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If you don’t have children, you probably don’t appreciate that sleeping until 6am can be a luxury. Even if you do have children, perhaps you have angels that even in their toddlerhood had to be awoken at 7:30. Or perhaps that’s just what you told your friends.
It was a great relief to me when my youngest turned out to be a better sleeper than her older sister. She found her fingers early on, and soon got into the habit of sucking them as she fell asleep or when she woke up in the middle of the night. So night times themselves haven’t been too bad this time round.
But mornings… We stabilised around 5:30am, but over the last several months she’s been waking earlier and earlier, so 5:15 was about the latest I could hope to be undisturbed and 5am certainly wasn’t unknown. And she would scream and cry until I got her up and into our bed, tucking into her early morning feed. And, having got that wound up, wouldn’t go back to sleep. So I determined to do something about it.
There are two lessons I learned from tackling my eldest’s sleep problems. First, that you only change behaviour if you’re consistent. Second, that if you want to be easy on the child (as I do) then you have to be prepared to spend time on it: you can’t fix these problems overnight, or even over a week of nights.
The technique I adopted was to use an alarm clock to mark the time when I would get her up. Other parents have used music, which is probably more gentle, but mine was just an ordinary beeping alarm clock because that’s what I had. I’d read that you should start with a time about 15 minutes before the usual awakening, so that they get used to being woken up rather than waking up themselves. But I couldn’t bring myself to have an alarm wake me earlier than 5am so that’s what I started with. And I decided to move the clock on just a little bit (2 minutes) every day, rather than wait for her to get used to a particular time before changing the alarm.
At first it was pretty hard. There were a couple of days when the alarm actually woke her up, and she fell back asleep again after her feed. But then she adapted to the early alarm, and started waking up crying at 4:45am. I would get up, hug her through the bars of her cot, stroke her hair, hold her until the alarm went off, and we would both snuggle into bed in relief. Knowing the alarm was coming soon helped keep me consistent: no getting out of the cot until it went off. But it was hard, and if I hadn’t learned that these things take time I might have given up, thinking it would never work.
Gradually, the alarm time got to 5:15. She got into a pattern when she would wake up crying (before the alarm, of course) but if I just sat on the floor by the cot she would, in frustration, lie back down in her cot and gradually calm down as she sucked her fingers. This was quiet, at least, and Bill would only be temporarily disturbed on her first wakening. I, on the other hand, would sit motionless, my legs gradually losing circulation, terrified in case moving would disturb her again.
One morning, when the alarm time was around 5:30, I had to get move while she was in her post-waking/pre-alarm state, to deal with my other daughter, but my youngest stayed calm. So I changed tactic slightly, and when she woke I sat at the edge of the bed. Just seeing me there was enough to get her to lie down again, and the bed was more comfortable for me than the floor. And there was definite hope: she was waking later and later as the alarm time changed.
This morning the alarm went off at 6am. For the last week or so, if she wakes before the alarm (and sometimes she doesn’t), she may grumble a bit but I don’t need to stir. This is an inconceivable luxury compared to a month or two ago: an extra hour or so in bed, and a peaceful awakening.
Of course I can’t guarantee that this will work with your child, but if you’re having problems with an early riser, it’s certainly worth a shot.