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Is Your Toddler Waking Up Too Early?

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Cara Dumaplin

RN, BSN, Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant

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Toddler laying awake in bed after waking up too early

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Early morning wakings can be so challenging. Maybe you’re wondering what to do when your toddler (2-4 years old) is waking too early, how to get your toddler to sleep until 7 am, or what to do if your toddler is waking up screaming in the morning. Let’s talk about toddler early morning wakings, including why they’re happening and how to help. 

If you have a little one under 2, check out my blog on early morning wakings for babies from birth to 2.

The truth is that there are so many factors that can contribute to early morning wakings. While I can give you a list of ways to prevent or resolve early morning wakings, sometimes we have to look at the whole picture in order to get long-term results. Want to skip the list and go straight to the more permanent solution to early morning wakings AND any other toddler sleep struggles? My class can help.

Toddler Sleep Training

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In my Toddler Sleep Training class, I’ll walk you through setting up your toddler for sleep success during the day, at bedtime, and at night. I’ll show you how to set clear expectations, establish loving boundaries, and give your toddler the skills that they need to conquer early morning wakings and so much more.

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What are early morning wakings?anchor

Toddler early morning wakings are wakings that occur between 4:00 and 6:00 am. Wakings before 4:00 am would be considered night wakings. And waking after 6:00 am is simply waking up for the day. 

I know we would all love for our little ones to wake up closer to 7:00- 8:00 am, but the natural wake up time for toddlers tends to fall between 6:00 and 7:00 am. Why? This is typically when their circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock) tells them it’s time to start the day. 

Why is my toddler waking up too early?anchor

Simply put: Your toddler’s sleep pressure is lower between 4:00 and 6:00 am.

Sleep pressure is what helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. In the early morning hours, sleep pressure is often at its lowest.

What does that mean?

Well, falling asleep is never easier than at bedtime because the conditions are almost perfect: it’s dark outside, the temperature is slightly cooler, your body is tired, your brain needs a break, and this is the time of day your body expects to go to sleep. Now, just the opposite is true during early morning hours: our bodies have had almost a full night of rest, the sun is beginning to rise, our melatonin drops, and we are in a lighter stage of sleep. Our bodies may need more sleep, but all of these factors are fighting for us to wake up.

While all of these factors do make sleep in the early morning hours more challenging, sleep pressure isn’t the only reason that a toddler can’t fall back to sleep in the early morning hours. How they spend their day, their sleep environment, changes in their routine, and so much more can impact those early mornings as well. Let me talk you through how to set your early mornings up for success.

What can I do about toddler early morning wakings?anchor

Here are my best tips for preventing or resolving early morning wakings for your toddler:

1. Block out light and noise in your toddler’s room.anchor

Light and noise stimulate the brain. So when light comes into the room or a sudden noise disrupts sleep during those early morning hours, it can be hard to get back to sleep.

How do you know if the room is dark enough?

Try the hand test!

Close the curtains and blinds in the room, turn off the lights, and close the door. You want the room to be just like you have it when your toddler sleeps. Give yourself a moment or two to let your eyes adjust. Next, put your hand in front of your face. Can you see your hand? If you can, your toddler’s room may not be dark enough, and this can absolutely contribute to your toddler waking early. Adding blackout blinds (Code Cara) can be so helpful. Just be sure any window coverings you add are secured and any cords are out of your toddler’s reach.

How do you prevent sudden noises from causing your toddler to wake? Use a sound machine at about shower volume in your toddler’s room. This can block out those sudden noises.

Expert Tip: If your toddler is using a night light, try to choose one that allows for you to dim light and choose the color. Be sure to use the dimmest possible setting and opt for a red color light (red lights are shown to be less disruptive to sleep).

2. Ensure your toddler is getting enough activity during the day.anchor

We all need active awake time to sleep well at night. I’m sure that you’ve seen this in your own sleep. If you have a busy day where you’ve exercised and gone to work or handled tasks around your house, you probably slept better that night compared to a day with minimal activity. Toddlers also need physical movement and the opportunity to use their brains for problem-solving throughout the day.

Want help filling your wake windows?
Get my free download filled with Daytime Tips for Better Nights and Naps.

It’s also important to be mindful of your toddler’s nap. As toddlers get older, their daytime sleep needs decrease. If your toddler doesn’t seem tired at bedtime, you may need to consider shortening a nap or transitioning to quiet time. This blog on Toddler Nap Schedules will help you find the recommended daytime sleep for your toddler.

3. Prevent overtiredness.anchor

Even though sleep needs do decrease some as your toddler grows, your little one still needs restorative sleep and age-appropriate wake windows. Toddlers who only take short naps, drop their nap before they’re ready, or have longer wake windows than they can handle often become overtired. And toddlers who are overtired at bedtime can often struggle with early morning wakings. If you’re seeing signs of overtiredness, check out this blog on Toddler Nap Schedules to help you set up an age-appropriate daytime routine for your toddler.

4. Aim for an age-appropriate bedtime.anchor

One of the most common sleep myths is that a later bedtime will lead to a little one sleeping in. But, for most toddlers, a later bedtime will actually cause an earlier wake up time. I know it doesn’t seem logical, but it’s biologically true.  

For most toddlers, the sweet spot bedtime is typically between 7:00 and 8:00 pm. Now, if bedtime is falling outside of that range and sleep is going well, you don’t need to worry about making a change. But, if your toddler is waking before 6:00 am, know that shifting bedtime even 20-30 minutes earlier can make a difference. 

5. Avoid troubleshooting during big transitions. anchor

When your toddler is going through a big life transition—think adding a new sibling, transitioning to a toddler bed, starting preschool, or potty training— they may wake a bit earlier in the morning.

Have you ever found it hard to get back to sleep in the early mornings when big things are happening in your life or you’re in a different place than you’re used to? Your toddler is experiencing something similar when making those big life transitions or trying to learn new skills. If you know your toddler is in the middle of one of these big transitions, we want to avoid the temptation to troubleshoot your toddler’s schedule or make other big changes. Instead, the best way to get sleep back on track is to stick with your familiar healthy sleep habits and consistent approach to sleep.

6. Implement a consistent approach to sleep.anchor

Having a plan for how you’ll respond when your toddler wakes up too early is vital. If you’ve introduced new habits that you don’t want to maintain, this can feel tricky. I can help. My Toddler Sleep Training class will walk you through a customizable, step-by-step plan to look at days, nights, toddler behavior, and so much more to resolve those toddler early morning wakings and see more restful sleep for your little one.

Toddler Early Mornings FAQanchor

In a 24-hour period, toddlers typically need between 10-14 hours of total sleep. Note that this does include naps. Our goal is for your toddler or preschooler to sleep 10-12 hours overnight. I have sample sleep schedules for 2, 3, and 4 year olds if you need more help.

The short answer: it depends. Some toddlers are fussy wakers. If your child calms down within a short time and seems content otherwise, this “fussy waking” could truly just be the way they wake up. Think about how you wake up: Do you need to drink a cup of coffee before starting your day? Or do you spring out of bed ready to take on the morning? You have a distinct “waking” personality and so does your toddler!

If this is a sudden or recent change, we want to first rule out any physical need or discomfort, like illness or teething. Here are some other reasons why you may see a toddler waking up screaming:

  • They’re going through a sleep regression.
  • Your toddler is experiencing a surge of separation anxiety
  • They’re finding their voice and testing their boundaries.
  • Your toddler is struggling with fears or nightmares.

When a toddler’s sleep is disrupted for these reasons, you’ll want to stay consistent with healthy sleep habits in a way that supports their development as a whole human: physically, emotionally, and mentally. My Toddler Sleep Training class will give you a holistic and step-by-step plan that does just that, giving you a clear path to restful nights and peaceful wake ups.

If you have any concerns about your toddler’s health or behavior, please be sure to talk with your pediatrician.

Toddler clocks are not a standalone solution for early morning wakings, but they can be helpful!

While toddler clocks don’t keep your toddler from waking early, an OK-to-wake clock can act as a visual tool to let your toddler know if it’s okay to get out of bed.

It’s possible for some toddlers, but keep in mind a biologically normal wake up time is any time after 6:00 am. Using the strategies in this blog can encourage your toddler to make it to at least 6:00 am and potentially later over time.

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