Managing Your Toddler's 5 a.m. Wakeup Call
By Deirdre Wilson

If your toddler fancies starting his day in the predawn hours – say 5 a.m. – you might think that putting him to bed later (perhaps at 9 or 10 p.m.) will solve that problem and give you more shut-eye.

Think again.

Pediatrican Ari Brown, M.D., co-author of Toddler 411 (Windsor Peak Press, 2006), says putting a tired toddler to bed later actually prompts him to wake up even earlier.

“The truth is that when you put them to bed after they’re already overtired, you’d think they would sleep like a rock. In actuality, they tend to have a more disrupted sleep,” Brown says. “They don’t get into a deep sleep and they end up waking earlier.”

It all revolves around a toddler’s natural circadian rhythm. Toddlers wake up earlier because they’re in bed earlier than the rest of us. They generally need 12 to 13 hours of sleep each day, including naptime, Brown says. “As they get older, bedtime pushes back a little bit and so does their rising time.”

Tinkering with that natural rhythm in a tired toddler only hinders the quality of his sleep and can make for a rough next day, she says.

Here’s what to do instead:

Try putting your toddler to bed a little earlier – before she hits that cranky, fatigued point of the evening. This will ensure a better night’s sleep. Brown recommends 7 p.m., but notes that some toddlers who are in daycare all day or don’t nap well are exhausted enough to hit the sack at 6:30 p.m.

Accept 6 a.m. as an OK time to start the day. It is for many toddlers, and you’ve only got this precious stage of life for a couple of years. Try to roll with it.

Condition your child to know when to start the day. If your toddler is waking up at 5 a.m., don’t run to his side and start playing with him. Wait 15 minutes, then go into his room to get him up. After a couple of days, wait 15 minutes longer, and so on, until you gradually push your response time back to, say, 6 a.m. Let your toddler know that he can play with toys or read books in his crib or bedroom until it’s time to start the day but that “the day doesn’t begin until you see Mom or Dad in your room at 6 a.m.”

With older toddlers, you might want to purchase a lamp with a timer. Set the lamp to come on at 6 a.m. and let your toddler know that until that light comes on, she needs to try to sleep.

Deirdre Wilson is senior editor at Dominion Parenting Media.