Why is it so tricky to nudge your kid’s wake up time? The answer lies in human biology. The brain’s internal clock controls when we feel tired or alert (as well as systems like body temperature, organ function, the release of chemicals and more) and the internal clock is built to be reliable and run on its own, until it learns otherwise. When the time changes, we move the hands on our clocks, but our baby’s brains are not so simple.
Given the stubbornness of the body’s morning alarm, here’s how to help your 5 AM riser catch one more hour of sleep …
Keep bedtime consistent
After you’ve adjusted for the new time, don’t put your child to bed later in the hopes that she will wake up later. An early bedtime keeps your child well rested and her body better regulated — that way she’s more likely to keep sleeping.
Look at bedtime routines
Does your bedtime routine end with your child falling asleep independently, without you in the room? A child who falls asleep in the presence of the parent — who later sneaks out — is more likely to wake up in the night or too early in the morning. If you have a family bed, this is a different story, because you spend the whole night in the same place.
Shape the cues used by the internal clock
The number one signal that shapes the timing of the biological clock is light. Block all the light coming into your child’s room while you’re working on helping her sleep later. Blackout curtains or shades, dark garbage bags and painters tape, or temporary darkening shades — anything that truly makes the morning cave-like until your desired wake up time.
The other signals used by the internal clock are social interaction and food, because our body times itself to anticipate these activities. If you feed your toddler at 5 AM consistently, she will wake up at 5 AM because her body expects it. If you hold off on feeding until 6 AM, eventually it helps her body synchronize to this time instead.
If your baby or toddler is used to eating at a certain time, don’t move that feeding all at once (because his body will expect it), but gradually. Make sure your toddler or preschooler has a sippy cup with water accessible and knows how to tuck her own blankets.
Hold the wake up time
This is the tricky part. You’ve created the light-free zone in your child’s bedroom, but now you need to keep her in this sleep-conducive environment until the clock strikes 6 AM.
If your child is old enough to tell time, use a dim clock or a clock that turns on or switches color when it’s 6 AM. If she pops out of the room, gently walk her back (difficult to stick with at the crack of dawn, but effective). You could move in 15-minute increments every other day to make it more successful.
If you have a baby who is calling out or crying, choose a method of letting her know you’re there, but also keeping her in her crib (the Happy Sleeper method for accomplishing this is called the Sleep Wave — a way to check on your baby when you’re trying to change a sleep pattern). Again this could be gradual.
Don’t give up too soon
One of the most common mistakes parents make when they’re working on early rising is to give up too soon. Shifting a bedtime can take just a few days, but shifting a wake up time can take a couple of weeks. It’s much easier to help your baby fall asleep at a certain time than it is to teach her internal clock to wake her up later.
If after a few days or a week, your baby is still waking at 5 AM, don’t be discouraged and throw in the towel — it just means her body needs more time to synchronize. Eventually she will adjust and you’ll all get a full night’s sleep.
Heather Turgeon is co-author of the book The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide To Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep (Penguin, 2014). She and her partner Julie Wright run a sleep consultation practice for babies and little kids.