The Early Bird Stays in His Room :: a few thoughts on early risers

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Image: Amazon.com

You spend the first three six twelve months of your baby’s life looking forward to the promise of a full night’s sleep. When that {fairly} consistent sleeping-through-the-night finally happens, you feel like you can accomplish anything. Watch out, world. This mama got more than six straight hours of sleep last night. 

And then it happens. Maybe it coincides with the move to a big-kid bed or perhaps it’s in response to a the addition of a new sibling. Sometimes it happens when our long summer days begin with chirping birds and sunlight during the hour that starts with a four. Whatever the reason, it usually sneaks up on you. Your baby who used to sleep until 7:00AM starts rising at 6:00AM. Then it’s 5:30. Then 5:15. Most of us cry uncle when the little stinker starts appearing bedside or hollering for mama at 4:45AM.

4:45AM is NOT MORNING, people. 

Even for those of us who are pretty regimented and structured about sleep (who, me?), this can throw you for a loop. After all, two-year-olds can’t tell time. You can’t very well tell them to stay in bed until it’s light outside, because in the summer that happens pre-5am. They can’t understand why sometimes they get sent back to bed and sometimes it’s okay to get up, and it’s hard (for me, at least) to enforce a limit that is totally incomprehensible to the child. I have used certain techniques to help my kids self-soothe when they were having multiple night-wakings as babies, but those tactics didn’t seem to fit with the early-rising-toddlers problem.

Image: Amazon.com

Here’s the part where I tell you a nifty little gadget that costs around forty bucks can help you get your mornings back on track. Note: this is not a product review – just some good old fashioned mom-to-mom info-sharing. We have used both the Good Nite Lite and the Teach Me Time clock, and there are several similar products out there. The specifics vary, but basically these gizmos help your child know when it’s okay to get up in the morning by lighting up or changing color. While I’m normally a gadget minimalist and kind of suspicious of these types of products, I believe that in this case they serve an important purpose in bridging the gap between what mommy expects and what baby is capable of understanding.

Here are some thoughts and recommendations on implementing a stay-in-bed clock or nightlight. I am not a sleep expert, and the tips I’m going to give you are simply one mom’s opinion, but I do have two naturally early risers and this is what I’d tell you if we were chatting on the bench at the playground. 🙂 I believe this can work for toddlers in cribs or big kid beds, and I think it can work as early as about 18 months (though most of the early risers I hear about are around two).

Be realistic about your expectations. Sure, it would be nice if all toddlers slept until 8:30am, but most do not. Think about what time your child should ideally wake up – not by your definition of ideal, but by her own sleep needs and waking patterns. My kids both have internal clocks that have them up and happy around 6:00am. For us, that’s not too early – for other families it is.

Set the stage for success. Make sure bedtimes and naps support your desired wake-up time and that you’ve done everything you can to support sleeping until that time (quiet room, shades to keep out the sun, etc.). If your toddler is going to bed at 7:00pm one night at 10:00pm the next night, it’s not really fair to expect her wake-up times to be consistent either.

Make a BIG deal about the nightlight/clock. Treat it like a special gift just for your child. Show him how it works, let him help set it up, and explain how it is going to change his morning routine. It’s not punitive; it’s there to help him understand when it’s time to begin the day. Make it fun.

Set clear expectations. Even young toddlers can understand simple cause and effect scenarios: “When the sun lights up, you can get out of bed. If you wake up and the moon is still on, you need to go back to sleep or lie quietly in your bed until morning.” With older toddlers you may help them think of things they can do if they wake up early – look at a book, sing quietly, etc. – but I’ve always worried that this will lead to middle-of-the-night reading and playing sessions. 🙂 Tell the child exactly what will happen if they get up before it’s time: “If you come out of your room before the sun is up mommy will bring you back to bed until it’s time to wake up.”

Cheat in the beginning. I think it helps to experience success the first few days, so we didn’t set our nightlight to our ultimately desired time right away. We set it for about 10 or 15 minutes later than our daughter had been waking up (around 5:15am). This way she got to experience “waiting for Mr. Sun to light up” and we got to celebrate with her when she stayed in her room, but she wasn’t in there miserable for an hour. We gradually moved the time back toward 6:00am once the expectations were clearly set all around.

Be consistent. Hmmm, have you heard that tip with regard to parenting before? It should go without saying that once you’ve gone through all this set-up, you’d better deliver on your promise to enforce the new rules. This is why I highly recommend cheating (see above) in the beginning so that everyone involved can have a few successful mornings right up front. How you choose to respond to the inevitable testing of the limits is going to be a function of your unique child, your parenting philosophies, and how you’ve handled other sleep issues. I know parents who have created a physical barrier (locking the child’s door or putting up a gate) and others who have stationed themselves outside the door to put the escapee back in bed. With a crib-bound toddler you don’t have to worry about escaping, but you will need to think about how you handle the tears. Everyone is different, but I have always been okay with some crying as long as my kids are capable of understanding what the expectations of them are, and reassured periodically that I am nearby. No matter how you respond, it helps to be aligned with your spouse and have a plan going into the early morning. Stick with the plan. 🙂

A gadget does not replace parenting. Obviously, you can’t just plug in the night light and expect it to do the trick on its own. It does help you communicate to your barely-verbal toddler the difficult concept of “time.” My 3.5-year-old now has the Teach Me Time clock in her room, and my 16-month-old has the Good Nite Lite in his. Both products have helped us set wake-up limits that I believe support their sleep needs and start our family’s morning routine off on the right foot.

Just like everything else we moms discuss, this approach may or may not be right for you and may or may not work for your kids, but it has worked for us – and I like to share what works. 🙂

Do you have early risers? Have you tried these types of products? Discuss!

15 COMMENTS

    • Yes, my kids have never needed the “alarm” features but some of them do have that. On the 1% of days where they may actually “sleep in” past 6am, I do NOT want some device waking them up! Haha… 🙂

  1. This is a great idea! We are starting to have this problem, since we introduced the big boy bed. We will try one of these clocks along with discussion about how it works! Thanks!

  2. We have an early riser in our house, who wakes up at 5. 🙁 We’ve tried a clock like you described, but our problem has been enforcing the rule to stay in bed until the proper time. The reason this has been so difficult, is that our early riser shares a room with his older sister, 5 (who loves to sleep til 8 or later), and his baby sister, 1. When we enforce the stay in bed rule, he cries and fusses, and ends up waking his sisters. How can I enforce that he stays in bed, without him waking everyone else? Help, please? 🙂

    • Oh, Christina, that’s a tough one … here’s where my “I’m not a sleep expert” comes in. You have probably already tried all the ideas I can think of, but does he have some things he can do in his bed when he wakes up early? Special books or quiet play? Is he genuinely rested and happy when he wakes up at 5? Maybe another quiet place in the house where he can go and read quietly until wake-up time? Down the road when I add a third kid I’ll likely have room-sharers and be coming to YOU for advice… Sorry I couldn’t be of more help 🙁

      • The idea of quiet play is a good one; I haven’t really tried that yet. He IS happy and somehow rested at 5! Mommy, however, it not. 🙁 Maybe I can think of something quiet for him to do. I’m trying to have some quiet time for myself at 5, to prepare for the day, and when he gets up, his needs get up too (“Mommy, me want some milk. Mommy, me watch a movie. Mommy…”) and my quiet time is quickly over. I’ll try the quiet play thing, and let you know if anything works! 🙂

  3. This is great Sarah! I really like the “cheating” part too. I am usually a Cold-turkey kinda gal but this seems like a better way to start off! My son wakes at 6:30-6:45 every day of the week. That is perfect for us to get him up and out the door in time for work but any earlier and our whole day would be thrown off. Thanks for tips!

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