“Why, oh why is my toddler waking up so early?”
Ask any pediatrician and they’ll tell you, they hear this question A LOT.
It seems like a cruel trick of nature that just when you start to settle in to routinely sleeping all night (or maybe not yet!), your toddler starts waking up at all ungodly hours of the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of energy for a day of play.
There are a number of reasons why your toddler is waking up too early, but lucky for you, for each reason there is a solution.
What is Normal Toddler Sleep?
Before declaring that your toddler is waking up “too early,” we need to know what can be expected of a normal, healthy toddler’s sleep routine.
The average toddler needs 10 to 14 hours of sleep a day, spread out between nighttime sleep and one nap, beginning around 18 months.
As you continue reading to learn why your toddler is waking up too early, ask yourself this question: “How many hours of sleep is my toddler getting?”
10 to 14 hours may seem like a significant variation but remember that each child is unique, and their needs may vary based on age, genetics, developmental milestones, or just personality.
One child may thrive on 10 hours of sleep a day, while another falls apart if they don’t have 14 hours of rest.
My oldest child was, and still is, this way. He continued taking an afternoon nap until he was almost five years old, and if we had a long day of travel or running errands, by dinner time he would melt into tears at the slightest disappointment.
Now that he is in 1st Grade, we make sure he gets an early bedtime or we’re in for trouble the next day.
My middle child, however, slept 10 hours at night and maybe took an hour-long nap, which he dropped soon after his third birthday. He was happy as a lark with 10 to 11 hours of sleep, while his brother needed an extra two hours to be his best self.
How to Know Your Child is Getting Enough Sleep
Their mood, not the clock, is the best indicator that your child is getting enough sleep.
If your child is well-rested, they will be happy, energetic, and generally pleasant (aside from the usual toddler tantrums) to be around, even if they wake up early.
If, on the other hand, your child is cranky, emotional, and begins having meltdowns in the early afternoon or an hour before bedtime, then you need to find a way to increase the number of hours they are sleeping.
2 Common Reasons Why Your Toddler is Waking Up “Too Early”
Now that you know what is normal, there are two common reasons why your toddler is waking up “too early.”
1. Sleep Deprivation
Your toddler is waking up too early because they are sleep deprived.
Is your toddler getting from 10 to 14 hours of sleep each day?
Is your toddler taking an afternoon nap from one to three hours long?
And more importantly, what is your toddler’s mood throughout the day, especially in the early afternoon (when they should take a nap) or an hour or two before bedtime (when they’re reaching their daily limit)?
If lack of sleep is the source of their early wake-up time, you’re in luck: this is an easy fix which you’ll soon discover in the next section.
2. Your Toddler’s Biological Rhythm
If your child is well rested but wakes up at the crack of dawn, the reason is quite simple: your toddler’s biological rhythm.
That’s right, waking up early is healthy.
According to sleep expert Dr. Polly Moore, author of The Natural Baby Sleep Solution, any time between 5 AM and 9 AM can be considered a “normal” wake up time depending on your child’s own biological rhythms, so long as they are getting the required 10 to 14 hours of sleep and maintain a good mood throughout the day.
In this case, there are still a few steps you can take to get your child sleeping a little later, but you’ve got a bit of work ahead of you.
How to Deal with Toddlers Waking Up Too Early From a Lack of Sleep
Let’s start by knocking out the easy answer for the sleep-deprived child: get more sleep!
It may seem counter-intuitive but read any book on baby or child sleep and you’ll hear this mantra repeated ad infinitum: sleep begets sleep.
While you may be tempted to keep your child up late in hopes of sleeping in, instead of getting a few more winks you’ll end up with an even crankier child and a long, miserable day.
Instead, explore solutions that involve getting more sleep for your little one.
Around 18 months of age, your toddler should transition from two naps to one-afternoon nap that will typically last from one to three hours.
Sleeping is critical to your child’s brain development, so you should guard nap time at all costs.
Yeah, I get it: afternoon is the best time to make a Target run. You need your post-lunch caffeine to make it through the day. Or maybe your older child has a play date and you don’t want to deprive them of a chance to interact with other children.
But for the sake of your toddler and the sanity of the entire family, you need to block off the afternoon for a healthy nap.
If your child is not taking an afternoon nap, this is your step: re-instate nap time OR extend nap time.
Are you waking your child up from their nap in order to go out or in hopes that a shorter nap will convince them to sleep better at night?
Remember, sleep begets sleep.
In most situations, you should let your child sleep according to their own biological rhythms and avoid waking them up from naps.
Their bodies’ will self-regulate their sleep schedule according to their needs.
Perhaps they are fighting a virus, or going through a growth spurt, or maybe their brain needs a rest after an active morning of learning and playing.
Let your child nap for as long as their body requires and you’ll find that their nights will improve as well.
If your child is already taking a nap and waking on their own terms but is still sleep deprived, then try moving their bedtime earlier.
It could be that they’re staying up too late and feeling over-tired, leading to an early morning wake up.
The more well-rested your child is, the better they will sleep overall.
If you or your partner work long hours, it may be tempting to keep your child awake so you can have more family time, and I certainly understand this desire, but their little body needs sleep and your desire to spend time together is inhibiting their healthy development.
Making a sudden adjustment to your toddler’s bedtime will probably result in some protestation. They’re old enough now to realize what you’re up to.
But by moving the bedtime back by 15 minutes each evening, they won’t even notice and within a few days they’ll be going to bed without a fight a full hour earlier.
If your child is not taking regular naps at daycare, talk to your daycare provider about their nap time routines.
Routines are incredibly important for babies and children, so try to use the same routines at home that are used at daycare.
You may find that you need to adjust your routines at home, rather than the other way around, simply because a daycare worker has more children to care for and needs a short, simple routine.
It may help to give your baby something with your scent on it for nap times, along with a familiar “lovey” or a blanket that you have slept with or a clean t-shirt that you have worn around the house for a few hours.
The comforting scent of a parent has been used by generations of tired mothers to get their children to sleep.
How to Deal with Toddlers Who are Waking Up Early Because of their Biological Rhythm
What if your child is well-rested, but you just can’t function with their wake-up time?
You can do something about it, though it may take a few days or even weeks to see the results you are hoping for.
Working in 15-minute increments, keep your child awake just a little longer than usual for naps and night.
Your goal is for your child to get the same amount of sleep, but just shifted back a bit.
Once your toddler has started sleeping 15 minutes later, then adjust by another 15 minutes. Each shift may take a few days, so the length of the total process will depend on how much later you’re trying to get your child to sleep.
Some parents have had great success with an “OK to Wake” alarm clock.
These color-changing clocks can be personalized for your child and you can adjust the colors and the times for weekdays and weekends.
Our clock turns red about 30 minutes before wake-time (to remind them to stay in bed), and then green when it’s okay for them to get up, but you can set it to any color and time combination that works for your baby. We love ours and it has changed our lives as parents!
Even toddlers can learn to recognize the colors and wait patiently for the green light. Just be sure to not frustrate your child by making drastic changes overnight.
Stick with the 15-minute increments or you’ll have a very angry toddler tantrum in the morning (spoken from experience!).
While it’s healthy for your child to wake with the sunrise if you live in a latitude with an extremely early sunrise, you may also want to invest in blackout curtains.
It isn’t a good idea to mess with your toddler’s circadian rhythm, but if a 5 AM sunrise is preventing your family from getting healthy sleep, it is worth the financial investment.
2 Other Reasons Your Toddler May Wake Up Too Early
While sleep deprivation and circadian rhythms are the most common reasons why your child is waking up too early, there are few other causes to consider.
Could it be that your child is hungry at 5 AM?
Especially if your child has grown accustomed to nursing or taking a bottle or some other form of nourishment at the wee hours of the morning, their body may now trigger hunger cues out of habit rather than actual caloric needs.
There are two approaches to solve this: stop feeding your child, or “dream feed.”
Try comforting your toddler, rocking to sleep, or snuggling in bed before offering food or milk.
It may take a few days for them to adjust (and there may be plenty of tears as well) but once their body has made the adjustment to a later breakfast, they will probably sleep past the rooster-crow until the new breakfast time.
Or, if your toddler is still nursing or taking a bottle, you could try a “dream feed.”
When my oldest was a toddler he woke up at 5:45 AM nearly every day, without fail.
I was pregnant with our second child and my husband and I were both working full-time, so I just didn’t have the energy to deal with his morning tantrums.
Because he was still nursing, I ended up bringing him into my bed to nurse under the warm covers with me, and eventually, my husband and I earned an extra hour of sleep (along with the sweetest snuggles!).
Your child could simply be too cold and can’t get back to sleep.
Little children’s bodies have a more difficult time regulating their body temperature than adults’, so they may wake up cold and simply can’t fall back asleep.
Check their fingers and toes when they wake up and if they’re cold, add a layer of warmth or adjust the thermostat at night.
Sleep sacks are perfect for wiggly babies and toddlers because they can’t toss them off, nor can they get tangled up in them.
My boys have outgrown their sleep sacks, but now they prefer to sleep in sleeping bags rather than under blankets. It just makes more sense!
If you’ve tried all of these suggestions and your toddler is happy, well-rested, and still rising with the early bird, it could be that you need to adjust your idea of what “early” means.
Fix yourself a big pot of coffee and remind yourself that one day, they’ll be teenagers and then you’ll have to drag them out of bed!