Sleep Learning: Taking a gentle approach to our toddlers early morning wake ups

Let me start off by saying that this post probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know and unfortunately I don’t have any quick fixes. What you will find instead are some of the steps we take to survive our early riser and ensure we all get enough sleep.

Althea has always, ALWAYS woken up early. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times she has slept past 6.30am and most of those would probably be resulting from jetlag. We went through a painful stage of her waking like clockwork at 4.22am (seriously, like clockwork!) when she was 15/16 months. We managed to eventually get her to 5.30am – 6am. Then we hit the ‘18 month sleep regression’ and she went from a child that has never ever had wakeful periods in the middle of the night to one that could be awake, tossing and turning for upto 3hrs and then still be up before the dawn chorus. I feel like we have finally made it through the regression, which I’d say lasted about a month but in all honesty, it is a bit of a blur with many confounding variables thrown in – like some dependent sleep associations that developed whilst we were away on holiday – but that’s for another post. For now however, this is how we’re surviving days that start around 5.30am

We accept that she is an early riser and we all go to bed earlier

Half the battle is won when we adjust our expectations and accept the reality of childhood sleep. Some children are just really early risers. We have found that whatever time we put Althea to bed she still wakes around the same time. So rather than adjusting her morning wake up time (which it seems we cannot) we adjust nap times and bedtimes so that she gets the sleep she needs. This varies for every child and the guidelines are just that, guidelines. You need to take some time to observe and record your childs sleep in order to gain insight into what might be their optimum amount in a 24 hour period. For Althea, this seems to be 11hrs for night sleep and 1.5 – 2 hrs for naps. Anything less than this and she usually wakes up upset rather than with a ‘mornin’ and a request to get out of her cot. We also go to bed earlier between 9 and 10pm so we can get a good 7 – 8 hours. If Althea is going through a period of waking a lot in the night, this might look more like 8.30 for me.

We’re no longer afraid to put her to bed earlier

I really had to work up to this, because logic tells you that if you go to sleep earlier, you wake up earlier, but this really isn’t the case (most of the time). Althea’s bedtime falls between 6 and 7pm in order for her to get the amount of sleep she needs. With 5.30am being her consistent wake up time we count back 11 hours making 6.30pm about the right time for her. When I refer to bedtime I mean in bed and settling to sleep with bedtime routine starting half an hour before so this can be as early as 5.30pm.

We keep her afternoon (after nap) wake time as consistent as possible

Being overtired can actually make sleep worse and this is definitely something we have experienced first hand with Althea. If she is awake too long between her afternoon nap and bedtime (the time she falls asleep) then we tend to experience more night wakings and an earlier than early wake up. We try to keep this wake time between 4 and 5 hours as recommended and it seems to work very well. This means that ideally she doesn’t nap past 3pm so that she can make the 7pm bedtime and get her full night sleep. You can see how this all starts to weave together and is all very dependent on the individual child.

We have a short and consistent bedtime routine

I will talk about our bedtime routine in more detail in a separate post but we keep it to under 30 minutes and follow the same pattern every evening. I am sure we will face bedtime battles when she is a little older but during this particularly sensitive period for order she really enjoys her predictable bedtime rhythm.

We treat any wake up before 4am as night wake up

If she wakes and cries out before 4am we go in and reassure her then leave again so that she can settle herself back down. However if she wakes after 4am it is less likely that she’ll get back to sleep on her own. Between 4 and 5am is when the lightest sleep occurs and explains why a lot of children wake at this time. By this point she has also usually been in bed for roughly 10hrs, which isn’t quite enough for her but it means that a lot of that ‘sleep pressure’ they experience earlier in the night has been relieved. A lot of sleep training experts recommend ‘crib hour’ but I feel this isn’t the right option for Althea. Leaving her to get worked up does not get her back to sleep. So if she wakes between 4 and 5am I go and tuck her back in and lie on the bed next to her cot, often after 10 minutes or so she’ll fall back to sleep for one more sleep cycle but if not she is atleast calm and restful.

We don’t get up or have breakfast until after 6am (even if she’s up at 4.30am)

6am is our ideal wake up time. This is when Daddy gets up for work and therefore inevitably wakes Althea up if she is still asleep. We try and keep the lights off or low and stay upstairs in her room until 6am. We make sure breakfast happens after this time so as not to encourage these early wakings.

When she does wake up at 4.30am we adjust our schedule 

These are not the mornings to take a long outing. Instead we find a cafe that opens early and visit the park and make sure we are home by 10am or we stay home and play in the garden/playroom or if things are really bad (33 weeks pregnant over here) we watch a film. We split lunch up, eating a small meal either side of a slightly earlier nap around 11am. If she only manages a very short nap and is up by midday then it’s bath at 5.30pm and in bed and well on her way to sleep by 6pm. Usually she will make up for the early start and lost hours and wake a little later the next day.

What have you found works well with your early riser?

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