In her recurring column, author and sleep research guru Malia Jacobson answers reader questions about that most important of parenting tools: a good night's sleep. In this edition, Restless Legs Syndrome and picking the perfect bedtime.
My 20-month-old son has started waking at 4 a.m. Help!
Four a.m. wakeup calls are no fun—starting the day before dawn makes for cranky parents and an overtired toddler. Here’s some good news: since the early wakeups are a new development, they’re likely a temporary phase. If your son used to sleep later in the morning, he’s probably not a habitual early riser. With some tweaks to his routine, he’ll probably start to snooze later, fairly quickly.
First, examine his sleep routine. Is overtiredness contributing to his early waking? Overtired children build up an overbalance of adrenaline in their system that makes it more difficult to reach and maintain deep sleep. When these overtired children hit the naturally-occurring period of lighter sleep between 4 and 6 a.m., they often wake up and stay awake. To combat overtiredness, move his bedtime earlier by 30 to 60 minutes at night. It sounds counterintuitive, but an earlier bedtime can actually help him sleep later in the morning.
Need more sleep?
Read more from the author Malia Jacobson in her book "Ready, Set, Sleep" — now available on Amazon.
Second, make sure his nap is occurring at the right time. At nearly two years of age, he’s likely still adjusting to a single daytime nap, and may be sleepy in the mornings. But if you allow him to crash too early in the day, he’ll become overtired during the long afternoon and evening stretch before bedtime, which sets him up to wake too early. When he appears tired in the a.m., use distraction, redirection, and outdoor play to keep him awake until after lunch.
Finally, think about the messages you’re communicating to your son. If you flip on the lights and feed him breakfast in the pre-dawn hours, he’ll quickly learn that 4 a.m. is “morning.” When he wakes at 4 a.m., comfort him, but keep the house lights off and tell him that it’s still time for sleep. Over time, he’ll get the message.
My partner gets off work at 10 p.m. Is it OK to keep my preschooler awake until then?
Your child will be better off sticking to an earlier bedtime, and spending time with your partner during another part of the day. Keeping your child awake at night prevents her from achieving a full night of restorative sleep, disturbs her circadian rhythm, and sets the stage for mood, learning, and weight problems. And kids who stay up too late are hardly great company (unless you and your partner enjoy tantrums and meltdowns). Instead of keeping your child awake, brainstorm other ways your partner can spend time with her, like taking over the morning routine, reading stories together before an afternoon nap, or doing bedtime on weekends. Prioritizing your daughter’s sleep and health will help ensure that the time she spends with your partner is happy and rewarding.