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  • Heather Wallace

How to Use a “Toddler Clock” to Help With Your Toddler’s Early Morning Wakings


toddler standing on bed, early morning wake up
Avoid toddler parties early morning!

Toddler sleep can be quite tricky… a very fine balance between daytime napping and night sleep. If something is off, you’ll find yourself stumbling to your child’s room early in the morning trying to convince her to stay in bed because it’s not morning yet. Toddler’s can’t tell time. As the morning approaches and they are in a lighter sleep, it’s a guessing game to them as to when it’s time to hop out of bed and wake Mom and Dad up. This is why using a toddler clock can be so helpful in teaching your child when it’s time to wake up for the day, and when it’s time to roll over and go back to sleep in the early morning hours.


About early wakings

There are many reasons why a toddler might wake early. From FOMO to schedule issues, the first step to fixing early morning wake-ups is to pinpoint why. Here are the most common reasons why a toddler wakes at a God-awful time in the morning:


Toddler sleep needs: Age 18 mo-3 yr old
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1. Your toddler’s sleep needs have decreased and there needs to be a schedule change. Around 18 months-2.5 years old a toddler’s sleep needs decrease quite a bit. If you don’t keep up it can cause early wake-ups which then can lead to bad habits starting. Double-check your toddler’s schedule and adjust accordingly.




2. Your toddler is more aware of what happens when the day starts and is struggling with that impulse to get up and make it happen. It is extremely important that you do not reinforce this early morning wake-up with milk or screens. Wait for at least 30 minutes before offering these two highly motivating activities.


3. Your toddler is dependent on parental presence at bedtime in order to fall asleep. If your toddler is dependent on something to fall asleep at bedtime, then he will struggle to connect sleep cycles in those early morning hours when sleep pressure is low.


What is a toddler clock?

A toddler clock is a device that uses a light instead of numbers to show what time it is in terms of when it is time to wake up for the day. You can teach your child to look at the clock when they are wondering if it is morning yet, and go back to sleep if the clock isn’t the right color. (Read on to learn how!) The toddler clock can be used as an intentional strategy starting around age 2, but you can even get started earlier, around 18 months old making the clock part of your toddler’s routine.


My favorite toddler clocks are ones that are bluetooth. This is because you always want to reinforce that it’s not time to get up until the clock shows the right color. (Let’s say green!) Sometimes you are stuck with your child waking up early and you don’t mind getting the child up for the day a few min early. In this case you can just open the app that the clock comes with and slide the light to the correct color. If you do not have a clock that you can control wirelessly it could be more difficult to reinforce 100% of the time. The most well-known device that has this feature is the Hatch. This is also conveniently a sound machine and night light which makes this product great from newborn age on! However it is on the pricier side, and I am all about finding an alternative that works just as well! And FINALLY there are alternatives out there! Check out the Momcozy sound machine that doubles as a bluetooth toddler clock which is half the price of the Hatch! (View other options plus more of my favorites for bedtime HERE!)


How to teach the toddler clock

This super helpful tool isn’t magical, unfortunately. (I wish, though!) But with practice and consistency your toddler can learn to stay in bed by adhering to the color of the clock.


Take advantage of the novelty

When the toddler clock come in the mail make a big deal about it. Let your toddler play around with the clock and even the app. Have your toddler change the colors on his own. Let your toddler choose the color that will show when it’s time to wake up. You can then explain to your toddler that when he sees this color it will be time to wake up. But if the clock is not this color it is still night time and time to sleep.


Practice by playing a game

Next, it’s time to play! Play a game of red light, green light. (or possibly… yellow light, purple light!) When the light is red, have your toddler freeze in one spot. When the light turns green, your toddler can run around and act silly. You can even switch spots and have your toddler control the clock with you being the one to stop and go.


Roleplay

Now it’s time to take it to the room and roleplay with your child’s favorite stuffed animal, then with the child themselves. Let your toddler tuck the stuffed animal in bed, with the light showing red. Then the toddler can turn the light to green and get the stuffed animal up with lots of cheering. Then the toddler (or maybe you) will hop in bed and pretend to sleep. The more dramatic the better! When the light turns green “wake up” and cheer. “Yay! We did it!” Make it fun and silly!


Adhering to the clock

Now that your toddler is quite familiar with the reason for the clock as well as how it works you can start to use it at night and reinforce that your toddler does not start the day until that clock is green.


You still need some kind of motivation for your toddler to stay in bed until the clock is green. Some toddlers just need praise, “You did it! You stayed in bed until the clock was green!” (Don’t we all hope for a toddler like this!?) Others need a physical reward. You can grab some dollar tree toys to put in a treasure box. Or it can be as simple as fruit snacks before breakfast. My favorite reward is a quarter!

toddler celebrating wake up.
Green light for the win! Use a toddler clock to motivate your toddler

The game called “Quarters” is simple. Your toddler gets a quarter every time he stays in bed until the clock is green. However, staying in bed might be a big feat for you toddler. So make this easier at first where your toddler will get a quarter just by starting the day when the clock is green. This might mean you have to put your toddler back in his room over and over which doesn’t exactly seem like a win. But if the day doesn’t start until that light is green then it reinforces what you want. Then make it harder to get that quarter by only giving it when he stays in bed (or in the room at least) until the light is green. If these two behaviors are still too hard back up and offer the reward just for completing the bedtime routine without a fuss. Your goal is to create motivation for the reward so that your toddler’s brain starts to seek out the reward even if the stakes are higher.


The way you respond to your child’s protest early morning is still the number one way to get through this tough developmental stage of asserting autonomy. Ensure that your toddler is falling asleep completely independently, without parental presence at bedtime. When your toddler wakes too early you can offer to keep the door cracked and check in on your toddler in short intervals until back asleep. (“I can check on you if you’re laying quietly in bed!”) But if your toddler is crying, demanding, or continually getting out of bed let him know that the door will close. Hold the door closed for a few minutes then pop back in, walk your toddler back to bed and repeat a consistent phrase such as, “I can check on you if you’re laying quietly in bed.” Once it’s an okay time for your toddler to get up for the day (I wouldn’t recommend earlier than 6 am.) turn the light on from your phone and celebrate that the light is finally green.


With patience and consistency you can teach your toddler how to stay in bed until it’s time to get up. And as your toddler learns, habit and routine take over and there will be peace again at 5 am in your home!


Toddler sleep training is not as straightforward as infant sleep training. If you need additional support you will benefit from my toddler sleep package! This three-week plan will walk you through exactly what to do when your toddler protests sleep in order to stop the “put the toddler back in bed all night” game.


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