The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers


The Early Bird: Waking Up Too Early

I don’t need an alarm clock. Every day my daughter wakes up early – usually before 6:00. Is there any way to get her to sleep longer, or is she just an early bird?
It is true that some children seem to be natural early birds, but only about 10% to 15% actually have a biological tendency to be a complete lark. Another small percentage is somewhat larkish, but most early-rising children are simply waking up early for outside reasons that affect their rising time, and these can be changed.

You may be able to tell if your little one is really a lark is if she:

  • wakes up on her own — cheerful and chatty
  • is most active and energetic in the late morning to early afternoon
  • sleeps soundly
  • gets tired after dinner
  • goes to bed early and easily
  • wakes up early no matter what time she goes to bed

If this describes your child, you may indeed have a little lark on your hands. Even so, you might be able to squeeze a bit more sleep time in the morning if you make some changes in your child’s routines by applying the ideas that follow. If your early-riser doesn’t fit the previous description it’s likely that she’s not a natural-born lark and you’ll have good luck encouraging a later wake-up time.

First things first
One of the common reasons for early waking is simply that your child has had enough sleep!Take a good look at the sleep chart and add up your child’s night and nap hours of sleep. If your two-year-old is napping for two hours and then getting an average amount of hours of sleep at nighttime, that would be 11 night sleep hours. If she is going to bed at 7:00 P.M., guess what? Eleven hours later…it’s 6:00 A.M.! (Remember, too that “early” has a different definition for everyone; many people arise at 5:00 A.M. or even before that, without considering it too early.)

Even if your child is getting less than the sleep hours on the chart she may be one of those rare children who need a bit less sleep than the average. In either case you can’t expect her to sleep longer in the morning simply because you went to bed at midnight or were up all night with her baby brother, and you’re still tired. (Oh, but if it only worked that way!) If this is the case in your house, you have two options. Gradually move her bedtime later by about 10 or 15 minutes until she’s going to bed an hour later and (hopefully!) waking an hour later in the morning. If you’ve already read the first part of this book you know that an earlier bedtime is often best for a child, and sometimes a bedtime change won’t affect awakening time, but you certainly can experiment with this to see if you can find a happy medium that works for both of you.
The other choice, of course, is to make your own bedtime earlier so that an earlier wake up time works for you. This may be nicer than you think, since most larks are cheerful in the morning and grumpy in the late evening, so by adjusting your family hours you’ll have more time in that happy place together.

Other reasons WHY your child may be waking up:

If you’ve added up your child’s sleep hours and have determined that an excess of sleep isn’t the cause of early awakening you should be able to add more sleep time in the early morning. Before we get into the general tips for encouraging longer sleep, it may help to figure out why your child wakes up early, and how to address those issues. Here are a few things that might be waking her up:

  •  Light. Daylight, street lights or house lights can cause a light sleeper to wake up.
  • Solution: Cover the windows, keep the room dark.
  • Noise. Some children are easily roused when they hear voices, traffic, pets, plumbing sounds, or neighbors.
  • Solution: Use a radio set to a classical music or talk show station, or a white-noise machine to mask outside noises. You can set it like an alarm to go off on a quiet   volume about an hour before your child’s typical awakening time so that other noises don’t rouse her. (Don’t worry – if you are using white noise or keeping the volume low this won’t wake her.) Another option, if you can, is changing your child’s sleeping place to a quieter room.
  • Nature calls? Perhaps her diaper, training pants, or pull-ups are wet, or she has to use the bathroom.
  • Solution: Give your child less liquid in the hour or two before bed. Provide several pre-bedtime potty visits. Use diaper doublers or extra-thick nighttime diapers. If she’s totally potty-trained, teach her how to use the bathroom by herself during the night and leave a nightlight on in the hallway. She may not even realize that she’s able to do this on her own if she never has!
  • Comfort. Her covers have fallen off, the house has cooled down and she’s chilly, or the heat has come on and she’s too hot.
  • Solution: Adjust the heat level of the house, use a fan (keeping it and cords out of reach) or change what she wears to bed or the types of blankets on her bed.
  • Hunger. Her tummy rumblings wake her.
  • Solution: Give her a low-sugar, high-carbohydrate snack before bedtime. Provide her with a bowl of crackers and a cup of water on her nightstand.
  • Habit. She’s been waking up early for a long time and now her internal clock alarm goes off at that time.
  • Solution: Gradually adjust her night and nap sleep schedule until she is sleeping and waking at a better time.
  • Nap routine. She’s napping too early, too late, too often, or too long.
  • Solution: Reorganize her nap schedule according to the information in the chapter about nap-time issues.

“I put a piece of cardboard over the window and set a clock-radio to early morning classical music. Sebastian is sleeping about an hour later in the morning than he was – and it hasn’t affected his bedtime at all!”
Candice, mother of three-year-old Sebastian

More tips for encouraging longer sleep

Very often an early waking child is doing so out of habit, and it may take a few weeks of consistent changes before you see a new wake-up time emerge. Be patient and use the following tips in conjunction with the previous list and the general ideas in the first part of this book:

  • Apply the concepts covered previously and re-set your child’s biological clock. Do this by keeping the hour before bedtime dimly lit, sleeping time dark, and breakfast time brightly lit.
  • Keep your child’s room dark during all the hours you want her to sleep. Use blinds, curtains, or even a blanket or big pieces of cardboard to keep out unwanted light. Do your pre-bedtime reading by the dimmest light possible, and finish it up with story-telling in the dark.
  • Schedule playtime in the afternoon or early evening outside when you can. When you can’t get outside keep the play area brightly lit. You may even want to invest in a natural sunlight lamp which emits a yellow sun-like glow.
  • Try treating the early morning awakening as if it’s 2:00 A.M. and respond to your child as you do with a night waking. If the windows are covered and the room is dark your child may accept that it’s the middle of the night and not the morning.
  • Children who wake early often nap early, too, going for a nap within an hour or two of waking up. This is actually the end of their nighttime sleep! Try holding off the morning nap by 15 to 30 minutes every day until it falls an hour or two hours later in the day than it is now. After a week or two you should see a new pattern emerge.
  • Hold off breakfast for thirty minutes to an hour after your child wakes up. She may have set her “hunger alert” to go off at 6:00 A.M. By holding off breakfast in the morning you may be able to re-set the time she gets hungry. If she can’t wait that long, try a small snack, like a few crackers, and delay a full breakfast for a bit.
  • Maintain a consistent bedtime and awaking time seven days a week. Changing the schedule each weekend will likely prevent you from finding success at getting a reasonable wake up time during the week.

What to do if your lark continues to wake up early:

If you’ve tried these ideas, and kept with them for a few weeks, but find that your little rooster continues to wake up early, you may want to accept that it’s her natural waking time and approach the problem differently. Here are some tips:

  • Every night, after your child goes to sleep put a box of toys next to her bed. Rotate these so that there’s always something new and interesting in the box. Tell her that when she wakes up she can check her box and play with whatever she finds in there. Be creative, but make sure the toys are safe, and of course, nothing noisy! (If your child is still sleeping in a crib you can leave toys at the foot of the crib.)
  • Set a clock-radio to a pleasant music station and have it turn on at your acceptable wake up time. Tell your child that she can’t leave her bedroom to wake you up until she hears the music.
  • Leave a sippy cup of water and a snack, such as crackers, on her bedside so that when she wakes up she will have something to eat. (No choking hazards.)
  • Make a tape recording of your child’s favorite songs or stories and show her how to operate the machine. Let her listen to her special tape when she wakes up.
  • Invite her into your room or your bed. Tell her that if she wakes up she can come quietly into your room. Let her climb in bed and snuggle with you, or create a little resting area with a sleeping bag on the floor for her. You might even create a fort, such as using a blanket over a card table, and call it her morning nest. Put a few toys and books inside and see if she’ll play quietly for a while before waking you.
  • Shhh. Don’t tell anybody I gave you this idea, but as a last resort it can be a lifesaver: Set up the DVD player with her favorite movie and teach her how to push “play.” Leave a sippy cup of water and a bowl of dry cereal for snacking. This will buy you an extra hour of shuteye.
  • Childproof, childproof, childproof! Make sure that your entire house is safe for your early riser so if she’s wandering around while you’re still asleep she won’t get herself into trouble.
  • Practice. Once you’ve established some ideas for what you’d like to have happen in the morning, let your child show you exactly what she’ll do when she gets up. By role-playing a few times she’ll be comfortable doing as you wish when she wakes up so early in the morning – playing with her toys, climbing in bed with you, playing in her fort, or listening to her music.

Will my lark EVER sleep later?

Oh, yes. Your lark will begin sleeping later in the morning….once she starts school and is required to wake up at 6:00 AM. Frustrating, but true! As children get older many of them go through an Owl stage – finding it hard to fall asleep at a reasonable bedtime, but easy to sleep until noon. (Look for my next book – on school age sleep issues!)

Excerpted with permission by McGraw-Hill Publishing from The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers (McGraw-Hill, 2005).

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