If your child is constantly waking up early – like 4 or 5 a.m. early – it can wreak havoc on both you and your child. By dinnertime, everyone is grumpy and at their wits’ end.
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“A lot of our sleep habits develop at a really early age,” says pediatrician Maria Tang, MD. “So it’s important for a child to have good sleep habits for their overall health and well-being.”
Dr. Tang says that one of the biggest things that parents can do is be consistent with keeping regular bedtime and sleep routines.
It’s important to know the recommended amount of sleep per day for each age group according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Newborn (0 to 3 months): 14 to 17 hours
- Infants (4 to 11 months): 12 to 15 hours
- Toddlers (1 to 2 years) 11 to 14 hours
- Preschoolers (3 to 5 years) 10 to 13 hours
- School-age children (6 to 13 years) 9 to 11 hours
You shouldn’t wait until your child starts to show signs of being sleepy, like yawning or rubbing his or her eyes. At that point, they’re probably overly tired and it has begun to take a toll on them, says Dr. Tang. Instead, be consistent about putting your child to bed at a specific time each night.
Start by putting them to bed 15 minutes earlier for a day or two ― and then continue moving it up by 15 more minutes each night. Do this until they’re sleeping the appropriate amount of time and their wake-up time is manageable for you both.
“Once kids have developed bad sleep habits, parents need to have patience with trying to reverse it,” says Dr. Tang. “Changing a bedtime and wake time can take about three weeks. And you’ve got to be consistent.”
Naps and bedroom environment
Nap time can be included in overall sleep time. But if you find that your child’s having trouble falling asleep and still waking up early, try limiting daytime naps to less than 45 minutes.
Also be sure that your child’s bedroom is associated with sleep, and not necessarily as a place to play.
Establish a nighttime routine with things like story time, a lullaby or dimming the lights. Your child will start to associate that these things mean it’s time for bed. Also be sure to stop screen time at least one hour before bed and try to keep tablets and phones out of a child’s room to better promote sleep.
On weekends, Dr. Tang recommends that a child sleeps in no later than one hour past their normal wake time. Letting them sleep longer could hinder their internal clock and make it harder for them to fall asleep that night.
“There are alarm clocks designed specifically to help children learn good bedtime and wake up times,” says Dr. Tang. “But the biggest thing is not to use a cell phone as an alarm clock because if it’s available they might use it when no one else is around.” Instead, try using a regular alarm clock and explain that it’s OK to get out of bed when the clock says it’s a certain time (say 7:30 a.m.).
Every child is different and sleep habits can vary. But if you don’t notice any difference in your child after you’ve tried patiently to change bedtime and wake times, it might be time to see the pediatrician.
“We’ll look for things like snoring at night, any change in breathing or if the child is so sleepy in the morning that they’ve started to perform poorly at school,” says Dr. Tang. “Some kids need to see an ear, nose and throat doctor ― or even do a sleep study.”
It does take a lot of time to build good sleep habits back up, but there’s no point where it’s ever considered too late to change, says Dr. Tang. Consistency and holding regular bedtime and morning routines is the most important thing you can do to develop good sleep habits in your child.
And don’t worry too much – waking up at the crack of dawn typically doesn’t last forever in kids.