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The Way-Too-Early Riser

The Way-Too-Early Riser

By Amalah


I have an 18 month old son who has always struggled with early rising (4:30am-ish). We have used Ferber for bedtimes in the past and he goes to bed beautifully (at about 7:15pm) and sleeps through til his early wake up. He takes one 2+ hour nap around 11:30am but it is hard to get him to that point each day and he will often fall asleep in the car or stroller so it makes it nearly impossible to go anywhere in the morning (not to mention we are ALL exhausted). I don’t make plans with friends who have babies because by the time they are ready to get together mine has been awake for 5 hours and is miserable. ūüôĀ

His naps have been ON me since 9 months old. No, this is not ideal but last month I tried the whole entire month to get him to nap on his own and he stood and screamed EVERY SINGLE DAY for an hour and never took a nap so I gave up and am ok to nap with him but I recognize this sleep association could be contributing to other problems.

When he wakes early in the morning most of the time I go up and get in our “sleep chair” with him and about 75% of the time he will sleep for another hour but when he won’t I go nuts. We have tried leaving him til 6am a few different times (each time we have tried has been for about a week). He has never gone back to sleep on his own but once in awhile has stopped screaming. Then we give up and sleep with him because he is so overtired.

He is struggling to get 12 hours total sleep each day and I know what we are doing isn’t helping or working and I want to break the cycle. I just don’t know how. Much earlier I worked with two¬†separate sleep consultants but this has always been a problem.

A little other info – we have blackout shades and 2 sets of curtains. It is DARK. We have 2 white noise machines and it is QUIET. The temperature in the room is usually around 68 and he sleeps in a shirt and a sleep sack.

Is there hope for us? My husband just keeps telling me I need to change my reaction to the problem and just accept it and then I will feel better. To me that is BS! The couple times he has gotten up to snuggle our son he has complained SO much about being tired that I just do it instead and my little one and I are exhausted.

Thanks for your time and advice.

You mentioned that you used the Ferber Method for bedtime and it was successful. So excellent! Because now you’re gonna use the Ferber Method for the mornings.

First, go read The Sleep Lady’s excellent article on dealing with the problematic early riser. You’ve already implemented two of the most common solutions (blackout shades and white noise machines) with no success, so it’s time to move on down the list of possible causes.

Personally, I’m seeing two main problems. First, that one nap is way too early in the day and too far away from his bedtime. So he’s likely way overtired by 7:15 p.m. , resulting the super early morning sleep disturbance. Which I’m sure you know this, since you mentioned how hard it is to even keep him awake until that point, because DUH, he’s been awake since 4:30 a.m. Solve the 4:30 a.m. problem and MAYBE you’ll have a shot at pushing that nap back, but right now it’s like some awful sleep-related chicken-or-the-egg scenario where one problem feeds the next problem in an endless overtired loop.

So look. He really should not be allowed to nap on your lap every single day, but at least he’s sleeping so let’s table that problem and try to solve the bigger problem. From now on, he cannot get out of his crib until 6 a.m. Full stop. The Sleep Lady’s words are wise here — if it’s dark outside, it is night time, and we stay in bed until morning. And you will need to morning-time sleep train him until he understands this. A toddler who is allowed to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m. (either to play, eat, cuddle, whatever) won’t understand why he can’t do the same at 4:30…or 2:30. And I don’t want to scare you but early risers can get progressively worse and even EARLIER if the problem isn’t dealt with.

And you KNOW it’s a problem. This isn’t just a kid who doesn’t need as much sleep as other kids. He’s not waking up happy and well-rested. I TOTALLY agree that your husband’s advice to just “accept” things is B.S. because you AND your child are MISERABLE. Your son is NOT getting enough sleep, and it’s really unlikely that the issue will just magically solve itself one of these days. And honestly it’s even LESS likely to solve itself every time you give in and let him nap or sleep on your body instead of in his bed. These are bad sleep habits and they are habits that will only get harder to break with time.

So you mentioned that you did try to keep him in the crib until 6 a.m. a few times, with each effort lasting about a week. You didn’t mention if you incorporated the Ferber method of timed checks, patting/soothing-but-not-picking-up during these efforts. (I’m guessing not because you mentioned he “sometimes stopped screaming,” which suggests plain old CIO. Also if this was done during your month of fighting the No Naps On Mama battle, that was probably just too much Messing With Sleep at the same time. This round, let’s focus on one problem at time.) Since the Ferber Method worked for bedtime, there’s a REALLY good chance that it can help in the mornings, too. And notice that the Sleep Lady mentioned that it typically takes MULTIPLE weeks of hardcore consistency to solve early rising in older babies/toddlers. So you can’t give up after a week. Yes, it SUCKS because as annoying as the “sleep chair” is, it’s still a chair you can sit on instead of going in and out of his room every 10/15 minutes between 4:30 and 6 a.m.

I would buy him one of those “okay to wake” clocks that change color when it’s time to wake up. Set it for 6 a.m. When he wakes up at 4:30, DO NOT TAKE HIM OUT OF THE CRIB. Point to the clock and say it’s still nighttime, and we stay in our beds at nighttime. (The sleep chair is now a daytime option only.) (And then we’ll work on downgrading it back to just a regular chair.)

Leave and start the Ferber clock. Go back in. Point to the clock again. Nope, still nighttime. If he has a lovey you can hand him or any part of his bedtime ritual you can easily replicate (musical toy or mobile, etc.), do that and then leave again.

Hopefully the frequent checks will keep him calm(er) and keep his crying from escalating too badly, which should also increase the likelihood that he’ll settle back down to sleep on his own.

At 6 a.m., you get him out of his crib. You point to the clock again to make it clear that you’re getting him out of his crib because it’s morningtime, NOT because he was crying or calling for you. Pull up the blackout blinds and let the (still-early, but at least not 4:30 a.m. early) morning light in.

I know. You’re going to be exhausted. You’re going to want so badly to cave and take him back to the sleep chair so you can possibly doze a little. Don’t. Don’t give up! Think back on bedtime training and how great the results are now, and look at this secondary sleep training as the light at the end of the tunnel. Your son really needs you to stick with it, too, because he’s struggling with a very real case of sleep deprivation too. Not to mention he’s missing out on fun things because of a cracked-out sleep-and-nap schedule.

So. Clock. Checks. And consistency. Give it a try, and hopefully in a few weeks things will be better. And then you can write back and ask about ditching the nap chair.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Myriam

    September 28, 2015 at 11:05 am

    I’m a fan of I something rang a bell for me. When sleep training, the last nap of the day can be in the stroller, or car, or something, just to help prevent exhaustion. Maybe you can tweak this advice: why not let him cat nap in the stroller for a maximum of 30 minutes, or something, in the morning. Then, Have him take a “real” nap in the afternoon, around 1h. You can then put him to bed at his regular bedtime, less exhausted than before, than helping him sleep longer. I also second the Gro-clock or whatever brand you want to use. He might be a little young, but my daughter was an early (not so early though) riser and ¬†caught on around about¬†20-month old. Now, at 22 months old, I’ll hear here tossing nad turning in bed and then, at 6:15, I hear “mommy, sun up! sun up!”

  • Liz

    September 28, 2015 at 11:10 am

    Amy is so right. Hang in there! The older the kiddo, the longer Ferber can take while they learn the new rules. But think how much better bed time is, compared to how it used to be. I bet mornings will get so much better once he’s morning sleep-trained. I wish I could will you some energy! ¬†I also second the ok-to-wake clock. ¬†We got my daughter one when she turned two, and it took a week or two before she understood to check the clock before calling. But it meant she slept till 8, or at least was quiet till then! ¬†I hope things smooth out soon. You are an awesome mom to be working to get your son what he needs.¬†

  • yasmara

    September 28, 2015 at 11:11 am

    Yeah that 11:30 a.m. 2 hour nap is a big red flag for me. Does he eat lunch before this nap? If so, it’s like his whole schedule is just shifted earlier by 2 hours. It’s worth trying to push forward a few minutes at a time…if he wakes up later, lunch is later, nap is later, etc. etc. etc. (the only thing i might not push later is his bedtime at 7:15 because I agree, he’s got to be way over-tired by that time). Good luck!

  • Kay

    September 28, 2015 at 11:13 am

    I’m also seeing a third problem – that you’re doing everything and bearing the full burden of the exhaustion that comes with any kind of sleep-training. Dad needs to get involved. “The couple times he has gotten up to snuggle our son he has complained SO much about being tired that I just do it instead and my little one and I are exhausted.” I would seriously revisit this arrangement. If your son wakes & is expecting you to pick him up and take him to the sleep chair, it might be more effective if Dad shows up to pat and soothe, and break that association. And you have a shot of getting a bit more sleep on occasion.

    • Myriam

      September 28, 2015 at 11:17 am

      Totally agree. Make sure to have him read the method so he kwows what he’s doing…

  • Ashley

    September 28, 2015 at 11:35 am

    Sleep clocks! I thought this was a totally insane idea for kids so young, but it also worked for our daughter who thought 5 AM was a perfectly fine time to wake up. We actually just put a little moon light from Ikea on a timer and we did not let her out of her room until the light was on. This was my husband’s idea and I thought it was a hilarious waste of time. IT ONLY TOOK 3 DAYS. No joke. He would go in there and lay beside her crib until the light came on. (We had to use Ferber for sleep training but I seriously think she just didn’t know what time it was and whether or not it was time to wake up). ¬†She now happily stays in her crib until I go to get her. On the weekends, that’s normally after 7:00. I’ve actually watched her on the monitor look up and see if the moon is on. If not, she’ll lay back down and go to sleep. It is fantastic.

  • Erin

    September 28, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    I thought I wrote this letter at first. Except that my early riser is a 29 month-old in a toddler bed who creeps into our room every morning between 4:30 and 5, only to pinch/kick/chat us into getting up with him at 5:30. He also naps for 2 hours around 11:30 or so, but thankfully not ON me, most of the time.

    Locking him in his room until 6 led to a week’s worth of screaming for an hour+ in his room. More exhausting for all of us. Will be looking into a sleep clock, because I am at my wit’s end.

    • MR

      September 28, 2015 at 2:15 pm

      We bought the sleep clock, and it did not work for us. What did work was simply telling my daughter that it was still nighttime, and to go back to bed. She’d usually scream, and she’d slam the door, but she would go back to her room. She didn’t always go back to sleep, but she would at least be quiet in her room (after the first several days of protesting). A few months later, we cut out her nap entirely, because despite her seeming like she was going to fall over into her food, she was just having too much trouble going to sleep at night and waking up too early. We cut the nap, and she was super excited to be a “big kid” and actually did great! We expected her to be cranky and crash in the evening, but she did just fine. We did have to move her bedtime up by an hour and a half, but now she is quite happy to go to bed at 7 and sleeps until I wake her at 6:15. But, it was awful until we finally figured out she didn’t need a nap any more.

  • Erin

    September 28, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    I think you have received a lot of good advice here, but I’m also wondering if it might help to give him a blanket instead of the sleep sack? My son was in his sleep sack until about 18 months as well (I’m a huge fan of them and I had planned to keep him in his until they stopped making his size), but one morning I realized that he had woken up because he was annoyed that his legs were caught in the sack. And when I thought about it, I realized that that had happened a lot of mornings. We let him have a blanket instead and it instantly made a big difference in how long he slept.

    • Rachel

      September 30, 2015 at 9:30 am

      I second this. ¬†We used a sleep sack till about a year, then I decided to try giving him a blanket instead. ¬†I was super paranoid about him pulling it up over his face, so instead of giving him a thick blanket (not necessary anyways for a Texas spring) we used a muslin swaddling blanket from aden + anais. ¬†We loved those when he was little enough to be a cute little burrito, they’re lightweight and breathable. ¬†It did seem to help him sleep and now that he’s almost 18 months he likes to play with it when he wakes up in the mornings (playing peek-a-boo with his feet is a favorite game). ¬†Plus he can kick off the blanket if he doesn’t want it, which isn’t possible with the sleep sack.

  • KA

    September 28, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    Good advice above, and I’m with a few others – the nap schedule could be causing some issues with the early rising. I love the 2-3-4 schedule, and we found that at 18 months our kid definitely still needed two naps, even if the first one was only 30-45 minutes. If it’s possible, maybe try a nap about 2 hours after he wakes up super early – I wonder if at least giving him the chance to reclaim some of that lost sleep will help make sleep training a little easier overall? If it works, then you are just moving the schedule around by 10 minutes here and there until you get to a point that works for you and him. For our son, not enough sleep causes earlier mornings (so awful), so we had to move his bedtime earlier and stick with two naps until almost 3. He’s down to one long nap now, but almost without fail if he’s up late or misses his nap, he’s up early the next morning. Good luck momma, and look up Amalah’s post about the 2-3-4 schedule!

  • Beck

    September 29, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    So I only have one kid and she’s only 4 months old so I probably have no idea what ¬†talking about. Is it possible that he’s cold? 4:30 am is the coldest time I think for body temp. And 68 degrees is on the chilly side. Maybe he’s falling back asleep on you because you’re warm? Again. This is out of left field. And I’m personally a cold sleeper so no idea if this has anything to do with your kiddo. Best of luck!!!

  • Sarah

    September 30, 2015 at 12:14 am

    Any suggestions for the early riser that lives up north? so the sun really is up at 4am during the summer, and it’s still dark at 9am in december?¬†

    • jdot

      September 30, 2015 at 5:20 am

      From one who lived in AK for several years: blackout shades for going to sleep and sunrise simulator for waking up. Love the sunrise simulator with a passion.

      • Sarah

        September 30, 2015 at 9:47 pm

        We have blackout shades, but haven’t thought of a sunrise simulator?! Thanks!

  • Sarah

    September 30, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    A 10 minute power nap worked well for our early riser. I ideally needed him to go 5 hours between waking and his first nap, which was impossible without a power nap. Within 3 hours of waking he was down for his 10 minutes (we often did this in the car), I then woke him after 10 minutes, after which he could just about make it 2 more hours until his nap. This stopped him getting over tired so he slept better in his naps and has over time started waking an hour later (now usually 6ish). I personally would recommend only 10 mins for the power nap, any longer used to take the edge off his proper nap.

  • Chiara

    October 1, 2015 at 7:49 am

    I’ve read a few different sleep books that suggest dealing with the exhaustion by using an earlier bedtime. Because an exhausted kid is going to sleep poorly, and it seems like bedtime is working alright, would you push it an hour earlier and see what happens? Start the morning Ferberizing, but all of that might go better if he’s better rested with more day napping and an extra hour of sleep.¬†

  • JenVegas

    October 2, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Similar issue with our kid. We used the OK to Wake Owl very successfully for a few years. But the whole plan went down the pooper when he transitioned from the crib into a regular bed. Now he’s almost 5 and just gets up early. Every day. Doesn’t matter what day it is or what time he went to sleep the night before. I am patiently waiting for him to be old enough for me to bribe him with cold, hard cash to let me sleep until 9am.

  • Victoria

    October 4, 2015 at 2:18 am

    I can only speak from my own experience, but my son transitioned to one nap per day at around 18 months, and since then he’s slept 9-10 hours per night and 2-3 hours per afternoon. If your son is going to sleep at 7:30, maybe he just can’t sleep much later than 4:30. If you want more sleep in the morning and a later nap, you may want to try pushing that bedtime back. Good luck!