Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press

Cue the lights: A sleep doc’s strategy when kids wake up too early

Is your toddler or preschooler waking you up waaaay before they should? Like, clearly they’re still sleepy and need the extra time in bed? I feel you on the sleep struggles. Here’s a second strategy by pediatric psychologist Brett Kuhn, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which he presented at a SLEEP conference here in Seattle. (The first was the “Excuse Me Drill,” for helping kids age 3+ to sleep on their own.)

Problem: My kid wakes up too early.

Kuhn worked with two autistic kids who were waking up at 5 a.m., wanting to start their day and go for a drive. But they were sleepy during the morning. They clearly needed, he says, one more sleep cycle. Inspired by a story of dolphin trainers in the book “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” he came up with this intervention. (If your kid is waking up too early but he’s not sleepy in the morning, that’s a different issue—an “advanced sleep phase,” since you asked—and this strategy isn’t a good fit.)

Strategy: Cue the lights. (Ages 2 & up)

Light is our body’s strongest cue for waking and sleeping. (See Bedtime? Make sure it’s truly ‘lights out’.) Use this to your advantage.

If your child can’t tell time:

  1. Put a lamp on a silent timer. (Or there’s the OK to Wake or Kid’Sleep lights, if you’re into kiddie characters.) Set the timer for your kid’s usual wake time—in this case, 5 a.m.
  2. If your kid lights up before the lamp does, say: “We’re not doing anything right now. It’s nighttime. Go back to bed.”
  3. After a few mornings of success, with no waking before the light, fade the timing of the lamp: 5:10 a.m., 5:20 a.m., 5:30, and so on.

It’s called “stimulus control.” The light is the stimulus. You’re associating the light with “time to wake up!” in your child’s brain. And then as you gradually shift the stimulus, the behavior follows.

“With a behavioral problem, if you can bring the behavior under stimulus control, and you can control the delivery of the stimulus, you can solve that behavioral problem,” Kuhn says.

I bet that’s not how most of us describe our approach to solving sleep issues! I appreciate how it strips away a certain amount of emotion and uncertainty.

If your child can tell time:

Set a rule—and enforce it—that she must stay in bed until a certain time. With an analog clock, say, “When the little hand gets to the 6, you can come out of your room.” With a digital clock, tape over the minutes and say, “Once you see the 6, you can come out of your room.”
Then follow steps 2 and 3 above.
(Still too early for you? Put breakfast food and dishes within reach, and teach your kid how to make her own breakfast. Muesli is easy: A couple handfuls of rolled oats, pour in milk, let soak for 5 minutes, add nuts and fruit. Put the bowls, spoons, and ingredients within her reach. Yes, a 3-year-old can do this, if you spend several mornings teaching how and if you let go of some perfectionism.) You have other ideas, too, I bet.

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

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