What to Do When Your Toddler Keeps Waking Up at 4 AM
How advice from fellow moms got this toddler's sleep problem back on track
Sadly, sleepily, most of us have been there. (And if you haven’t yet, be sure to bookmark this page because it’s probably coming.) When Lori Kirsten, a physical therapist in Washington State, needed help keeping one of her twin, nearly 3-year-old boys in bed all night, she asked every mom she knew—online. In a world of Instagrams and tweets, it’s the best way to get the advice you need, and fast. We boiled down the incoming advice to two friends: a mother of three (with one on the way, that’s me!) and another who’s a pediatrician. Here’s how it worked out, and spoiler alert: Everyone’s sleeping perfectly well now.
The (Pretty Common) Problem
“For about a month, Caleb has been waking up around 4 AM. It started around daylight saving’s time, so at first I chalked it up to that,” Lori explains. Admittedly, she and her husband had let both boys into their bed a few times before, out of sheer exhaustion, but they put a halt to it now. “I’ve been using my good Super Nanny techniques: He wakes up, I walk him back to his room, tuck him in, don’t say a word and walk out. I do this every 30 minutes, or as he wakes up. Then last night it started at 3 AM. I might die.”
Lori says that one friend suggested melatonin, which works like a charm to get her 9-year-old to sleep, while her husband suspects a tonsil issue. “Caleb is not being naughty,” she says. “He is just AWAKE. Please help!”
What I Said: ”Make sure he understands the rule, which is ‘Stay In Your Bed,’ even if he wakes up. We have our kids call out to us if they need something; no one has ever wandered into our room so far. It also gives them another chance to fall back asleep. Explain the rule to him, then give him little quizzes about when he can get out of his bed:
Can you get out of bed when it’s still nighttime?
When you want something?
What do you do if you wake up at night?
Go back to sleep!
When our preschooler had the same issue at that age, we even had her practice the scenario during the day; she laid on her bed and acted it out. Plus my husband set out a few books for her. If she just woke up early, like at 5:30 AM, her choices were to look at the books or go back to sleep.
They also make these little clocks that you can set; they change color or show an indication that it’s 7 AM or whatever time you want them to get up.”
What the Pediatrician Said: “If you can muster it, it may be useful for you to sit at the edge of his bed and put him back in repeatedly, then slowly move away on different nights. He needs to know he will not win. This will obviously take awhile but he’s had a month of this behavior that now needs to become extinct. Sadly it will not happen overnight.
[If the issue was Caleb’s tonsils], this would be seen at other times and he would snore like an old man. If not, tonsils are probably not the issue. If so, take him to your pediatrician.
I would avoid melatonin in this young age. I’ve recommended it in the past but not for this type of isolated problem. Melatonin doesn’t help kids stay asleep, few things do. Right now his clock is off and he is used to getting up.
Part of the issue is Caleb waking, but it sounds like the bigger issue is him being naughty and getting out of bed. Our nephew used to wake really early and his parents got him one of those night lights that shows the moon and sun, and you set it for when it’s acceptable to get out of the room. I think your little guy is a bit young to understand this but it’s there.”
Rethinking the issue–it is a behavior problem after all–Lori tried a new approach. “I started telling Caleb it was naughty to get up, that he needed to stay in bed,” she explains. “I continued to just walk him back to bed with no interaction. He’s a rules follower, and it helped to make this one more clear. Then I got an alarm clock shaped like a traffic light, which is red at night (red in bed) and turns green at 7 AM (green go play). It’s perfect.”
Now both boys have something to refer to if they wake up in the wee hours of the morning. And, says a busy mom we can all relate to, “it feels great to get a full night’s sleep again.”
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