5 am wakings. They have to be the worst part of parenting a toddler, right? I remember the pain of my toddler waking up too early like it was yesterday.
My daughter was 2 years old and suddenly started waking at 5 am, ready to start the day. Like any exhausted parent desperate for 20 more minutes of sleep, I took her into the living room and turned on cartoons. [Warning- NEVER do this!]
You can imagine what happened next… Every single day after that, she woke at 5 am yelling “Buddies!” (Her word for cartoons. Super cute, but not at 5 am.)
I quickly realized that my early waking 2 year old had developed a habit that wasn’t going to stop on its own. I needed a strategy to get her sleeping later ASAP.
Admittedly, I am a “morning person.” But more like a “7 am morning person.” No amount of coffee can make waking at 5 am feel good. Given the volume of emails I get with the subject “Help! My toddler’s waking up too early!” I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that feels this way.
I bet you’ve tried it all- moving bedtime later, then earlier- but still you have a toddler waking at 5 am calling for you.
Maybe it started after the clocks changed or a vacation. And like me, you fell into the habit of starting your day way too early. Now you realize it’s a dreadful habit that needs to be stopped, but you have no idea how to do it!
Well, I’m happy to report that my toddler’s early risings were stopped just by changing around her sleep routine. In less than a week, she was sleeping until 7 am! Later mornings = happy mama.
These tips haven’t just helped my daughter. I’ve been sharing them with exhausted parents for several years and they work! You can stop your toddler waking early when you do the following 8 steps.
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RELATED: Sleep Training Methods Explained
How To Stop Your Toddler Waking Early
- Give your toddler an appropriate bedtime
- Have active days & peaceful evenings
- Offer a bedtime snack
- Create a sleep-friendly environment
- Get your toddler sleeping through the night
- No fun before 6 am
- Limit nap time
- Rule out a sleep regression
I’m Making a Toddler Sleep Program! I’d love your advice. Click Here.
Step 1: Give your toddler an appropriate bedtime
Sometimes the simple act of tweaking your toddler’s bedtime immediately results in later mornings. In fact, research shows that a consistent and age-appropriate bedtime leads to longer sleep, less aggression and better attention span in children. (Wow! Just from the right bedtime?!)
Toddler’s body clocks are naturally programmed for bedtime between 6:30-8 pm. When you work with your toddler’s body clock, and give her a bedtime that naturally suits her body clock, she’ll sleep better overnight. This typically means she’ll wake less often at night and sleep later in the morning.
This may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve seen it work with hundreds of children! If you’re struggling with a toddler waking up early everyday, move bedtime earlier. Maybe 7 pm works better than 7:30 pm for her.
Once you find your toddler’s bedtime “sweet spot” she’ll naturally sleep better at night. Try to keep bedtime within a 15 minute range every night. For example, your toddler is always asleep between 7-7:15 pm everyday.
Toddlers can be expected to sleep 11-12 hours at night. So finding the ideal bedtime is a delicate balance. If your little one’s bedtime is 6 pm, you can bet she’ll be awake by 6 am… latest.
So if your toddler’s bedtime is 7 pm, she can be expected to sleep until 6-7 am. A dream for parents struggling with 5 am wakings!
Step 2: Have active days & peaceful evenings
Toddlers need to run around outside, play and burn off energy during the day in order to sleep well at night.
Make a point of taking your toddler outside in the morning and afternoon, ideally one hour each. Time spent running in the yard, climbing at the playground or walking the neighborhood helps your little one burn off enough energy to be able to settle easily and sleep well.
On rainy or cold days, just 15 minutes outside twice a day can be enough. Resist the urge to clock up on screen time on bad weather days. Not only does this prevent our toddlers from having physical activity, it can actually overstimulate and wire them. This makes it especially hard to relax the body and brain.
In addition to active days, toddlers need peaceful downtime in the early evening to prepare them for sleep.
You want to “set the scene for relaxation” 1-2 hours before bedtime. Dim the lights and turn off the TV or any electronic gadgets. Try to reduce any noise or stimulation that could excite your toddler. This sends the signal to your toddler’s brain and body that it’s ok to relax, a necessary precursor to sleep.
Overstimulation or too much excitement before bed is something you want to avoid! Otherwise your toddler may be too energized to fall asleep, push bedtime later and continue the early waking cycle.
Indoor Activities for Your Toddler
Step 3: Offer a bedtime snack
Sometimes your toddler’s early wakings are due to hunger. For example, if your little one sleeps 11 hours at night and dinner is 2 hours before bedtime, that’s 13 hours without food. That may be too long for him.
To rule out the possibility that your toddler is hungry at 5 am, offer a light snack at bedtime. A few whole grain crackers or string cheese may be enough to hold him over until morning.
[Important] In addition to a snack at bedtime, you need to make sure your toddler eats enough during the day. This prevents nighttime hunger. Offer your toddler a meal or snack every 2-3 hours during the day.
Step 4: Create a sleep-friendly environment
This is one of the first tips I give parents. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten with the subject “He slept until 7 am!” after only one night with a few tweaks to their toddler’s bedroom.
My Exhausted Mom’s Starter Kit shows you exactly how to set up your toddler’s sleep environment so they fall asleep easier and sleep better at night. It’s got ALL the info you need, and the best part is – you can start all the tips TONIGHT!
Step 5: Get your toddler sleeping through the night
Overtired children sleep worse than well-rested children. (Another crazy and counterintuitive aspect of toddler sleep.)
If your toddler is waking during the night and not getting the long, restful sleep that she needs, she’ll become overtired. But rather than snoozing until 8 am, overtiredness makes kids wake early in the morning.
When toddlers don’t get enough sleep or have broken sleep, their systems become overstimulated. This makes them sleep lightly and wake often.
Your toddler will sleep deeper and longer once she’s sleeping through the night.
One- and two-year olds can be expected to sleep 11-12 hours straight at night. Unless your toddler has weight gain issues, she shouldn’t need night feeds.
My sleep training program shows you how to set your toddler up to sleep great at night. I offer various gentle sleep training methods for parents to choose from. Your toddler is definitely old enough to sleep train! If you’re ready to make the change, we’ll be waiting for you in my program.
Step 6: No fun before 6 am
Let me just say, there is zero judgment from me if you pull your little one into your bed or play cartoons at 5 am. (Remember? I’ve been there…) I know how it feels to be desperate for just 30 minutes more sleep.
But here’s the thing. Toddlers can’t tell time. So if your toddler gets used to nursing, coming into your bed or screen time during early wakings, he will continue waking early. In fact, most little ones start waking at 4 am. Then 3 am. Then midnight, and crying until parents give in out of desperation.
As you may have guessed, the way to fix this is to treat a 5 am waking the same way you treat a midnight waking. You wouldn’t take your toddler out of the crib, make a coffee and start your day, right? So don’t do this at 5 am either.
It can be difficult the first few nights of making new changes, but it’s imperative you treat ALL wakings before 6 am as night wakings.
- If your little one doesn’t get fed during the night, don’t start feeding at 5 am. (Especially if he never falls back asleep after this feed.)
- If your toddler falls asleep on his own during other parts of the night, don’t start helping him back to sleep at 5 am.
- If you don’t play cartoons at 2 am, then don’t play them at 5 am either.
Children need consistency. It’s the only way they learn and adapt to new sleep routines. When your toddler understands that every night waking results in the same outcome (he stays in bed and falls back asleep) then he’ll adapt and comply!
So remember, zero fun before 6 am.
Step 7: Limit nap time
Most 1 year olds can nap 2-3 hours during the day and still sleep well at night. However, once your toddler turns 2, sleep needs begin to change.
Specifically, naps may begin interfering with night sleep if they’re too long.
I recommend you adjust naps only after doing all the above steps. It’s the final tweak we make to stop your 2 year old waking up too early. And it only works when your toddler falls asleep on his own at an age-appropriate bedtime, and sleeps all night in a blacked out bedroom with white noise.
Does this describe your toddler’s sleep? If so, follow these nap-limiting guidelines:
Limit your toddler’s nap to
• 2 years old: 2 hrs
• 2.5 years old: 1.5 hrs
• 3 years old: 1 hr
Step 8: Rule out a sleep regression
If your toddler’s waking up early all of a sudden, with no change in her sleep schedule, it could be a regression. This is especially true if she’s also fighting bedtime, waking suddenly at night or resisting naps.
Sleep regressions are sudden disruptions in sleep for a child who was sleeping well. These disruptions come at predictable times because they are associated with developmental milestones.
There can be sleep regressions around 18 months and when your toddler turns 2. So if your toddler’s suddenly waking up early, consider a sleep regression.
These two videos explain sleep regressions in more detail, how to recognize the signs and give tips on what you can do.
RELATED: Is your toddler fighting nap time? Find out when toddlers can stop napping here.
Starting your day at 5 am with a tired toddler is exhausting for everyone. Rest assured, you can get your toddler waking later every morning by making a few changes to their sleep routine.
Make sure your toddler is not hungry or overtired. Move toward an age-appropriate and consistent bedtime. Make sure the bedroom is sleep-friendly. (My Exhausted Mom’s Starter Kit walks you through this!) Eliminate night wakings. And as a final step, trim down naps if needed.
These 8 steps work together to help your child sleep deeper and longer. Once you’ve implemented these changes, your toddler will sleep through the dreaded early hours. And you’ll both wake at a more acceptable hour. Every parent’s dream!