My son will be three this summer. He used to sleep pretty consistently from around 8 p.m. to 7 a.m., but in the last few months he’s decided that he wants to wake at 4 a.m. It’s getting progressively worse—he’s gone from 1 or 2 early mornings per week to waking early most mornings. He still nurses during the day, and although he night-weaned months ago, I’m resorting to nursing him at 4 a.m. because nothing else works. I’m expecting another baby soon and I can’t take the thought of waking at 4 a.m. when I have a newborn to care for. Help!
Four a.m. Yeowch. Starting the day before dawn makes for cranky parents and an overtired toddler—never a great way to wake up. I can help. And here’s some good news: Based on what you’ve told me, I think this is a temporary phase. If your son used to sleep later in the morning, he’s probably not a habitual early riser. With some tweaks to his routine, he’ll probably start to snooze later, fairly quickly.
To solve this problem, we need to break down the contributing factors and work through each one. In this case, they’re 1) his own biology, 2) his sleep routine, 3) your behavior, and 4) his environment.
First, examine his sleep routine. Is overtiredness contributing to his early waking? Overtired children build up an overbalance of adrenaline in their system that makes it more difficult to reach and maintain deep sleep. When these overtired children hit the naturally-occurring period of lighter sleep between 4 and 6 a.m., they often wake up and stay awake. To combat overtiredness, move his bedtime earlier by 30 to 60 minutes at night. It sounds counterintuitive, but an earlier bedtime can actually help him sleep later in the morning.
Second, consider shortening his naps. Toddlers who are nearing the three-year mark old are often beginning the process of dropping their nap. This transition can get muddled, though, when kids continue to take longer-than-necessary afternoon naps. This reduces their drive to sleep at night, and can result in a way-too-early morning wake up call. To correct this issue, reduce the length of his naps to one hour, and maintain an appropriately early bedtime.
Next, think about the message you’re communicating to your son. If you nurse him at 4 am but not at 2 a.m. or any other time during the night, he’ll quickly learn that 4 a.m. is “morning,” and you can bet that he’ll continue to wake up for the pleasure of your company. When he wakes at 4 am, your attitude and actions should firmly convey that it is still nighttime. Rock him, pat him, soothe him with your voice, but don’t allow him to get up. Tell him repeatedly that “It’s nighttime and this is when we sleep.” Whatever you do, don’t get up and start your day at this ungodly hour, unless you want to continue doing so.
Finally, is his environment telling him that it’s morning? If he has early-morning light or sounds creeping into his bedroom, they’ll contribute to his belief that 4 a.m. is time to rise and shine. Black out his room completely and use white noise to mask early-morning sounds.
Taken all together, these tweaks should help your son give up his membership to the rooster club. Hope you get some rest, soon!
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