Every week in clinic families ask me about strategies to help with children who awake before the sun is up. We all thrive with improved, uninterupted, prolonged periods of sleep at night. Particularly on those Saturdays where an extra hour or two of sleep can be life-sustaining for exhausted parents to toddlers and preschoolers. Because of our boys’ early schedules, late last year Santa conveniently dropped off an incredible tool: a toddler teaching clock. The clock has helped our 3 year old know when 7 o’clock rolls around. And we’ve made a deal with boys for 2012: no leaving their bedroom until 7 appears on the screen. And so far, it’s working–we’re batting about .900. Learning to play quietly on their own in the early morning has been a great benefit, too.

Toddlers and preschoolers between 1 and 3 years of age need about 11 to 13 hours of total sleep within 24 hours (night time and nap combined). Sometimes no matter what time bedtime starts, early morning awakenings continue to happen. As many parents learn, moving bedtime later doesn’t always shift the time a child awakens in the morning. But with time, shifts in schedules sometimes improve that Saturday morning sleep…

Dr. Craig Canapari, a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep expert in Boston helps explain some reasons for these uber-early wake-ups and what we can do about it:

Why does my toddler get up so early in the morning?

This is a common, and challenging issue. When assessing these issues, I always see if the parents have realistic expectations. Most little children are morning people, which is a real challenge if you are a night owl like me. To expect your child to sleep past 6:30 AM is usually unrealistic. Some children naturally wake up between 5:30-6:30 AM. I have a couple of suggestions to help relieve this reality:

  • Minimize ambient light. Those black out shades are expensive but they may be worth it. Most kids are really light sensitive.
  • Adjust the sleep schedule. Children 1-3 years old will sleep between 11-13 hours a day, with 9.5-10.5 hours at night. If your child is going to bed before 7-7:30 PM I would move the bedtime a bit later, although it may take a week or two for this strategy to bear fruit.
  • Wake up clock: This may work with older toddlers or preschoolers. Set up a timer with a light that indicates an acceptable time for them to expect you.
  • Check sleep associations: If your child wakes up quite early then seems tired and irritable in the morning, they may have a sleep association as noted above. This is most common in a child who is brought into the parents’ bed at 4-5 AM. Pretty soon, they start to wake up looking for this. We went though a month with my son at six months of age where I was laying on the floor with him with a pillow and blanket every day at 4:30 AM (pathetic, I know). It didn’t get better until we started just getting up with him at that time.

Sleep problems are common in this age group, with 30% of parents reporting issues. If you are consistent many of the issues will resolve with time. If you are having difficulties, definitely see your pediatrician who can help you out.