Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
My toddler (she’s 22 months old) has been waking up at 5 a.m. for the past few months. We are exhausted! I was told to just ignore her until 6 a.m., but that hasn’t helped and that means I’m awake anyway listening to her cry! Help!
I agree, 5 a.m. is too early for your toddler to wake up! It’s difficult for parents too. Interestingly, 5 a.m. is a time of light arousal for everyone and should be followed by two more hours of sleep. That’s why parents of babies sometimes find that, if they respond to an early waking by feeding in the dark, the baby will go back to sleep. But this need for feeding usually is gone by a year of age. For parents of young children, too-early wakeups can get in the way of everyone’s energy, patience and enjoyment of life for the rest of the day.
I’m assuming that you are keeping her room DARK and that the windows are blocked so the early morning sun is not advertising that the day is beginning at 5 a.m.!
First, find out what is “normal” for your child.
It’s important to know if your child really is waking too early for her age and stage of development. Many children are “larks,” and a parent who is more of an “owl” can find this difficult. Even an early morning, energetic “lark” needs a certain amount of sleep, so you want to figure out whether the early waking can be helped by a change in schedule.
In general, almost all children from one to five years need 11 to 12 hours of sleep out of 24 hours, supplemented by naps. Keep a log of your child’s hours of sleep for a week or two to figure out if he or she is sleep deprived. The total hours of sleep should be about the same every day. Another way of measuring sleep deprivation is to notice your child’s mood in the morning. Does she wake up on her own seeming refreshed and happy? Or is she awakened by family members who are getting ready for work? Does he seem cranky even though he’s awake? Noticing if there are variations of wakeup time or length of naps on weekends will also give you information about whether your child needs more sleep on a daily basis.
If your child is a “lark” by nature and you are keeping her up too late because you are an “owl,” she’s not going to sleep later. Instead, that may worsen the problem!
Here are the most common causes and solutions for early wakings:
Going to Bed Too Late
This explanation defies logic, because most adults wish they could sleep late after a late night. For children, it’s different. A child who stays up late gets used to the feeling of being overtired. For him, it’s normal. Then, when he wakes up for the day nine or ten hours later, he feels fine, because the feeling of fatigue is what he’s gotten used to. (Adults are the same—we usually wake up because we have to, and we learn to function quite well on less sleep than we really need). Even though it is paradoxical, an earlier bedtime usually leads to a later wakeup time.
When children are giving up or resisting naps, they usually drop down on their total amount of sleep. This is a good time to adjust bedtime earlier, because the child who with a nap stays up until 8 p.m. may need to go to bed a full hour earlier—a tough situation for evening schedules in many families but necessary.
Going to Bed When Too Sleepy
This situation can sometimes seem illogical, too, because you would think that a drowsy child who falls asleep quickly would sleep better, right? Not necessarily. When a child is overtired, she may not remember how she fell asleep at bedtime, or she may develop a falling-asleep habit of needing a parent to read to her or lie down with her while she drifts off. At 5 a.m., after nine to ten hours of sleep, she will have a natural waking time (we all do this), and without your help she can’t go back to sleep. So, in the same way that babies who are rocked or nursed to sleep will wake up periodically throughout the night, older children will sleep longer and more deeply for a long stretch but still can have a sleep-association habit.
Sometimes toddlers who have shifted to a once-a-day nap become overtired if the nap spacing isn’t right for them. This can happen when the nap at childcare is after lunch, quite common for three- and four-year-olds but too late for many toddlers. A typical toddler will need a nap after five hours of awake time, and his bedtime should be about five hours after waking from his nap—that usually results in 11 to 12 hours of nighttime sleep and two to three hours of nap.
Some toddlers are picky eaters and can get in the habit of eating small meals and frequent snacks during the day. They are getting enough nutrition overall but not enough to last for a full 12 hours of sleep. They awaken early because they are hungry. If you are feeding or nursing your child at 5 a.m. and she seems hungry, then you will have to adjust her daytime intake to help her sleep later. The best way to do this is by not feeding her until 7 a.m. If she’s really hungry, try to distract her with diluted juice, which will postpone her desire to eat. Then, during the day, try to allow three hours between meals so that she is hungrier and eats more, because a child who “grazes” will often seem satisfied with tiny portions. Every meal should be dense in calories, meaning higher in protein and fat than in carbohydrates.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Even though obstructive sleep apnea isn’t common, in my experience it has been the cause of the most difficult-to-resolve early awakenings. Obstructive sleep apnea is usually caused by extra-large tonsils or adenoids (I say “extra-large” because most young children have large tonsils and adenoids compared to older children.)
The most common indicator of obstructive sleep apnea is that the child snores or snorts during sleep. Other signs might be that your child sleeps restlessly, moving about in bed without seeming to awaken or frequently sleeping in a “child’s pose.”
If you think that obstructive sleep apnea may be an issue, ask your pediatrician to refer you to a pediatric ENT (ear, nose, throat) specialist for an evaluation.
So What to Do?
If you are certain that your child is not hungry or overtired or having a physical reason for waking up early, then the cause is behavioral, meaning that you are accidentally reinforcing his wakeup by your response.
I’m not a fan of letting a toddler cry without any response at all, but having a boring and predictable response at planned intervals may be helpful. What that means is that, when your child wakes up at 5 a.m. and calls you, you go into his room and quietly say, “It’s not morning. Go back to sleep.” You repeat this at 5-, 10- and 15-minute intervals until the time is at least 11 hours since he fell asleep at bedtime. Then, go into his room, turn on the light, open the shades and announce, “It’s morning now, time to get up.” The idea is for your child, when he awakens in the dark, to go back to sleep and to learn that it has to be light before it is time to get up. Some families use one of the cute wakeup clocks that change color when it’s time to wake up. If you want to add this to your morning routine, just make sure that the light isn’t so bright that it illuminates the room before morning time.
This approach make take weeks, so don’t expect to get more sleep for yourself for a while! Don’t start this approach unless you can commit to continuing. If you are inconsistent in your response, you’ll have to start again, and it will take longer.
Early wakeups are a challenge. And, to add to the burden, in a few short years your problem will be the opposite. When the teen years begin, you’ll long for the days when you didn’t have to pry her out of bed!
Meg Zweiback is a Bay Area Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who counsels parents about children’s behavior and development. Her website, www.bringingupkids.com has more articles and information about children of different ages.