How to succeed with the “Wake Up Clock”
First, let’s ensure you know what I mean when I refer to a “wake up clock.” A wake up clock, like the Gro Clock or Sleepy Sheep, is designed to help toddlers and preschoolers understand when it’s time (or “ok”) to get out of bed. The idea is to help those kiddos who might feel 5 a.m. is an appropriate time to be starting their day to understand that the crack of dawn is actually still “nighttime” and they need to go back to sleep and get more rest.
Let me be clear: I love wake up clocks! They can be a fabulous tool for helping the whole family get more rest. But, there are some very common mistakes I see parents make when it comes to implementing a wake up clock, leading to the (incorrect) conclusion that these clocks simply “don’t work.”
Let’s use the Gro Clock as an example. Here’s how it works: the Gro Clock is “set” each night by parent and/or child (it’s easy to set – just a couple of buttons), turning the clock’s face blue and bringing a smiling cartoon-like star onto the screen. The clock face then stays blue during the night, and turns orange (with a bright, smiling sun appearing on the screen) when it’s time to get up the next day. (You, as the parent, set the inner workings of the clock to an appropriate wake-up time, and this is when the sun will appear on the clock).
So, what could go wrong? Here’s what:
1) Introducing the wake up clock too early:
I suggest a wake up clock not be introduced earlier than the age of 2.5 years; and, for many children, 3+ years will be better.
Introducing the Gro Clock means asking your child to understand the concept of getting in bed and going to sleep when the star appears on the clock each night, and staying in bed quietly until the sun appears on the clock the next morning. That might sound simple to an adult, but it’s a lot of instructions for a 2-year old; and, 10-12 hours (which is how much nighttime sleep toddlers need!) is a long time for them to have to retain that information and apply it.
Most children’s comprehension levels are not high enough at just 2 years of age to fully understand the “rules” around a wake up clock. Because of this, they won’t follow those rules, and the clock will not work the way you’d hoped. It’s generally much more effective to introduce this type of clock at 2.5 years or older, when there’s a much better chance your child will understand and then follow the boundaries you’ve set with regards to the clock.
2) Making the clock only about morning and not about bedtime, too:
When explaining the wake up clock to your child, it’s necessary to emphasize not only that she needs to “stay in bed until the sun comes up on the clock” in the morning, but also that she needs to “go to bed quietly when the stars appear on the clock” at bedtime. The wake up clock can be a great way to deal with bedtime stalling or tantrums, rather than only making it a “stay in bed past 6am” tool. If your child knows the rules are not just about staying in bed longer each morning, but also about going to bed easily each evening, the clock can be a very effective tool for managing both difficult bedtimes and early mornings.
3) Telling your child he can play in his room until the clock “wakes up”:
This one might get Mom and Dad some more sleep, but it doesn’t promote proper rest for your kiddo. If a child wakes at 5am with the understanding that he can get up and play in his room until the sun comes up on their clock, of course he is going to get up and thrown on the lights, rather than stay in his bed and quietly go back to sleep. You as parents may get some extra shut-eye, but your child is likely going to be overly-exhausted during the day.
I recommend adjusting the clock to a reasonable time to set your child up for success. It’s quite normal and biologically-appropriate for toddlers and preschoolers to be awake and ready to start their day between 6-7 a.m. So, if you already know your child is an early riser, don’t set the clock for 7:30 a.m. and expect him to stay in bed that whole time! Set the clock for 6 a.m. (at least to start!) to give him a better chance of “succeeding” at staying in bed until the sun comes up. Then, praise, praise, praise!!! I cannot emphasize this enough! Give your child huge props for staying in bed until the sun comes up – children respond better to positive reinforcement than to anything else. As he gets used to the clock, you can move it to 6:15 a.m., 6:30 a.m., etc.
4) There are no rewards or consequences associated with the clock
Yes, it would be fantastic if children simply did what we asked of them because they love us and want to make us happy. But, alas, that’s not how preschoolers function. Young children respond really well to a few things, and among those are rewards and age-appropriate consequences.
Here’s the scenario:
Preschooler’s Dad: “We tried the Gro Clock. We told our 3-year-old to stay in bed until the clock was orange.”
Me: “And then what happened?”
Dad: “He came in our bed and demanded Cheerios and Paw Patrol at 5 a.m.”
Me: “And then what happened?”
Dad: “We went downstairs and ate Cheerios and watched Paw Patrol at 5 a.m.”
In most situations, putting boundaries in place without also creating a certain system of rewards and consequences will mean the rules are tested and then broken. Please keep in mind that, particularly for young children, this does not mean buying your child a new three-story playhouse every time she sleeps through the night, nor locking her in her bedroom until she goes to sleep. It means considering the things you already know your child responds well to (again, both in terms of praise and rewards and in terms of penalties or costs of her actions), and using those to help motivate your child to follow the rules that have been created around her new wake up clock.
Erin Junker is a Professional Infant & Toddler Sleep Consultant, and owner of The Happy Sleep Company, working closely with tired parents to help them help their little ones get the healthy, restful sleep they need. Follow The Happy Sleep Company on Instagram and Facebook - let’s get your family the healthy, happy sleep you deserve!
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Disclaimer: The advice provided by The Happy Sleep Company is not a substitute for medical advice. The advice on this website is provided solely for informational purposes in connection with common early childhood sleep issues that are wholly unrelated to medical conditions. Always seek the advice of your doctor or another qualified health practitioner with questions regarding medical conditions or the health or welfare of your child.
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