Waking earlier than a rooster.
You worked out the latch-to-sleep issues ages ago. You worked out the daycare nap issues ages ago. You thought you had everything under control until all of a sudden: cock-a-doodle-do. Your little monkey’s waking earlier than the sun and he’s ready to play. Oy.
I’ve been working with a lovely mama to help her toddler sleep past 5am. These were my initial to-do’s:
- Install blackout liners. Her hubs ixnayed this because of their snazzy paint job. Understandable, but still – babas need BLACK, especially once spring sunrises begin, so making it happen is essential even if it means taping up garbage bags or bristol board to block out the light.
- White noise. She already had this one down. Smart mama.
- Make sure he eats enough during the day, which also ties in with cutting out nighttime feeds.* Noshing at night becomes a habit for older babies, and starts to get confusing because if you’ll come at 4am to feed, why wouldn’t you come at 2am if that’s when he wakes up? All of a sudden one middle of the night feed turns into two and then three and then – blech.
- Track his sleep for at least a week, preferably two, before making any modifications. You’re trying to find his natural patterns and what you need to tweak. If he’s oversleeping in the day, it’s cray-cray to think he’ll sleep past the crack of dawn. Need a tracking template? Voilà.
- Get rid of any fall-asleep crutches. This would be a paci (if he can’t find it and pop it back in independently), a boob (if you’re not co-sleeping or are just done feeling like a cow all night), a bottle, a mommy/daddy sleeping in the same bed and then magically disappearing while he’s in dreamland, a mobile/music/show turned on until he falls asleep, or anything else about his sleep environment that changes once he’s conked out.
- Give an attachment object AKA a lovey. Alex had his blankets, Jack still has his baby, and Lola loves her dolly. These are also super handy to use for negotiation from around eighteen months, as in “Can you be quiet and go to sleep or should I take Dolly away?” Lola will sleep just about anywhere when I ask her politely.
- A consistent pre-sleep routine. The specifics don’t matter as long as there’s no sugar or screens involved and, the key, you’re consistent. Since many of you ask, our routine is a bath or shower, story-time, potty, and kiss goodnight. Almost all requests for one more story/cuddle/sip of water are denied, with the exception of sickness or if everyone’s ready for bed early… it happens!
- Give it two weeks before giving up. Sleep cycles need time to adjust but they will adjust if you keep at it.
And after all this hard work… nothing. Her little lark is raring to go and couldn’t care less if she’s finessed his routines, nudged bedtime later, or feeds him 24/7. Now guys, this kid is smart. He’s been potty-trained since FIFTEEN months (not clock trained, fully trained, as in he tells them when he needs to go!) and knows something like two hundred signs. Like I said, smart. Which also means he’s figured out that when he wakes up and starts to cry, mommy or daddy will come whether or not it’s time to wake up. So what this boils down to is… limit setting. My suggestion was to wake him from his nap at two hours, put him to bed around 8pm, and only allow a morning wake-up ritual to begin at 6am. So what to do if he wakes before 6am? Three options:
1. Go to bed early and embrace the early morning wake-up call. If it works for your fam, this can be quite a sweet time of day to connect.
2. CIO cold-turkey. It’ll work, but I don’t recommend this for a toddler, especially one who communicates so well. Toddlers deserve more respect – they understand a heck of a lot more than we give them credit for. Which leads us to…
3. Explain and follow-through. During the day, talk to him about the need to sleep until mommy/daddy/the alarm says it’s time to wake up. Talk about it, read stories, remind before bed – and repeat. Your goal is to sound like a broken record so it’s crystal clear. Then, when he wakes at 5am, go in and nicely say “It’s sleep time, sweetie, close your eyes. I’m going back to bed and I’ll see you when it’s time to wake up.” When he continues to cry, return after a few minutes to give him the lovey he chucked at you on your way out the door, but do. not. say anything, DO. NOT. pick him up, and don’t linger. Hustle back to bed and extend the intervals à la Ferber.
So yup, my suggested technique, numéro trois, involves tears. Tears are not always a bad thing, the key is to recognize when to give in to those tears when the line can be fuzzy. A hungry little baby or a kid who wakes up freaked out from a nightmare definitely needs a response in the night, but you wouldn’t hesitate to buckle your screaming toddler into her car seat no matter how much she resists, and that confidence and consistent response is what teaches her not to bother crying when you strap her in (sooner or later). Just remember that conditioned response at 5:05am. And maybe pick a powerful theme song.
If you have a problem with your monkey’s sleep, the first thing to do is figure out if it’s really a problem. Parents with young children are rarely perfectly well-rested, but feeling like you’re too tired to drive, emotionally weeping, and needing hourly venti lattes are signs that you need a change. Smart cookies can easily adapt their sleep schedules if we teach them how using love and consistency. Besides, the earlier you start practicing a limit-setting technique, the earlier you’ll master it. And wouldn’t you rather perfect that skill with a toddler than a teenager?!
*Of course you know your baby has to be old enough and healthy enough, right? Check with your doctor before eliminating all night feeds peeps!