Toddler wakes up too early. (Don't they all?)

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 24, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

We are having a rough time with our 2.5-year-old son in the morning. Almost every day, he gets out of his bed anywhere from 4 to 5 a.m. and starts playing with the shades, waking his 4-year-old brother (they share a room), coming into our room, and waking up me and my husband. We calmly but seriously put him back in bed with little or no talking, but he never goes back to sleep. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I know he's still tired because when we eventually take him downstairs around 5:30 or 6, he's an exhausted mess and throws tantrums about everything. On the rare day he sleeps through until 5:30 or 6 he's happy and starts the day without tantrums.

It also affects our 4-year-old, who would sleep until 6:30 if he could. Due to space limitations, the boys have to share a room.

Some background information: we have a stable and predictable schedule. He goes to bed at the same time every night and has a regular bedtime routine. He naps at the same time every day and always in his bed (not the car). He has been a difficult sleeper since he was born. We did the Ferber method when he was about 9 months old, but he has never gone more than a couple weeks without waking at night. We never turn it into a snuggle or play time. Before bed we've tried to give him simple rules: "No talking or getting out of bed before Mom and Dad come get you," and we have a night light that will turn green at 6 a.m., so we tell him to be quiet until the light is green. At night he always listens and agrees with us, then does the exact opposite in the morning. We can't punish him for this, and honestly, if he was completely rested I guess I could get used to getting up at 4:30, but he's overtired and we're frustrated and looking for some advice! Thank you!

From: Amy, Quincy

HI Amy,

It sounds like you're doing everything right so, as I suggested to someone else recently, sometimes it's the schedule that needs tweaking. Maybe he's ready to be done with the nap...which might mean he would sleep more during the night or later in the morning. Every kid is different and has different needs for sleep. (The typical 2 1/2-year-old needs a total of 11 5/8 hours sleep per 24, usually with one nap, according to Ferber's book, "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems: Revised Edition.")

Also, it sounds like he's in a bed, not a crib, and he's kind of young to have made that change. Going back to the crib is probably not possible -- or is it?

I hope readers can share strategies that have worked for them. He's too young for a pallet on the floor in your room. Honestly? Since he's been a poor sleeper from birth and since you're local, I would take advantage of the Children's Hospital Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders. Make an appointment, usually one consultation is all it takes. The best resources in the country are at your fingertips, what have you got to lose?

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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13 comments so far...
  1. It could very well be that either he is going to bed too early or doesn't need a nap anymore. Our older son napped until he was 4, but our younger son stopped napping around the age your younger son is now. Once we eliminated the nap, he started sleeping later in the morning. Also we put super dark curtains over shades on his windows since even the teeniest bit of daylight seemed to rouse him. In general, he seems to need less sleep than his brother so we've also adjusted his bedtime as he's gotten older. He stays up later than his brother did at the same age, but he sleeps soundly. Just some ideas...

    Posted by jean s January 24, 11 11:37 AM
  1. Would he go back to sleep with you? If yes, then if I were you, I would just make some room and let him curl up next to me and go back to sleep for two hours. At that hour of the morning sleep is too important for me to care about how and where it's accomplished, but we did co-sleeping when they were babies so that's more our style anyway. I found that this type of thing didn't usually last for long in our house and eventually, the kids would sleep all night in their own beds until a reasonable hour. If co-sleeping isn't an option for you, I hope someone else has some good answers because you must be exhausted!

    Posted by Jen January 24, 11 12:20 PM
  1. The so-called "Ferber method" is widely misunderstood and misapplied. It works for only a specific type of sleep problem. If your little one has always had trouble staying asleep, it really may be entirely different issues causing him to wake. I agree that a consult with the Center for Sleep Disorders is a good idea.

    In the meantime, consider this: perhaps the tired and tantrums, etc, come from the weird morning, not the early time -- in other words, after an hour or more of having to stay in his room and go through the issues of being put back to bed, etc, he is prone to tantrums. Maybe he is exhausted from that, not from the amount of sleep. Try cutting back his nap or making his bedtime a little later, and see what that does for him.

    Posted by jjlen January 24, 11 12:21 PM
  1. Two and a half is too young to move from a crib to a bed? Both of my children were climbing out of the crib around the time they turned 2. I had to make the switch for safety reasons. My four year old and my 2 and half year old shared a room and their sleep schedules were just different. It was always frustrating and we had to tweak their schedules depending on their needs. Luckily they have their own rooms now. What a relief!

    Posted by Tami January 24, 11 12:42 PM
  1. I took special notice of this question because my just-turned-2 year old was wide awake at 5am this morning (first time...) but luckily found her way back to sleep for another 2 hours.

    We've found that when our kids had sleep issues it was usually because they were overtired. Overtired kids, in our experience, don't stay asleep as well rested ones. The quickest and easiest way to fix this is to move the bed time forward. This may seem counterintuitive and lead you to believe that if you put him to bed an hour earlier he'll be up at 3am instead, but this has not been my experience.

    For reference, our just-turned-4 year old sleeps about 12 hours per night, with daytime naps of 1-2 hours about 3 days per week. Our 2 year old also sleeps 12 hours per night with 1-2 hour naps every day.

    As far as the crib issue, we're going to be looking to transition the 2 year old out of the crib, partly because she just learned how to climb out of it this week, and partly because her brand new baby brother is going to need that crib in about 6 months. Our 4 year old made the transition from crib to bed at about this age also.

    Posted by MITBeta January 24, 11 01:26 PM
  1. 2.5 isn't too young to be moved over to a toddler bed. I believe it is just recommended that the longer you can keep them in the crib the better but once it becomes a safety issue, then it is time to make the move. But back to subject. It simply could be time to wean the afternoon nap. Or if he takes a 2 hour nap cut back to 1 hour. Again, a later bedtime. They have their ways of telling you that it is time to change up the routine a little.

    Posted by jd January 24, 11 01:35 PM
  1. we had the same problem w/ my son. we moved his bedtime back from 7pm to 8pm and it worked. We also had to watch the length of his naps, too long and he was up before 5am again.

    good luck

    Posted by simpsonsfan January 24, 11 04:08 PM
  1. Try taking away the night light for a few nights. Complete darkness.
    We started using a night light in my 2.5 year old son's room and he was up all night and woke early. We took the night light away an he went back to going to sleep right away and stopped waking up early. It's worth a try!

    Posted by Happy monkey lou January 24, 11 06:42 PM
  1. I wish the LW told us what the boy's bedtime is. I'm in a similar situation but not as extreme. My 23 month old boy has a 7pm bedtime (asleep by 7:30) and is awake and chirping by 5:30. His 7yo sister in the same bedroom could sleep through a rock concert so I don't feel so bad, but I'd like an extra hour of sleep! He has one nap a day which all seems normal from what I'm reading. Thinking of moving his bedtime up like simpsonsfan, but there's a nice staggered schedule now with the two of them. maybe we'll move him up and try a simultaneous bedtime.

    Posted by bobster January 24, 11 09:28 PM
  1. We did the sleep clinic, charted sleep patterns, and found out that our little guy actually only needs/averages 7-8 hrs per night, not 11+. My friend's 5 year old daughter averages about 6 hrs. There is a *small* percent of the population who just plain don't need as much sleep. If your guy is one of them, he might just be annoyed, bored, and frustrated at hanging out for 2 hrs when he could be playing.

    My son's regular schedule is bedtime 8:30, up at 1:30am. I get him a snack, give him a hug, and go back to sleep. He plays for a while and then puts himself back to bed at 3:30, up for good around 7. Bizarre, but it works. Fighting it, did not work.

    See what the specialist says. We saw a pediatric neurologist who specializes in sleep disorders at Childrens. Good luck.

    Posted by Sara January 24, 11 11:28 PM
  1. Move his bedtime back, or eliminate the nap.

    Posted by C January 25, 11 08:22 AM
  1. Put a lock on your door. Bring the other child into your room. Put on a sound machine and go back to sleep. My son woke-up between 4:45-5:15 am for a year until his doctor told us to do this. The minute we locked him out of our room, he stopped walking up. Good luck

    Posted by Amanda January 25, 11 12:32 PM
  1. Agree with Jen. Just let me him go back to sleep with you for an hour or two. And also agree about the nightlight. My daughter sleeps much better in complete darkness. Some studies also show that sleeping without nightlights prevented mice from becoming obese. Wouldn't be surprised if they found next that those nightlights are also interfering with normal human biorhythms.

    Posted by momof2 January 25, 11 04:11 PM
 
13 comments so far...
  1. It could very well be that either he is going to bed too early or doesn't need a nap anymore. Our older son napped until he was 4, but our younger son stopped napping around the age your younger son is now. Once we eliminated the nap, he started sleeping later in the morning. Also we put super dark curtains over shades on his windows since even the teeniest bit of daylight seemed to rouse him. In general, he seems to need less sleep than his brother so we've also adjusted his bedtime as he's gotten older. He stays up later than his brother did at the same age, but he sleeps soundly. Just some ideas...

    Posted by jean s January 24, 11 11:37 AM
  1. Would he go back to sleep with you? If yes, then if I were you, I would just make some room and let him curl up next to me and go back to sleep for two hours. At that hour of the morning sleep is too important for me to care about how and where it's accomplished, but we did co-sleeping when they were babies so that's more our style anyway. I found that this type of thing didn't usually last for long in our house and eventually, the kids would sleep all night in their own beds until a reasonable hour. If co-sleeping isn't an option for you, I hope someone else has some good answers because you must be exhausted!

    Posted by Jen January 24, 11 12:20 PM
  1. The so-called "Ferber method" is widely misunderstood and misapplied. It works for only a specific type of sleep problem. If your little one has always had trouble staying asleep, it really may be entirely different issues causing him to wake. I agree that a consult with the Center for Sleep Disorders is a good idea.

    In the meantime, consider this: perhaps the tired and tantrums, etc, come from the weird morning, not the early time -- in other words, after an hour or more of having to stay in his room and go through the issues of being put back to bed, etc, he is prone to tantrums. Maybe he is exhausted from that, not from the amount of sleep. Try cutting back his nap or making his bedtime a little later, and see what that does for him.

    Posted by jjlen January 24, 11 12:21 PM
  1. Two and a half is too young to move from a crib to a bed? Both of my children were climbing out of the crib around the time they turned 2. I had to make the switch for safety reasons. My four year old and my 2 and half year old shared a room and their sleep schedules were just different. It was always frustrating and we had to tweak their schedules depending on their needs. Luckily they have their own rooms now. What a relief!

    Posted by Tami January 24, 11 12:42 PM
  1. I took special notice of this question because my just-turned-2 year old was wide awake at 5am this morning (first time...) but luckily found her way back to sleep for another 2 hours.

    We've found that when our kids had sleep issues it was usually because they were overtired. Overtired kids, in our experience, don't stay asleep as well rested ones. The quickest and easiest way to fix this is to move the bed time forward. This may seem counterintuitive and lead you to believe that if you put him to bed an hour earlier he'll be up at 3am instead, but this has not been my experience.

    For reference, our just-turned-4 year old sleeps about 12 hours per night, with daytime naps of 1-2 hours about 3 days per week. Our 2 year old also sleeps 12 hours per night with 1-2 hour naps every day.

    As far as the crib issue, we're going to be looking to transition the 2 year old out of the crib, partly because she just learned how to climb out of it this week, and partly because her brand new baby brother is going to need that crib in about 6 months. Our 4 year old made the transition from crib to bed at about this age also.

    Posted by MITBeta January 24, 11 01:26 PM
  1. 2.5 isn't too young to be moved over to a toddler bed. I believe it is just recommended that the longer you can keep them in the crib the better but once it becomes a safety issue, then it is time to make the move. But back to subject. It simply could be time to wean the afternoon nap. Or if he takes a 2 hour nap cut back to 1 hour. Again, a later bedtime. They have their ways of telling you that it is time to change up the routine a little.

    Posted by jd January 24, 11 01:35 PM
  1. we had the same problem w/ my son. we moved his bedtime back from 7pm to 8pm and it worked. We also had to watch the length of his naps, too long and he was up before 5am again.

    good luck

    Posted by simpsonsfan January 24, 11 04:08 PM
  1. Try taking away the night light for a few nights. Complete darkness.
    We started using a night light in my 2.5 year old son's room and he was up all night and woke early. We took the night light away an he went back to going to sleep right away and stopped waking up early. It's worth a try!

    Posted by Happy monkey lou January 24, 11 06:42 PM
  1. I wish the LW told us what the boy's bedtime is. I'm in a similar situation but not as extreme. My 23 month old boy has a 7pm bedtime (asleep by 7:30) and is awake and chirping by 5:30. His 7yo sister in the same bedroom could sleep through a rock concert so I don't feel so bad, but I'd like an extra hour of sleep! He has one nap a day which all seems normal from what I'm reading. Thinking of moving his bedtime up like simpsonsfan, but there's a nice staggered schedule now with the two of them. maybe we'll move him up and try a simultaneous bedtime.

    Posted by bobster January 24, 11 09:28 PM
  1. We did the sleep clinic, charted sleep patterns, and found out that our little guy actually only needs/averages 7-8 hrs per night, not 11+. My friend's 5 year old daughter averages about 6 hrs. There is a *small* percent of the population who just plain don't need as much sleep. If your guy is one of them, he might just be annoyed, bored, and frustrated at hanging out for 2 hrs when he could be playing.

    My son's regular schedule is bedtime 8:30, up at 1:30am. I get him a snack, give him a hug, and go back to sleep. He plays for a while and then puts himself back to bed at 3:30, up for good around 7. Bizarre, but it works. Fighting it, did not work.

    See what the specialist says. We saw a pediatric neurologist who specializes in sleep disorders at Childrens. Good luck.

    Posted by Sara January 24, 11 11:28 PM
  1. Move his bedtime back, or eliminate the nap.

    Posted by C January 25, 11 08:22 AM
  1. Put a lock on your door. Bring the other child into your room. Put on a sound machine and go back to sleep. My son woke-up between 4:45-5:15 am for a year until his doctor told us to do this. The minute we locked him out of our room, he stopped walking up. Good luck

    Posted by Amanda January 25, 11 12:32 PM
  1. Agree with Jen. Just let me him go back to sleep with you for an hour or two. And also agree about the nightlight. My daughter sleeps much better in complete darkness. Some studies also show that sleeping without nightlights prevented mice from becoming obese. Wouldn't be surprised if they found next that those nightlights are also interfering with normal human biorhythms.

    Posted by momof2 January 25, 11 04:11 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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