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Our son just turned 3, and the last few weeks has taken to waking up at 4:30-5-15am. He has a long nap from 12:30-3pm then we put him to sleep at 7:30-8.

He: sleeps with white noise from a fan, the temperature is perfect, no sounds, has a nightlight, isn't hungry, doesn't wet the diaper much anymore, and still isn't getting enough sleep. He wakes up a zombie and will remain one until 8am eating breakfast is a battle, he won't play with toys, etc.

Everything we've read we've tried. Quietly encouraging him to go back to sleep only gets a screaming tantrum that wakes his little sister up in the next room. Sitting on the floor doesn't help either, because it's a bad habit to start, and because he doesn't go back to sleep. We've sat there for over an hour and after that he's still awake - just placated.

We have yet to try the timed nightlight that will switch on at a given hour as a signal it is ok to get out of bed. That is our last hope unless you kind folks can give us some other suggestions or insight.

  • Have you tried a later bedtime, or would that mean putting him to bed overtired? Perhaps he is just not a morning-person instead of not having enough sleep (Speaking as an adult morning-zombie... don't talk to me in the first hour of the day, I bite!). – Layna Nov 16 '15 at 13:41
  • We did the light-up alarm clock, and it's been great. I would recommend you are very firm and consistent from the very beginning that if the light's not on, he cannot get out of bed. We've had a couple 4 AM wakeups even after the light, but our son lies in bed calling "I'm ready to get up!". I go in and explain that it's still nighttime and he needs to try to go back to sleep. If he's really unhappy with that, he gets the option to lie in bed and read on his own while we go back to sleep. He'll usually read 1-2 books, then roll over, turn off his light and go to sleep on his own. – Drew Nov 16 '15 at 16:06
  • You could also try a timer to turn off the fan rather than turning on a light, but it's basically the same thing. – JPhi1618 Nov 16 '15 at 19:00
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In your question do you mention that your child seems "a zombie" in the morning, yet you say that he wakes up and doesn't fall asleep, no matter what you try. You don't describe other symptoms like yawning, general crankyness, tiredness during the day...

The point is, if a child wakes up after twelve hours of sleep or so:
Did it occur to you that he might simply have slept enough?

There are recommendations as to how many hours of sleep are usual for a child of a certain age, but those are not "one-fits-all" values. Children have individual needs, some will always need more, some less and some will vary depending on what is going on in their life.

For the moment I will be assuming that he gets about the amount of sleep that fits his needs, which means you can only try to influence when he should sleep.

You don't tell much about his daily schedule, whether he's home or goes to daycare, so I'll offer you two suggestions:

  1. cut the nap
    This means he goes to bed rather early in the evening, but might be cranky before bed. This is probably the method most parents in western culture choose. Many children stop napping during their third year, or at least significantly shorten their naps.
  2. let him stay up longer in the evening
    Some children need a nap after a morning in daycare or similar to wind down and regroup. For them, taking a short rest is very beneficial. The fact that your child takes a 2.5h nap at the age of three could be a hint that he falls into that group.

So before you try a "don't get out of bed" light, I suggest you do some basic calculations based on when you want your child to wake up and adjust bed- and naptime accordingly. You need to plan for a certain transition time until the new schedule is established.

Unfortunately children - like adults - have their "internal clock", some will always wake early, others simply seem not to get tired. But if I read your question right, even an hour or two more in the morning is better than having to get up at 4:30... And there are people that simply aren't "hit the floor running" types. They need a certain "get into gear" time to start their day. My daughter is like your child: A zombie for the first hour at least. We adults tend to drink another cup of coffee and muddle through, children are more direct in their feelings. It does get better though...

  • Stephie, by my math he is 1 hour short: 2.5 hour nap and 9.5-10 hours of nighttime sleep making a total of 11.5-12 hours, which by most online resources is 1 hour short of the 12-13 he should be getting at this age. He is in daycare two days a week. I will try your suggestion of shortening his nap by 1 hour and move it a little later (napping 1-2:30pm instead of his current 12-2:30pm), as we think that his current bedtime is late enough. What are your thoughts on this plan? – Ben Nov 17 '15 at 18:19
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    @Ben, if I had a definite answer, I were very rich... Seriously, try what fits your schedule. My gut feeling would be starting with shorter naps, too. In my understanding, the goal of a nap at that age is to gather some strength, not get a significant portion of sleep. Think "power-napping". Just in case it comforts you: neither of my children ever slept the "average" or recommended amount and turned out fine. – Stephie Nov 17 '15 at 18:35
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I agree with Stephie that it sounds like your son is probably sleeping enough and that's why he won't sleep longer in the morning.

This page gives a guide as to how much sleep children need on average.

http://www.babycenter.com/0_how-much-sleep-does-your-child-need_64915.bc

For a three year old, it shows nighttime sleep of 9-12 hours and daytime sleep of 1-3 hours with a total of 12-13 hours. I have personally never been able to get my own son to sleep as much as these type of charts suggest but it sounds like your son's sleep is around the averages given here.

Perhaps your son is grumpy when he wakes up just because it's dark and no-one wants to play.

I would like to make a third suggestion about adjusting his schedule. Over a period of a few days I would try moving the nap a bit later and making it a bit shorter. This could allow your son to shift some of his sleep total into nighttime without him getting too cranky before nap or bedtime. Alternatively, you could shift the nap later and bedtime later. I find with my son that he if he has a nap earlier than he really needs it, he tends to start waking earlier in the morning as he uses the nap to compensate for the early waking. Your son probably is quite tired by his 12:30 nap at the moment which is why you need to move it gradually and hopefully you'll see his wake up time start to get later.

I've read in a lot of places that some children just wake up early and there's nothing you can do about it but I don't agree with that. People seem to manage to shift their child's schedule for daylight saving or changing time zone. It might not happen overnight but it will change over a period of time. Some children are very sensitive to daylight so you may need to make an extra effort to keep the room dark in the mornings if this is the case for you. If you're in the northern hemisphere, that shouldn't be a problem at this time of year though.

One more thing - could he be hungry when he wakes up? Particularly if you sometimes give him breakfast soon after he wakes up early, his body may get used to needing food early. You could try holding off on breakfast or giving him some milk and seeing if he'll go back to sleep for a bit.

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