If your toddler wakes up too early and your mornings consist of clinginess, whining, and endless tantrums, I have some simple tips today that will completely transform your morning. It’s time for a 3 Year Old Morning Routine Makeover!
I flipped over my phone to check the time: 6 AM. Like clockwork.
I reluctantly pulled myself out of bed and trudged upstairs to see my 3 year old standing behind the baby gate holding all of her stuffed animals tightly.
“I’m ready to come downstairs,” she said in the sweetest little voice.
Convinced that she was ready, and armed with the confidence that today would be the day she actually COULD come downstairs at her wake-up time (6 AM) and actually be READY to start the day, I said:
“Okay, let’s go get you a snack.”
Not two minutes later that sweet little voice transformed into every toddler mom’s biggest annoyance: THE WHINING VOICE.
“Buuut, I don’t want a plain GoGo, I want a cinnamon GoGo. I don’t want you to go in the other room to get ready, I want you to stay out here with me. But I don’t want to come in there, I want you here. No I can’t wait until you make coffee, I want you to read this stack of 1,863 Disney Princess books now!”
Ummm…**checks clock** 6:15 AM. Perfect.
If this sounds anything like the mornings in your house, by this point you’ve either erupted into a lack-of-sleep-induced-adult-size-tantrum of your own, burst into tears, or stood silent in complete and utter disbelief.
Really any of these responses is fitting for this particular form of Groundhog’s Day.
I’d like to believe there is a special place reserved in Heaven for moms-of-early-risers. I’ve heard (and even met) some unicorn children who sleep until 8 AM – can you imagine?
But not my girl.
She has always been an early riser, and she has always had her fair share of sleep issues, but waking up way.too.early. has by far been the most troublesome.
Before we dive deep into this whole morning routine makeover, you may find it helpful to remember two essential things:
- Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I would have done a lot of things differently to sort of “reprogram” my 3 year old’s sleep habits, when she was say, 18 months old. That being said…..
- It’s never too late to change things. Older toddlers CAN learn new tricks. New is fun and interesting to a 3 year old, and my child is proof that anyone can turn things around.
And now for the question every overtired mom wishes she could answer:
Why Does My Toddler Wake Up So Early?
Here’s the good news and the bad news: it is developmentally appropriate for toddlers to wake early. They are essentially programmed to do so. If your toddler wakes up early in a good mood (and stays that way), there’s probably not much you can do about their wake-up time.
However, if your toddler is waking up early and within 15 minutes they are a complete mess, it’s time for something to change. This is your best indication that they need more sleep.
Easier said than done, I know.
Okay, So Where Do I Start?
There are a few “fixes” that may help your toddler sleep in later.
- Shorten the time between dinner and bedtime: If your dinnertime is 5 PM but your toddler isn’t going to bed until 8 PM, chances are they are waking up hungry. Try making bedtime earlier or dinner later, whichever works for your family’s schedule.
- Offer a filling snack before bed: Try offering a banana, or some real whole grain crackers with natural peanut butter. Nothing exciting, just something simple to keep them full all night.
- Nighttime Potty Training Problems: If your toddler wakes up early because they have to pee (and then can’t fall back asleep), you may have to go in to have them pee at a time that won’t impact their wake-time. For example: we found that if we had our 3.5 year old pee anywhere between midnight-2 AM, she would sleep longer in the morning. Yes, being up in the middle of the night stinks, early wakeups + cranky toddler = worse.
- Put your toddler to bed early: The ONLY way to break your toddler of an overtired sleep cycle is to put them to bed at least an hour before their usual bedtime. For example: if your toddler is hellbent on waking up at 5 (and they are a mess), and you usually put them to bed at 7, try putting them to bed at 6 every night for a week. This isn’t forever. Just until their sleep cycle resets. When it comes to sleep, more is more.
- Don’t starve them of sleep: Many desperate parents might think that keeping their toddler up late will help them sleep in. And many parents find that this is very untrue. You may even discover that the later you put them to bed the earlier they wake up. As mentioned above, more sleep is more sleep.
- Offer breakfast at the same time everyday: Train your toddler’s body to expect when to eat. I used to make the mistake of offering a ton of food (thinking she must have been starving!) first thing in the morning, no matter how early she woke up. Pick a time and stick to it. Keep it simple: “No breakfast until 7. If you’re hungry before then you can have a banana or a GoGo Squeez.” – or, you know, sleep until 7 🙂
What Should I Do if My Toddler is Still in their Crib?
If they are still in their crib, I would not be in any rush to “allow” them to wake up and come out of their crib.
- My younger daughter (21 months) is still in her crib and if she wakes up too early, I let her stay in her crib, even if she is awake, until at least 7 AM.
- Usually she just rolls around singing to herself, and sometimes she will stand up and lay back down.
- If she is crying or screaming for me, I will go in comfort her, maybe nurse her again, and lay her back down, just like I would if it was the middle of the night.
One last word of wisdom before we jump into my 3 Year Old’s Morning Routine: If you let your toddler wake up, come into the kitchen and start their day at 5:30 AM, why not 3 AM?
To a small child, dark is dark and light is light. So if it’s pitch black outside at 5:30 AM, how can they differentiate 5:30 AM dark from 3 AM dark?
Fortunately, I discovered a simple fix for this which I’ll share later on, but for a younger toddler, it’s important to remember that “middle of the night” means nothing to them.
At certain times of the year, 6 AM still looks like the middle of the night. Of course, if it’s dark in the morning where you live for a good portion of the year, it’s never a bad idea to turn on a bunch of lights when your child wakes up to indicate that it’s “daytime.”
I realize that was A LOT of information, and there’s still plenty more to come. Around here, I like to go in depth and give plenty of advice, lots of options, scenarios, plus tips and wisdom from my life with my two girls.
Some more very detailed posts you may find helpful are:
- What To Do When Your Toddler Won’t Poop in the Potty
- How to Manage a Baby & Toddler as a Stay at Home Mom
- When Your Toddler Won’t Nap
- Bedtime Routine with a Baby & Toddler
- Ultimate Picky Eater Challenge
3 Year Old Morning Routine Makeover
Step 1: Choose your okay-to-wake time. This is important. This is the time you’ll stick with, and consistency is everything. You’ll see moving forward that we have two times: okay-to-wake and okay-to-leave-room.
Our okay-to-wake time is 6 AM, because that is the average time my 3.5 year old gets up. If your toddler is a chronic early-riser, it might be a stretch for their okay-to-wake time to be 7 AM, because it’s unlikely they’ll actually wake up anywhere near that time.
So if my daughter wakes up before her okay-to-wake time, because she has to pee, or thinking it’s time to get up, we treat this like a middle of the night wake-up. I’ll simply have her pee and then tuck her back in and leave the room.
Step 2: Choose your okay-to-leave-room time (or whatever you want to call it). If my toddler wants to wake up at 6, fine. But she is not coming downstairs to start her day with the whining fest.
7:00 AM is her “okay to leave your room/mommy will come get you” time.
So how do you enforce these times and what does my toddler do from 6-7?!
First things first: It is essential to buy a digital clock, if you don’t already have one. I found mine on Amazon for less than $15.
If your toddler knows their numbers, you can teach them that 6:00 is their okay-to-wake time and 7:00 is their mommy comes to get you time. You can also use a post-it or small flashcard for comparison to show the “6” on the clock and the “6” on the post-it.
In my experience, this took about a week of practice before she was “okay” with these two times. Since her younger sister sleeps right across the hall, it is very important to me to keep my 3 year old in her room as long as possible so that she doesn’t wake up her little sister.
If your toddler is too young to learn numbers, you can try a color-changing okay-to-wake clock, such as this one. We used this for a long time until the digital clock became a better fit.
Mom-to-Mom Tip: The most effective way to introduce this new routine is by involving your toddler in the process. The level of their involvement will of course depend upon their age, but in any case, your child will want to feel that this is “special” NOT a punishment or anything of the sort.
I introduced my 3.5 year old to her new routine by calling it her “plan” – I said something to the effect of: “Okay, your new plan is wake up, go potty, read books, and wait for mommy to come get you at 7:00. Can you help me pick out a special new clock for your room?”
After printing out the routine cards (shown below), my daughter helped me put them on her door with “special” purple tape. We then went over her new plan together.
Step 3: Set up your toddler’s room for success. If they are an early riser, you’ll want their room to be a safe place for them to play before you come to get them. This is very similar to setting up a “quiet time” space, which I discuss in detail here. ←This post also has tons of helpful tips for toddler-proofing their room.
*Please Note: If you don’t get a chance to click over to that post, it is very important to know that all of your toddler’s furniture must be properly latched to the wall, especially if you are allowing them to roam around their room without you.
Step 4: Use these printable morning routine cards to visually show your toddler what they need to do once they wake up. This serves two important functions:
- Promotes independence
- Removes YOU from the picture. In my experience, once mom is in the room, mom is not leaving the room. And can you blame them? They’ve just woken up and haven’t seen you all night! Of course they don’t want you to leave!
That being said, if you are frustrated with how your morning routine is playing out, then removing yourself from the equation can be just the fix that’s needed.
What if my toddler calls for me, says she needs help or is so hungry she’s not gonna make it until 7:00!?
Yes, I have heard and experienced all of these grievances, and my best advice is this: learning a new routine takes time. Depending on the age of your toddler, they’d probably say just about anything to get you to come into their room (we have a baby monitor that she can communicate to us through – and does she ever).
Whatever you do, stay consistent.
“Your clock says 6:15, when it is 7:00 you can come into the kitchen and have a snack with me. I will be back when your clock says 7-0-0.”
Keep it short and simple. Will there be crying or tantrums in the beginning? For a chronic early-riser? You betcha. It’s all about perseverance and knowing in the end that this is what’s best for everyone.
You can almost think of this like the pre-morning routine. This is what they can do before you come to get them. Using visual reminders with simple pictures is also how I taught my toddler to get herself ready for preschool in the morning.
After printing out the routine cards, stick them on the inside of your toddler’s door, right at their eye level (as pictured below). That way, if they head straight for the door, they’ll see their morning routine cards right in front of them.
*I apologize in advance for these grainy cell-phone-quality pictures. I snapped them quickly one afternoon while my daughter was out with my husband, so that I didn’t have to answer approximately 10 million questions about why mommy was taking pictures of her room for work. #butwhy
My 3.5 year old’s independent morning routine is simple:
- Wake Up
- Go Potty (she has a little potty in her room)
- Read Books or Play with Quiet Toys
- Leave Room at 7:00 (sometimes she will stay in her room longer if she engrossed in what she is doing)
Step 5: Use that extra bit of time to sleep, get yourself ready, or have a hot cup of coffee while your early-riser entertains themselves.
Alright, before we move on here’s the quick recap:
- Okay to wake 6 AM (use digital clock or color-changing nightlight)
- Follow morning routine cards from Wake Up Time -7:00 AM
- Okay to leave room 7:00 AM
So now it’s 7 or whatever your okay-to-be-a-person time is…what comes next in our morning routine?
3 Year Old Morning Routine Makeover
The secret to a successful morning is preparing the night before. While it is tempting to crash early or stay up late watching Glee on Netflix #notaquiter, the reality is, 6 AM is decidedly not the time to be scrambling around trying to get your life together before your kids wake up.
In my opinion, “waking up before your kids” is something that’s reserved for “kids who don’t wake up at the crack of dawn.”
I would be more than happy to wake up before my kids if they both slept until 7. So although my 3 year old and I both wake up at 6, she spends her time doing her thing, while I get myself ready for the day during that time, AKA win-win.
The “makeover” factor in this part of our morning routine involves switching out TV for an easy, minimal-prep activity.
While I am not against a little screen-time in the morning, it started to feel a little early to be plopping the girls in front of the TV. Lately, both girls (3.5 & 21 months) actually prefer to do an activity first, and then a little bit of TV once they’ve been awake for awhile.
Once my older daughter joins me in the kitchen, I have two things set up for her:
- Melissa & Doug Daily Calendar
- Breakfast Invitation Activity
Beth from Days with Grey invented these amazing morning activities that toddlers can learn to do independently. My older daughter looks forward to her Breakfast Invitation every.single.morning and when baby sister wakes up, she often will join in.
These activities are meant to be simple. Something that is age-appropriate that your toddler can do on their own while you make coffee, breakfast, pack lunches for preschool, etc.
And from there, we start the rest of our day!
—> If your morning consists of trying to get your toddler ready for preschool, this post details how to teach your toddler to get dressed and organized for preschool in the morning.
—> If you are a stay-at-home mom, this post details a daily routine with a baby & toddler, and here we discuss a daily routine with a toddler and a preschooler.
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