A ubiquitous complaint of parents of young children is the early morning starts to the day. Many pre-school children wake up early and are full of energy ready to start their day. No allowance is made for weekends and holidays and this is particularly tough on parents who may hitherto have enjoyed a lie-in.
Our sleep pattern is governed by an internal body clock known as the Circadian Rythm. This helps us feel tired ready for bed and to wake us in the morning. This body clock is almost never 24 hours and so for some people it runs a little faster whilst for others a little slower. Eventually people would sleep at the wrong part of the day if it wasn't constantly reset by daylight. However, there is enough variance to make some people better at getting up early whilst others are able to stay up late. This difference is often referred to as larks and owls.
As young children already tend to wake earlier than older children, the 'larks' amongst them may be have sleep patterns that involve particularly early starts to the day. In temperate latitudes with seasons the long summer days can make that situation even worse. For parents, the accumulative impact of sleep deprivation can put the whole family under incredible stress which in turn leads to other challenges. For single parent families, where the early morning parenting duties can not be taken in turns, the situation can quickly become desperate. Thus it is important to balance the sleep needs of parents with that of the child's.
Trying to get your child to sleep in later in the morning is therefore one approach in stopping them wake the family. The second approach is about helping them to be able to self-regulate and manage their wakefulness without disturbing others.
Waking others up
It is amazing how quickly one is willing to surrender their parenting ideals when faced with a child who wants you to wake up and play with them in the early hours. I recall going down to plonk my toddler on the sofa in front of a video so I could return to bed for another half an hour of sleep. Not exactly out of the parent of the year guidebook! However, it does sometimes come down to making compromises that enable you to survive as a parent.
The age, maturity and personality of the child will determine to a large extent which strategies are appropriate. However, the aim is that the child can recognise the difference between family sleep time and time when the family is happy to be awake. During any period between their waking and the time that they are allowed to wake anybody else they need to find quiet activities to do.
Review how much sleep your child needs. Look at the average sleep needs for their age and work out how much they need. Use that to work out what time they need to go to bed for the time you want them to wake up. Remember it is important to keep the same routine each day. It is also important to note that these are average needs and some children will need slightly less or slightly more. If you need to alter the bedtime of your child it is best to do this gradually over a period of a week. 5 or 10 minutes later a day helps to prevent them getting too overtired.
Reduce Wake up Signals
Try to identify and reduce any other sensory signals that morning is approaching. For example, central heating systems that are programmed to come on a half hour or so before wake up time. A rise in temperature may trigger wakening as can the creaks and other noises resulting from the heating system working. Other things that can trigger waking particularly when windows are open include bird song during the 'dawn chorus' and increased transportation noises.
Use black out curtains or blinds to reduce outside light intrusion which may trigger early waking particularly in summer. However, if your child tends to fall asleep earlier than you would like then you may want to keep curtains open in summer evenings. The extra light can help delay the onset of sleep and help alter their circadian rythm and move their sleeping period later.
NIght Time Clocks
Use a night time clock and/or light for training your child about quiet time for sleeping and when it is OK to get up. There are lots of products on the market and increasingly some are programmable via your smartphone.
Use reward charts and praise to reinforce positive night-time behaviours.
Use a no sign on parent and any sibling bedroom doors to visually show no entry to the child. Have clearly defined and agreed consequences for entering the room when the sign is up. It may also be useful to create a list of acceptable 'emergencies' to avoid any confusion.
Visual Reminded of sleep time rules
Use a visual such as the Bedtime From Until resource to make it clear what time your child are expected to be asleep. This resource requires the child to be able to read the time and have access to a clock. However if you have a smart night time clock you can use photographs of the day and night clock faces to create a similar visual resource that reinforces the sleep time rules.
Quiet Activities to do
It is useful to give your child something to do when they wake up early. Place a folder/box of quiet activities in their bedroom that they can do when they wake up. Wordsearches, colouring books and picture books often work well.
Do this, Don't do this
Create a visual aid listing the things that your child can do when they wake up early and things that they are not allowed to. For example, decide whether you want them to use tablets, TV etc.
It is important that as a parent of a child who gets up early that you also try to get to bed reasonably early yourself. Managing your own sleep needs will make you better able to deal with early morning starts.
Use a social story to explain what to do when they wake up early. It is important that this is read to the child each night. Placing a copy on the door can also be useful visual reminder even if the child is a pre-reader.