Care and Feeding

Way-Too-Early Bird

We just moved across the country (and across time zones). How can we adjust our toddler’s sleep schedule so he stops waking up at 4:30 a.m. every day?

A smiling toddler standing up from inside his crib.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our family recently moved across the country, from East to West Coast. While most of the family has made the sleep adjustment to Pacific time, including our nearly 1-year-old, our 2 ½-year-old toddler continues to wake up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. It’s been about a month, and while I know that’s not a great deal of time, there’s been really no advancement of his internal clock, so I’m a little concerned. The 1-year-old is typically asleep by 8 p.m. (and sleeps until about 7 a.m.), and the toddler is in bed at about 8:30 p.m. (and up about 4:30 a.m.). My wife is a stay-at-home parent, and I am fortunate enough to work from home. To work within this arrangement, I get up with the older child while my wife sleeps in until she naturally wakes up, sometime between 7:30 and 9 a.m. Both of the children typically take a 1 ½- to 2-hour nap in the early afternoon, during which I catch an hour or so nap myself. Even with this arrangement, it’s difficult, and my wife is almost always exhausted by the end of the day. She’s growing another tiny human at the moment, which also helps explain the exhaustion.

I am very happy to help this situation however I can, but I’m concerned that when I do return to work, it will fall to my wife to get up at 4:30 a.m. and have to sleepwalk through the day. Any advice on changing toddler sleep habits?

—Just Want to Sleep

Dear JWS,

My sympathies, as I can deeply relate after making the same move last year (and it was me, the adult, who struggled the most with the change). I’d recommend speaking to your pediatrician about ways to make this transition smoother for your son—though, as you mention, one month is not a long time at all and I don’t think you should be overly concerned that he isn’t adjusting “properly.” However, she can help you be sure that there aren’t any other factors at hand and could provide some pointers that are specific to your son’s unique needs.

Let me remind you that your almost-threenager is not the boss of this house, as much as he may be, well, the boss of this house. Establish a wake-up time for him and require him to stay in bed until it is time to get up; you may have to go sleep by his side or sit in his room with him when he rises too early, but the goal should be to get him used to staying in bed until a reasonable time. Right now, you have established that 4:30–5 a.m. is wake-up time, and that Daddy will be there to get his day started for him as soon as he rises.

This may be controversial, but I found that the best way to keep my child from waking up super early as a toddler was to let her stay up a bit later than what most folks would recommend. Some kids simply operate off of less sleep than others, and when I realized that she’d be up at the crack of dawn (or before) with a “proper” bedtime, that was the end of aspiring to a “proper” bedtime. As it stands now, your son is not getting as much sleep as you’d intended him to get, so the least you can do is make this situation easier for yourself and your wife by keeping him up longer so he’ll stay asleep past 7 a.m.

—Jamilah