Struggling with an early riser? Learn what to do when your toddler wakes up too early crying every morning and won’t go back to sleep.
At first, the early wake-ups started at 6am. But over the next few weeks, that wake-up time has been getting earlier and earlier, sometimes as soon as 3:45am.
Your toddler is simply up and ready to go. His tears might start as whimpers, but then it progresses to full-on crying. You wake up every morning to screaming and crying instead of the coos and talking you’d hear from other toddler parents.
Expecting him to go back to sleep feeling so upset seems impossible. He stands in his crib crying until you finally relent to pick him up. And with such early wake times, you know he’s not exactly rested, especially when he’s tired and grumpy the rest of the morning.
At this point, you have no idea how to get him to sleep later (or at least go back to sleep). You’ve even succumbed to rocking him to sleep or bringing him back to your bed (where, of course, he falls asleep). But now you fear you’ve created a bad habit you’ll likely need to break down the line.
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What to do when your toddler wakes up too early crying
For every befuddled parent, early wake-ups can feel out of the ordinary. My son had been sleeping through the night—a solid 12 hours straight—since he was six months old. But as if a switch had been turned on, he started waking up earlier and earlier, to the point where even I was still asleep.
Here’s the thing, mama. Don’t conclude that this is simply the way it is, or that you just have to ride the wave and cross your fingers that this will end. You can do something when your toddler wakes up too early crying in the mornings.
Take a look at these action steps to help him sleep later in the mornings:
1. Cap nap time at 3pm
Believe it or not, many early wake-ups happen from a lack of quality sleep, not too much. For instance, if your toddler fights bedtime and ends up sleeping long past he’s supposed to, he just might wake up earlier than later. If sleep begets sleep, then you can imagine what lack of sleep can do.
Instead, cap nap time at 3pm so that he has plenty of time awake before bed. This allows him to fall asleep quickly and rest through the night, instead of waking up restless.
Need to adjust your nap schedule? You can do so gradually in 15- to 30-minute increments. Let’s say he usually naps until 4pm. Move nap time 30 minutes earlier (or wake him up at 3:30pm) until he has settled into that pattern. Then, adjust even further, so that he’s awake by 3pm.
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2. Have a later bedtime
Let’s say your toddler does get good quality sleep. She falls asleep quickly and doesn’t stir during nighttime sleep. What can you do to ensure she doesn’t wake up early?
One place to start is with a later bedtime. If she’s going to bed too early in the evening, she’s also understandably waking up equally early come morning.
A general rule of thumb? Kids generally need 11-12 hours of sleep at night (and some even as few as 10). If she’s asleep by 6:30pm, she could easily be awake and ready to go by 5:30am or even 4:30am. Inch bedtime up, again in 15- or 30-minute increments, so that you push those hours later in the day.
That said, don’t put her down too late. Sleep experts suggest a bedtime no later than 8:30pm for nearly all kids of all ages.
3. Ensure a good sleep environment
This might seem like a small oversight but can have an impact when your toddler wakes up too early crying. Take temperature, for instance. How hot or cold his room feels could be contributing to those early mornings.
If mornings have begun to get cooler, he might need a space heater in his room. A fan could keep the sweltering heat in the summer away, extending his mornings a bit more. Make sure he’s comfortable during those early wake-ups and not too cold or hot.
Similarly, keep the room dark as well. Is the sun already peeking through the windows at 5:30am? Installing darkening curtains over his windows and blinds could buy you more time.
And finally, is it too quiet in the room, so much so that he startles awake with every noise he hears? A white noise machine, fan, or heater can muffle those sounds and help him sleep longer.
4. Ignore the whimpers
Do you head straight to your toddler’s room the minute he whimpers in the early morning hours? If wake-ups start as whimpers before escalating to cries, see what happens if you ignore them at first.
Think of whimpers as his way of complaining. He doesn’t need to be consoled as if he had a nightmare, nor is he signaling a dire discomfort like poop in his diapers. Instead, he’s likely grumpy and complaining about waking up.
Going into this room could very well agitate him further into cries, especially if you’re not going to get him up. In other words, he could’ve been fine if you hadn’t gone in at all.
Instead of rushing to his room at the first whimper, see what happens if you stay put. You just might find that he’ll keep whimpering before finally settling back to bed. He might not fall asleep again, but at least he’s staying in bed and learning to manage his light discomforts.
You can even place his old baby monitor in the room. This allows you to see what’s happening without going inside.
5. Don’t reward early wake-ups
You might not think you’re rewarding your toddler during these early wake-ups, but she might see it differently.
Giving attention of any kind—positive or negative—rewards her in some way. For instance, don’t get her up for the day, even if it’s to drink a cup of milk or snuggle with books. Avoid turning on the television or bringing her to your bed until you’re ready for the day.
Similarly, avoid engaging in power struggles, even if you’re sleep deprived and delirious. Not only is she less likely to take in any lessons, but you’re also reinforcing the wake-ups with your attention (even if negative).
6. Treat early mornings like the middle of the night
As tempting as it is to go about your day the minute your toddler cries, don’t. Treat early mornings the same way you would if it were in the middle of the night. Just because you only have an hour or two before you’d get up anyway, doesn’t mean that you should start your day.
Instead, set a firm wake-up time. Any time before then—even a mere 15 minutes—means that it’s still time to sleep. The more she hears this message, the more she knows that waking up crying doesn’t mean getting up for the day.
Change her diaper if need be, then have her go straight back to bed. If she continues to cry, check in every 15 minutes to reassure her you’re there, and that it’s still not wake-up time.
Then, make sure that once it is time to wake up, you do get her up as scheduled. Do this consistently and she’ll likely take your word and trust that you’ll get her up at the same time every morning.
7. Use a toddler alarm clock
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Your toddler might not be able to read a digital clock, much less one with hands, but he can certainly understand “color.” Place a toddler alarm clock in his room, one that can light up a certain color at a particular time.
Let’s say you don’t want him out of bed until 7am. The clock can remain off throughout the morning, which is his signal to stay in bed. But the minute 7am rolls around, it can turn on, say, a green light, which gives him the go-ahead to get out of bed.
Early mornings—especially the ones that keep getting earlier and earlier—are no way to start the day. Thankfully, you can fix when your child wakes with a few simple tweaks.
Cap daytime sleep at 3pm so that he doesn’t have a hard time falling asleep come bedtime. If he’s sleeping well, see what happens if you push bedtime back—he only needs 11-12 hours of sleep at night before waking up.
Check the temperature of the room to make sure he’s sleeping comfortably. Ignore the whimpers—instead, wait a few minutes to see if he can settle down on his own. Avoid rewarding early wake-ups with your attention, whether positive or negative.
Instead, treat these mornings as if you were still in the middle of the night. Check in at set times to reassure him you’re here, but don’t get him up for the day until your official wake-up time. And finally, use a toddler alarm clock to let him know when he can wake up for the day.
We all knew we’d wake up earlier with kids, but not this early. Now with these tips, you can extend those mornings wake-ups and get enough sleep—at least past 3:45am.
Get more tips:
- Is Your Toddler Waking Up at 4am? Here’s What to Do
- What to Do When Your Toddler Wants to Play Instead of Sleep
- When Your Toddler Wakes Up Crying Every Morning
- How to Create a Successful Toddler Sleep Schedule
- What to Do When Your Toddler Wakes Up Crying from Naps
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