Many young children rise with the sun – which can be way too early for their exhausted parents. Indeed, it is not unusual for a parent to be waking up several times a night to tend to an infant and then to have to deal with a toddler or pre-schooler who is up at 5:45 a.m. These little people often toddle into the parental bedroom asking for help in going to the bathroom or wanting to climb into bed or asking for something to eat or drink. Loveable as they might be, they are NOT who parents want to see at that hour of the morning.
If your young child wakes up too early for your liking, consider the following tips:
Try to Change Your Child’s Sleep Cycle
If your child currently goes to bed at 7:00 p.m. and wakes up at 5:30 a.m., try changing his or her bedtime to an hour or more later. In other words, keep the child awake (by whatever means you can devise!) until 8 p.m. every night. Since the child still needs the same number of hours of sleep in order to feel refreshed, chances are good that he or she will sleep in to a more civilized hour.
Something that might also help is blacking out the child’s room. Use heavy light-blocking blinds to prevent light from pouring into the child’s room. This might help the youngster stay asleep longer.
Teach Independent Skills
If your child gets up too early for you, teach him what to do until you awaken later. Make a rule that the child is NOT allowed to wake you up EXCEPT for those conditions that you establish. For instance, you might give the child permission to wake you to help him or her in the bathroom. However, after helping the child, YOU go back to sleep and the child engages in independent activities (that you establish beforehand). However, many children who wake too early are quite capable of taking themselves to the bathroom. If so, make sure that everything the child might need is ready for him in the bathroom. For instance, make sure the light is on, any potty or toilet seat is already prepared and a stool is in place for handwashing. Similarly, make sure that toys, games and even snacks are available for the child in his room in the case that he wakes before you. If you have a computer or similar instrument the child can use, have it charged up and ready-to-go with a tap of some chubby fingers. Insist that the child amuse himself in his room – or in another designated room. Under no circumstances is the child welcome in your room to play or eat. However, if the child wants to lie down in your room after awakening early, he can do that – on a small mattress on the floor without talking to anyone.
Once you establish your morning “rule,” you may have to use negative consequences to reinforce it. This means that you will have to warn the child that waking you up will result in a punishment for the child. For instance, you can say something like, “from now on, if you wake Mommy or Daddy up in the morning, you will not have your chocolate milk treat for breakfast.” Pick some consequence you think will motivate the child to wait for you to wake up. Do not attempt to use anger to get your child to stay in his room or his bed; not only will it not work, but it provides a poor model of frustration control and pro-relationship problem-solving strategies. Simple rules with simple consequences are most potent and least harmful.
Alternatively, you may use positive reinforcement instead of negative consequences. Every morning that the child manages to entertain himself until you wake up earns the youngster a point. Let the child earn a few points and then trade the points in for a small prize. Then tell the child he now has to earn more points, but when he does succeed, he gets a bigger prize. Then tell the child he gets a point for each successful morning, but now needs even more points and will get an even bigger prize. End the period of practice with even more points that lead to a grand prize (something the child has long-wanted.) During this period, do NOT punish unsuccessful mornings: the implied punishment is the loss of the point for that morning, thereby delaying the opportunity to receive his reward.
Reduce the Payoff
When your child tries to wake you up in the morning, be careful NOT to give high quality attention. Don’t speak loudly. In fact, try not to wake up completely even if you have to tend somewhat to your child’s needs. Through your behavior, show your child that it is not time to start the day. If possible, stay in your bed and don’t even talk. If you must talk, whisper and say few words. Give minimal attention only. When it is wake-up time, however, do the opposite: give high quality, happy morning attention. Let the child see the difference between your sleeping state and your awakened state. Be patient, firm and consistent. Your child will soon catch on that early morning is not a time that you will be available to tend to his needs.