Is your toddler waking up at 4am crying or staying awake? Discover what to do about early wake-ups and get your child to keep sleeping.
“I can’t imagine the lack of sleep you get with kids,” a coworker bemused after I had my first son. “When I wake up and see that it’s 4am, I just roll back to sleep!”
If only that were the case for parents. And for many of us, not only is 4am nowhere near our wake time, it has become the new norm for our toddlers.
Perhaps your little guy has no problem going to sleep at night, but suddenly, like clockwork, wakes at 4am every morning. Even if you leave him until at least 5:30am, he’s awake the whole time, clearly needing more sleep.
He recently dropped a nap but now wakes up too early. No wonder he’s tired and cranky by 10am.
And that’s on the good days when he simply wakes up to sit and play. Sometimes, he’ll whimper, cry, and yell for you to come.
He’ll only settle down if you go into his room, but you don’t want to create that unsustainable habit. But your heart also breaks leaving him the entire time while he screams and yells. Never mind that you have to get ready for work, making your mornings harder than they need to be.
The nights of getting a solid 10-12 hours of sleep seem like a distant memory. Let’s just say that your toddler waking up at 4am is affecting the whole family.
How to handle your toddler waking up at 4am
Early rising has always been a struggle for me. While my kids could fall back asleep if they happened to wake up in the middle of the night, early morning wake-ups usually meant they were up for the day. Even if the morning routine didn’t “officially” start yet, being awake all that time would mess up their naps.
Then, because their nap schedule was all over the place, so was their bedtime routine. And so, the cycle of not getting enough sleep would continue.
I knew it wasn’t because of more telltale symptoms like teething, ear infections, or potty training, either. It wasn’t until I started practicing the tips below that finally got them out of the early morning wake-ups. Take a look at these best practices to stop your toddler waking up at 4am:
1. Consider your child’s needs
Sleep needs are constantly changing in early childhood, from dropping a nap time to needing less sleep. Check with your child’s pediatrician to see how many hours a day he should be sleeping, especially for older toddlers. For all you know, he might be getting too much daytime sleep, affecting his nighttime sleep.
If so, maybe it’s time to put him down in the crib or toddler bed for a later bedtime, especially if he’s asleep at an early hour. (However, try not to go later than 8:30pm.) You could also experiment with his daytime naps, either by dropping one or shortening their length.
Besides sleep, see if he could also be waking up because of hunger. If he eats a light dinner or eats it early, he might be hungry come 4am.
You might want to give him more food at dinner or push dinnertime later in the evening. Another option is to offer late bedtime snacks to tide him over through night sleep until the next morning.
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2. Teach your child when to wake up
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Kids don’t always know when it’s the right time to wake up, especially when they’re too young to even tell time at all. Still, you can find creative ways to signal when it’s okay for your child to wake up or whether he should stay asleep.
For instance, place a digital clock in his room and cover the minutes’ side with painter’s tape. Then, let’s say you want him to wake up no earlier than 6am. Teach him what the number “6” looks like on the digital clock, and let him know that he can only get out of the room when the clock says “6.”
Another way is to use a toddler alarm clock that lights up at a certain time. Set the clock’s light to turn on at the wake-up time you want. That way, any time it’s off should let him know that it’s still time to sleep.
3. Check your child’s environment
The early morning hours are all about light sleep. Not only do kids sleep in shorter stretches, but they’re also more likely to get woken up than the first part of the night.
Ask yourself if something in your child’s environment is making him more likely to wake up. For instance:
- Are your sprinklers set to turn on around that time?
- Do you or your partner wake up and make noise around the house?
- Do you need to install darkening curtains or blackout blinds to keep neighborhood lights and early sunlight from peeking in?
- Could you turn on a fan, heater, or white noise machine to muffle sounds that might startle him awake?
- Is the temperature too hot or cold in the room?
- Would opening or closing the door help him stay asleep?
- Is he tempted to play with toys in his bed?
By making his environment as conducive to sleep as possible, you can prevent him from waking up in the first place.
4. Wake your child up even earlier
One temporary trick I’d heard from fellow moms was to beat your child to the punch and wake him up even earlier. This way, he stops associating waking up and crying for you. He’s also sleepier toward the middle of the night than he would be at 4am. With more hours left, he has a good chance to fall back asleep.
If he typically wakes up screaming at 4am, see what happens if you wake him up at 3am. You could wake him up to change his diaper or take him to the potty, for instance. Then, when he falls back to sleep, he might sleep for a long stretch until it’s time to get up for the day.
Try this sleep schedule a few nights and see if it can shift him to a later wake up!
What to do when your toddler wakes up too early crying.
5. Break unsustainable habits
How many of the “solutions” to your toddler’s early wake-ups are sustainable? Letting him sleep in your bed or putting a pacifier in his mouth might seem like quick fixes, especially when you’re exhausted. “I won’t do it tomorrow, I promise,” you vow to yourself.
But of course, the next morning rolls around, and you bring him to your bed and insert the pacifier 10 times yet again. You’re exhausted, no doubt—except these quick fixes only reinforce the very habits you’re trying to eliminate.
Instead, think of the “Band-Aid” analogy. The temporary pain of replacing old habits and sleep associations might hurt for a short time, but over the long run, you’re setting him up for good sleep.
Learn how to deal with the 12-15 month sleep regression.
6. Get your toddler up at the same time every morning
Sometimes your toddler cries for you because he’s not sure if or when you’re going to get him up for the day. He might be waking up at 4am because he’s not sure what time you’ll get him up.
But he can be more willing to wait if he knows that you always get him at the time you say you will. Let’s say you tell him that you’ll get him up at 6:30am, and you do this with consistency. He won’t feel anxious about when you’ll come to get him because he knows you always do.
He can even get to experience what it’s like to wait in his room. Then, make sure to praise him for waiting and trying to fall back asleep so he continues this behavior. The more you stay consistent, the less anxious he can feel about when to start the day.
Learn what to do when your toddler wakes up crying every morning.
Four in the morning is no hour for toddlers to wake up for the day. Even if you or your partner start the day at that time, your early riser should still extend his sleep to a reasonable hour of the morning. Thankfully, you can take a few steps to make that happen.
For instance, teach him when to wake up, even if he doesn’t know how to tell time yet. Check his environment to make sure that it’s conducive to sleep. Consider his needs and whether he might not need as much sleep (or is even hungry by morning).
Then, try and see what happens if you wake him up even earlier than 4am, with the hope that he can be sleepy enough to fall back and stay asleep. Break unsustainable habits that only reinforce the exhaustion you feel.
And lastly, wake him up at the same time every morning. That way, he knows you mean your word when you tell him you’ll get him up by a certain time.
Perhaps then, the next time you wake up at 4am, you truly can roll over and go back to sleep.
Get more tips:
- Top 6 Tips to Get Through the Toddler Sleep Regression
- 3 Year Old Waking Up Too Early? Must-Know Tips for Moms
- Brilliant Tips to Stop Your Toddler Waking Up Too Early
- What to Do When Your Toddler Wants to Play Instead of Sleep
- How to Stop Toddler Bedtime Tantrums
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