What Should I Do If My Child Wakes Up Too Early?

You have a great bedtime routine and your little cherub sleeps well all night, but suddenly your child is waking up at 4am every day! What to do? Try some of the options below.

Improve Your Child’s Bedroom Environment

  • Does your child’s room get bright too early? Try blinds, blackout or dark curtains, or even pieces of cardboard cut to size and placed into the window frames. You can even block the light from the top of the window by laying a towel over the top of the drapery rod.
  • Are noises waking your child? Neighbors leaving for work really early? Construction sounds seeping in at the crack of dawn? Try white noise machines or other sound-blocking techniques (soft foam earplugs or thick curtains or rugs that absorb noise).
  • Does your child wake to use the bathroom? If so, you can try giving your child fewer liquids in the hour to two before bed. You can also try rewarding your child for going to the bathroom independently and then returning to bed (see more on this below in the Morning Reward Ticket section).
  • Does your child wake up hungry? Try either eating dinner later or giving your child a more substantial bedtime snack. You can also hold off on when you eat breakfast in the morning so that your child’s “tummy clock” goes off a bit later. As a last resort, you can also try leaving a simple snack (a bowl with some dry cereal, for example) and some water on the bedside table. Reward your child for snacking on this independently in the morning rather than waking you. However, it’s better not to associate your child’s room with eating, if you can avoid it.
  • Does your child wake up to use electronics? Keep these off limits until a certain time of the morning (well after your allowed rise time). See the “last resort DVD player exception” below.

Set an Allowed Rise Time

Decide what time you will allow your child to get up and try not to bring your child into your bed (or start the day) before this time. The most rewarding thing you can give your child during an early morning awakening is your presence, so try not to give much attention to your child in the wee hours. Use the strategies below to make this easier.

  • Try a Good Morning Light
    Lots of families enjoy using the Good Morning Light. With this technique, you can either purchase an “Ok to Wake”-type clock or put a small lamp in your child’s room plugged into a timer. The timer would be set to turn the lamp on when your child is allowed to come out of his or her room or into your bed in the morning. The lamp should be set far enough away from your child’s bed so that it will not wake her if he or she is still sleeping when the timer goes off.If your child wakes up before the lamp comes on, he or she would need to either stay in bed until it does come on and play with items in the Good Morning Basket (see below) or come to your room and go to a sleeping bag on the floor. Once the lamp comes on at your allowed rise time, your child can come and snuggle with you in your bed. (A clock or radio set to play soft music can also be used instead of a lamp).

    With this technique, your child still has the chance to spend some time cuddling with you in the morning but will not be rewarded for coming into your bed too early or be in your bed most of the night. This technique provides a clear signal about when being in your bed or coming out of her room is allowed. In addition, with this technique, your early morning sleep will not constantly be interrupted and your child will learn, over time, how to fall back to sleep independently during the night and in the early morning. This technique allows your child to make a decision about whether to stay in his or her bedroom until the lamp (or music) comes on, or whether to choose the sleeping bag in your room.

    Try setting the timer, at first, to the time when your child usually awakens (even if it’s earlier than you would wish currently) and then gradually move the time later and later until you find an acceptable rise time that works well for everyone.

  • Try a Good Morning Basket
    Some children can learn to stay in their room if they have something fun to do when they wake up. If your child can learn to delay coming out of his room to find you right away in the morning by learning to entertain himself, your child will often start to sleep in later over time. To help your child learn how to do this, try making a Good Morning Basket. This basket will contain books and toys and you can even put an inexpensive wrapped “mystery gift” in the basket (a pack of stickers, a craft item, a coupon for an extra book at bedtime, a picture of something your child can cook or bake with you later in the day, and so on).To try this technique, remind your child at bedtime that he or she will wake to find a Good Morning Basket next to the bed. Leave the basket near his or her bed when you go to sleep (after your child is deeply asleep at night). Tell your child that if he or she plays with the items in the basket until the Good Morning Light comes on without waking anyone else in the house, he or she will get another basket the next morning.

    It can help if you rehearse this with your child at bedtime her for a few nights, as follows. Hang a paper sign in your child’s doorway with a picture of the Good Morning Basket. Hang the sign low enough so that your child will brush against it if he or she tries to leave the room in the morning. Have your child get in bed and pretend to be asleep for a few seconds and then pretend to wake up, get out of bed, find the sign and go back into his or her room to pick up the basket and put it in the bed. The basket will be empty when your child rehearses, but full in the morning.

  • Try a Morning Reward Ticket
    Some children do not need a Good Morning Basket because they enjoy independent play in their room already, but they need a small reward to stay in their room until the wake up time you allow. If this sounds like your child, try a Morning Reward Ticket.Give your child a small ticket (for example, a 3×5 card that you and your child decorate together) and remind your child that he or she can trade the ticket for a small reward in the morning if he or she stays in his or her room until the Good Morning Light comes on.

    If your child comes out to find you before the Good Morning Light comes on, your child will have to give you the ticket and forfeit the reward. Examples of small rewards are listed in the Good Morning Basket section above and, as mentioned above, these rewards can also be given to your child if he or she returns to bed after going to the bathroom.

What if all of these suggestions fail…?

If none of these suggestions seem to work, as a last resort you can try allowing your child to watch a favorite video or movie on a small laptop DVD player that you leave in his or her room when you go to bed. This DVD player should not be connected to the internet. Your child can watch a video in bed until the Good Morning Light comes on each morning. Again, the main goal is to teach your child to delay coming to find you immediately upon awakening.

In conclusion, make sure that you interact as little as possible with your child until the allowed rise time and make sure that you consistently enforce the allowed rise time you have chosen. If you do not, early rise times will probably become the norm rather than the exception. Choose a time that works for you and your family and stick to it!

To learn more about Connecticut Children’s Sleep Center, please visit https://www.connecticutchildrens.org/search-specialties/sleep-center/.

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