The Way-Too-Early Riser
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. 🙁
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.
Published September 28, 2015. Last updated July 16, 2017.