, if bedtime is normally 6pm, stretch it to 6:15pm for a few nights until your toddler gets used to that. Then aim for a 6:30pm bedtime. Keep pushing it back until you reach the time you’d like him to go to bed.
2. Set a wake up time
It’s tempting to allow your day to start when your toddler wakes up too early and won’t go back to sleep. He may fuss, wants milk, or otherwise calls for your attention. For any parent trying to go back to sleep, this is almost impossible.
But be firm with your child’s wake up time as you would with his bedtime. You don’t have to start your day at 5am because he’s awake. Instead, teach him to wait and understand that wake up time doesn’t happen the minute he’s up.
How? Do strategic check-ins.
First, come with the right mindset, especially on your first few attempts. This means expecting your toddler will probably wake up at 5am, not hoping he’ll sleep in and feel disappointed when he doesn’t. Remain calm and focused, knowing you’re here to solve a problem that will get better.
Then, at the first sign he’s awake, walk into his room and explain it’s not wake up time yet.
Keep your tone subdued and your check-in short—30 seconds at most. Encourage him to go back to sleep until you say it’s wake up time. Re-tuck him in bed as you did the night before to signal you’re not here to get him up for the day.
At this point, do make sure that everything is okay—that he hasn’t pooped in his diaper or isn’t feeling sick. But more than likely, he’s fussing and crying because he’s not used to not starting the day the minute he’s up.
Then, if he’s still talking or crying 15 minutes later, go into his room and again explain that it’s not wake up time yet.
Continue to do these check-ins until your desired wake up time. He’ll likely cry or fuss the whole time those first few mornings, but he’ll learn that you mean what you say and won’t start the day until wake up time
And if he’s awake but quiet? Let him be. Not all kids can or want to go back to sleep, especially if there isn’t a lot of time left anyway. It’s fine for him to lie down quietly and wait for you to come get him up for the day.
Take a look at this video for even more tips on how to do these check-ins:
3. Determine how much sleep your toddler needs
Figuring out your child’s sleep needs starts with taking a big picture look at his patterns. It’s easy to assume he should wake up much later considering how late he fell asleep the night before. But take a look at his sleep needs not only the previous nights but in general.
For instance, while 12 hours of overnight sleep is ideal, some kids can get away with 11 or even 10 hours of sleep a night. Your child may not need the full 12 hours and instead is ready to go with 10.
You also want to take a look at naps. Taking several, long naps can be keeping his nighttime sleep short. If so, you can:
- Adjust his naps earlier in the day: This allows for a lengthier awake time before bedtime, which can lead to later mornings.
- Transition to one less nap: Rather than taking two naps a day, your child can take one and reserve the rest of his sleep time for nights.
- Wake him up after a certain point: If your child is taking long afternoon naps, wake him up after a certain time to make sure he can still sleep well at night.
Want to determine whether your child is ready to drop a nap? Download my printable, Transitioning to Fewer Naps! Use it to record when your child is likely ready to take one less nap. Download it below—at no cost to you. You’ll also get my newsletters, which parents say they LOVE:
“Thank you Nina. I just want to say there aren’t many resources or people in my life right now that I feel can relate to my situation, but your resources makes m feel so much less alone :). Thanks for all you do and for being a guiding light!” -Jessica O’Donnell
4. Keep the room dark and use white noise
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Early mornings can be rough in certain seasons when the sun is already up by 5am. I recommend installing darkening curtains in your child’s room, the ones designed to keep sunlight out.
While it won’t be pitch-dark as it was at nights, the curtains block out most of the sunlight and signal to your toddler that it’s still time to sleep.
I hung darkening curtains like these:
Another must-have is white noise. Besides being another signal to keep sleeping, white noise muffles sounds that can startle him awake, from sounds in his own room, to you getting ready in the kitchen to noise from the neighbors.
You can find noise white in many places, from white noise machines like the ones below, to apps or even using a regular fan or heater.
5. Be consistent with your routines
Kids thrive with routine and consistency, including when they sleep and wake up. The more consistent you are with wake ups, the more you’ll help build your toddler’s internal clock to accept a new wake up time.
Think about daylight savings time and the changes your child has had to make to adjust. But through routine and sometimes by need, he had to make do with a new schedule. You can help his internal clock adjust to a later wake up time in a similar way.
You’ll also want to focus on improving his naps. While it may not make sense, “sleep begets sleep.” The better quality your toddler’s sleep during the day, the better his nighttime sleep will be. Make sure he’s not overtired to the point that he can’t get a good night’s sleep.
Many parents have recommended using a light up clock that signals to your child when it’s time to wake up and get out of bed. While your toddler may not be able to tell time, he can use the lights from the clock to know when it’s okay to get out of bed.
Any sleep disruption is difficult for the entire family. Perhaps the worst feeling is assuming we’re stuck with this new way of sleep. We’re afraid this is how it’s always going to be and need to accept these new changes.
But I’ve learned that we can change many of these disruptions. Some simply take time, as in the newborn stage. But others only need a bit of knowledge, consistency and helping your toddler find a new time to wake up.
Start with figuring out how much sleep your toddler needs in the first place, then aim for 11-12 hours at night by fiddling with naps and bedtimes.
Set a designated wake up time, checking in every 15 minutes should he wake up and fuss before then. Keep his room dark and with plenty of white noise to make the environment conducive to sleep. And finally, be consistent with your routine to help adjust his internal clock.
With these five simple tweaks, you can have your mornings back once again—all with your toddler asleep, not awake, in bed.
Does your child wake up cranky and screaming from naps? Learn how to help him wake up happier with my ebook, No Cranky Naps! Uncover the reasons he wakes up cranky, and learn how to equip him with the tools to cope with his big feelings.
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