Ask a Sleep Coach: What to Do About Your Early (Reeeally Early) Riser – Kveller
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Ask a Sleep Coach: What to Do About Your Early (Reeeally Early) Riser


The following question for Batya, our resident sleep coach, comes from contributing editor Jordana Horn:

Hi, Batya. I am hoping you can help me out. My 2-year-old, whom we’ll call G, is an early riser. I mean EARLY, to the tune of 4:30-5:30 a.m. She naps two hours a day from 1-3. She goes to bed around 7 p.m. She wakes up totally chipper and raring to go. Sadly, my husband and I are not the same way. We have decided to say we will not get her from her crib until 6 a.m. and have gotten her a clock that turns green when it is 6 a.m. In other words, you don’t have to be asleep, but you can’t yell for us till 6 a.m. We put books in her bed that she can read by the light of her night light (“read” = look at pictures). 

Unfortunately, 95% of the time, she yells for us well before 6 a.m. We have tried telling her to stop. We have tried reward systems. We have tried punishments. We have tried going in and shushing/holding her. We have tried not going in and letting her scream her head off, waking up the rest of the house in the process. She wakes the whole house up every morning. It isn’t fair to the other kids, let alone us. 

I asked our pediatrician what to do and she said there is nothing we can do: some kids are just early risers. That’s fine by me but I want to make sure she knows that before 6 a.m., she’s gotta keep the early morning love to herself. What to do? Please help! Thank you!!!

Your pediatrician is completely right–some children are naturally just early risers. Just like adults, children have innate natures to either be a lark or an owl. That’s why some people have tons of energy to start off the day fresh and early, while others can barely make it to work by 9 a.m.! These intrinsic habits can often cause parents to be distressed, not knowing what to do or how to “change” their child’s behavior.

The first thing to note is that you cannot and should not attempt to change a child’s natural inkling towards being a lark or an owl. Doing this will only push their body to do something unnatural, causing over-tiredness and a lot of wasted energy on your part. What you can do, however, is gently work with her existing nature to help readjust her internal clock to wake up a bit later in the morning (I don’t think anyone would agree that 4:30 a.m. is considered morning–even a pure-bred, white-fire lark!)

Most 2-year-olds do still need to nap in the afternoon, and it seems that the timing of her nap is spot on. Although some may suggest cutting out her nap in order to help her become “more tired” for bedtime and the night/morning, it will actually have the adverse affect, causing her to be ridiculously overtired and fight sleep even more…hereby waking up EVEN EARLIER in the morning! Therefore, definitely keep up with her afternoon nap as the key to ensuring success with any internal clock shift is consistency, patterns, and making sure she still gets her afternoon rest.

What you need to do is make her bedtime later. Because she is now going to sleep at 7 p.m., aim to have her ideal bedtime be closer to the 7:45/8 p.m. mark. Of course in the beginning week or two, she will still be tired at 7 p.m., so start slowly. Every three to five days, increase bedtime by 5-10 minutes. So starting off, bedtime will be around the 7:10 mark, then in another few days closer to 7:15, and so on. The goal should be that after four to five weeks, her bedtime is as close to 7:45/8 p.m. as possible.

Remember, she will still be waking up early for at least a few weeks. That means she will actually be getting less sleep, as her bedtime will be later. Be prepared for her to be tired, irritable, and even want to nap earlier and longer. It’s crucial to ensure that she stays awake the whole day, still has her nap at the consistent time and length, and goes to sleep as close to the new bedtime as possible. Distract her, play with her, entertain her, and do whatever you can to keep things positive!

It usually takes about six to eight weeks to begin readjusting a toddler’s internal clock, so you do need patience. Trying this for a week randomly here or there will not be a proper gauge of her response, let alone allow her body enough time to even start shifting.

By making bedtime slightly later, it allows her body to respond and adjust accordingly. You are not forcing her to stay awake for suddenly longer hours at night, while at the same time understanding what her sleep needs are.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!

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