Q. I am a 35-year-old mother of two. My daughter is four and half and my son is two and a half. My son is a very early riser, waking most days at 5.50am. I have tried ignoring his calls for me, but he just keeps calling out, so I go into him, tell him it’s too early to get up and try and settle him back. Sometimes this works for a short while, but for the most part he will settle for five minutes only to resume his calling for me. I go into him again after ignoring him for as long as I can, but nothing will settle him back to sleep. I end up taking him out of his cot as I am trying to avoid him waking his sister, which is what inevitably happens. Sometimes I bring him into bed with me, only to be poked and prodded until I get up, or I put him in front of the television. I feel dreadful doing that but I don’t know what else to do with him at 6.15 or so in the morning. I suffer on and off from insomnia, so I am at my wits end with the constant early mornings and exhaustion during the day.
A. Of all the sleep problems, early waking is one of the worst. When a child wakes in the middle of the night, there is always the chance you will be able to resettle them and get a few hours more sleep yourself, but when they wake at dawn, you have the lingering realisation that your night’s sleep is over and nothing you can do will resettle them. To understand your son’s early waking, you have to see it in the context of his total sleep pattern throughout the day and night. You don’t say in your question, but at what time does your son go to bed, does he have a nap and if so when and for how long? Frequently, early waking children have too many naps during the day, and at too early or a late time, or they go to bed too early for their needs or alternatively are over-tired and their night-time sleep is disrupted.
To address your son’s early waking you can gradually establish his sleeping pattern in particular by changing his napping and bedtime routine. For example, you can adjust day-time naps so that they don’t occur too early (for example, before 9am) and thus support child waking early nor too late ( after 2.30pm) and thus disrupt your child’s bedtime routine. Aim for a nap at about 10-11am and ideally for one longer nap rather than two shorter ones.
If your son is going to bed early, you could consider postponing his bedtime to see if that helps, but it is important to do this gradually (10-15 minutes at a time ) so you don’t make him over-tired which can cause more sleep problems. At age two, his final bedtime probably should not be later than 8pm.
For some children, their feeding pattern has an impact on their sleeping and they can wake early because they are hungry as much as anything else. To address this, you can make sure your son has a good routine of substantial meals during the day and, in particular, that he has a supper as part of his bedtime routine.
One of the particular challenges with sleep problems and two year olds is that they can’t yet read the time, so when they wake in the night they immediately seek out their parents to check if it is morning. With an older child you can set a rule of staying in their room until 7am and if they wake early they can read the time and learn to resettle themselves (or at least not bother their parents until later!).
However, there are some innovative clocks for toddlers that display time visually – for example, during the night they display a moon and when morning comes the sun appears. You could do up a routine with your son that he has to stay in his room until the sun rises on the clock. It is nice to have a special reward for him if keeps the rule such as a “cuddle time” in the bed with you and/or you can get the routine started by using a special reward of a star on a chart. You can also leave some toys or books in his cot, so he can entertain himself for a while if he wakes early.
Even with the above strategies, early waking can take time to resolve itself and a lot of parents cope by “going with the flow” and adjusting their own waking to match their child’s sleep pattern. Some parents even get up when their child gets up early and use the time to do chores, plan breakfast and even to have a special one-to-one playtime with their child.
To do this of course, you would need to address your own insomnia and ensure you are getting enough sleep and going to bed earlier. This should be a priority and you can take action by building your own balanced routine of good diet, rest and exercise, making sure to go to bed early and also learning specific relaxation and sleeping rituals. Do seek extra support – there are some good resources on improving the quality of your sleeping on the internet such as helpguide.org.
Even if you are not the best in the morning when your child wakes (and a lot of parents will empathise with you about this), you could take your son downstairs, so he does not wake his sister, and set him up with some toys while you rest on the couch. It is also legitimate to let your son watch his allocation of TV at this time if that allows you have more rest. In addition, many couples cope by alternating the job of attending to the early waking, so they get extra sleep at least half of the time.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, February 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.