• Beth Christensen

Toddler Clocks, OK to Wake Clocks, & Ready to Wake Clocks: Your Questions Answered!


Whether or not you’re still sheltering in place when you read this, if you have a toddler, you’ve probably heard the term “toddler clock”, or “okay to wake clock”, or even “ready to wake clock”. What is a toddler clock? Is it worth the investment? Will it magically help my toddler sleep later in the morning? Which one is the best one? What is the ideal age to start using a toddler clock with my child?

You will find the answers to all of these questions and more by reading ahead. This is not a review of toddler clocks but rather a guide as far as what features to look for when purchasing one, how to incorporate one into your toddler’s routine, and what you can reasonably expect to happen once you do start incorporating one into your toddler’s sleep routine. After reading the answers to the toddler clock questions below, I’ll recap and fill you in on our personal experience using one as well as which one we love and why!

WHAT IS A TODDLER CLOCK?

A toddler clock is a pretty general term used to describe a clock that helps toddlers discern whether or not it’s time to wake up for the day. I have also seen it defined as an “alarm clock for toddlers”. However, this definition is misleading because it sounds like the clock is designed to wake up your toddler and this is not the case. The actual purpose of the toddler clock is to let your toddler, who is too young to tell the actual time on a clock, know when it is okay to wake up and start the day. A good toddler clock won’t actually wake up your child the way an alarm clock would. Most toddler clocks utilize a light that turns on at a time in the morning that is pre-determined by caregivers. Once the light turns on, the child is able to see it and know that it is okay to get out of bed and start the day. If they wake up and the light has not yet turned on, they know that it’s still time to be asleep. There are many different types of toddler clocks on the market. You may also see them labeled as “okay to wake” clocks and “ready to wake” clocks.

WILL A TODDLER CLOCK SOLVE MY TODDLER’S SLEEPING PROBLEMS?

Toddler sleeping problems are multi-faceted and complicated to put it lightly. There are many reasons toddlers can have a difficult time falling asleep, staying asleep, and staying in their cribs/beds. A toddler clock is just one piece of the toddler sleep puzzle, but it can be an instrumental tool in helping your toddler stay in bed a little later in the morning.

To attempt to predict whether or not a toddler clock will help you solve your specific toddler’s sleep problems, ask yourself, why isn’t my toddler staying in bed in the morning? Sometimes toddlers will wake up early when they’re adjusting to a Day Light Saving change or when they’re going through a developmental achievement. In these cases, a toddler clock instituted with a few good family sleep rules could do the trick. Additionally, it is considered normal for toddlers to wake up as early as 5:30am. So, if your toddler isn’t displaying other signs of being overtired then your toddler may be a morning lark. You can utilize a toddler clock to help your morning lark toddler stay in their bed or room to help let the rest of the house sleep a little later. In this case a toddler clock instituted with a few good family sleep rules should also do the trick. In each of these scenarios, if you’re consistent with enforcing that your toddler stays in their bed or room until the clock lights up, then it will eventually work. I would say that these simple and straightforward cases of early wake ups for toddlers are in the minority.

Most of the time, early wake ups occur when children are over tired. If your toddler seems cranky, distracted, hyper or moody around 5pm each night then this could be additional evidence that your toddler is over tired. If your toddler is fighting bedtime, visiting your room in the middle of the night multiple times, waking at 4am, and going on nap strikes, then your child is undoubtably over tired. In these situations, a toddler clock in and of itself is not going to save you from your exhausted early morning misery. You will need a full-blown sleep plan consisting of a possible schedule adjustment, family sleep rules, new positive sleep language, a method of responding to your child when they are protesting sleep, and possible environmental changes. Without addressing these important factors, the purchase of a clock may help your toddler stay in bed later in the morning, but it may not help your toddler fall back to sleep or become more well rested. And, we know that well rested toddlers are better able to behave and follow rules, right? So, the chances of these clocks working if you don’t address the underlying issue of why your child is over tired, are slim. I recommend coming up with a holistic plan that addresses all of the factors above along with a big dose of parental consistency with your new routine. Once you purchase a toddler clock, I would allow for at least a 2-week adjustment period along with the rest of your holistic plan before determining whether or not it’s working.

HOW DO I USE A TODDLER CLOCK TO HELP MY CHILD STAY IN BED LATER IN THE MORNING?

If your child is waking at 4am every day for the day and you purchase a clock and set it to light up at 7am, and don’t address the root cause of the early wakings, then it is unlikely to work for two reasons. First, your child is still going to wake at 4am because they are overtired. If your toddler is a rare version of a toddler who is able to follow rules while overtired, then maybe your toddler will lay quietly in bed from 4am until 7am. However, most over tired toddlers that I know will ignore the clock and wreak havoc for the entire household between 4am and 7am. The second reason you can’t just set up a toddler clock and expect your toddler to start sleeping later than 4am is your expectation that any toddler, well rested or not, can follow a rule for 3 hours. We have to remember what toddlers are capable of and adjust our expectations accordingly.

So, address the cause of the early wake ups with a holistic sleep plan as discussed above and your child could even start sleeping later naturally without the clock. A day or two before you set up the clock, carve out some time during the day when your family is not overtired and are at their best to discuss your new plan, rules, and the clock. You can have a family meeting or use role playing/pretend play to help your toddler understand your new routine.

Next consider those expectations. If your child is waking at 4am, don’t start off by setting your clock to 7am. Instead, set it to go off at 4:15am. When your toddler is able to successfully wait out 15 minutes staying in bed (this could take several days), give them tons of praise, and then set it for 15 minutes later again. Keep going until you get to your target wake up time. By doing this in graduated increments, we are doing 2 things. First, we are building trust with our toddlers. As soon as the clock lights up we can start our day! We don’t start our day before the clock lights up, but as soon as the clock says it’s time, let’s greet the day and set off on our adventures! This does mean that your adventuring could start quite early for a few days as your toddler adjusts. The second thing we are doing is giving time and space for them to connect that next sleep cycle so they can get a little more rest. By trusting us that when the clock lights up they can start their day, they can relax in their beds. When toddlers relax, they have a greater chance of falling asleep.

Whatever time you set your clock just make sure you address the root cause of your toddler’s early wake ups especially if that cause is being overtired. You might even find that your toddler starts sleeping in after the clock has already indicated that it is okay to wake up. This is because of the concept that sleep begets sleep. It sounds counterintuitive but kids who are overtired tend to have more nighttime wake ups, earlier wake ups and sleep less and less. Kids who go to bed earlier tend to sleep later in the morning. The more well rested our bodies are, the easier a time we have settling to sleep. When we are overtired, our stress hormone, cortisol, is surging through our system and making it difficult for us to relax. If your toddler starts sleeping in later than the clock is indicating it’s time to wake up, feel free to move the time on the clock later faster. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have your whole plan in place before you start!

WHAT AGE SHOULD I INTRODUCE A TODDLER CLOCK

I have seen many families start using toddler clocks at various ages and from this I have learned a few lessons. The short answer is that the ideal age to start using a toddler clock can vary but that three years old seems to be the most ideal. Some two and half year-olds can use toddler clocks and even some newly minted two-year-olds have success. If you have an early rising two-year-old you can attempt incorporating one into your holistic sleep plan and if it doesn’t work, or you find you and your toddler end up ignoring it, then you can always take a break from it and re-introduce it when they’re a bit older. I recommend keeping your toddler in a crib until age 3 if possible because three-year-olds are just a little bit more capable of following sleep rules as opposed to two-year-olds. But, if you find yourself transitioning to a toddler bed earlier than 3, a toddler clock could be a part of your holistic sleep plan to help ensure your toddler stays in bed in the morning. In an ideal situation, you and your toddler would employ a toddler clock before you switch to a big kid bed. This way your toddler would already be accustomed to waiting for the clock to start their day before they experienced the freedom of a big kid bed! But, since most parents I know I are usually purchasing toddler clocks because their toddlers are climbing their cribs, or leaving their rooms at ungodly hours, that ideal situation might seem laughable to some of you.

HELP! MY TODDLER IS STILL GETTING OUT OF BED AND LEAVING THEIR ROOM EVEN WITH OUR NEW TODDLER CLOCK!

Don’t give up! Toddlers are amazing creatures and they have great stamina to hold out for what they want. But just because a toddler wants something doesn’t mean they should have it! Don’t forget that you are the parent and your job is to keep your child safe and healthy. Part of that job is to set the scene for healthy sleep. While it is your job to set the scene, it is your toddler’s job to rest their body and go to sleep. We cannot force toddlers, or any creature for that matter, to fall asleep or to stay in their bed. So, stay consistent and don’t give up. If you find that your toddler is routinely ignoring the clock, then it’s okay to take a break from it. In fact, it is better not to use a toddler clock at all, then to have one in your toddler’s room and allow them to ignore it morning after morning. This sends the message that in your family, it’s okay not to follow the rules and that is not the message you want to be sending! So, take a break if you need to, and then re-introduce it after some time has passed and you feel more ready to stay consistent with it.

WHICH TODDLER CLOCK IS THE BEST?

We have owned our Mirari Okay to Wake Clock since our boys were two years old and continue to use it as we approach six years old. After a failed start at two years old, we took the clock away and brought it back several months before they turned three. We used it for a few months while they were still in their cribs and then it helped us transition to our toddler beds. However, as I stated above, I have not reviewed all toddler clocks and therefore it is unfair of me to recommend for or against certain brands. I have, however, worked with so many clients with various toddler clocks so I will tell you what my favorite features are, and what features you can skip or should avoid.

Cost: You should be able to purchase one for under $35. Parents, this is not a matter where more expensive equals better. In fact, our toddler clock has been dropped, thrown, and stomped on. It has survived minus some non-vital plastic pieces breaking off. But trust me that you don’t want to put the most expensive toddler clock in your child’s room. Ours was around $30 and if it had broken it wouldn’t have been as big of a deal as if I had purchased the $50 clock.

Features to look for: You are looking for one that has one light that turns on when it is time to wake for the day. You want the light to be a signal that it’s time to wake up. But, if your toddler happens to still be sleeping when the clock strikes 7am, then you also don’t want it to act like an alarm and wake your toddler up. One of our family sleep rules is that we do not wake sleeping people so this would be a grave violation of this rule! You may also consider placing it across the room or slightly turned away from your child if the light is pretty bright. This could help prevent the light from waking your toddler if he/she does happen to still be sleeping when it lights up. You may also like one that has a napping feature. Our clock has a feature where you can set a timer for nap and the light will go on after the time is up.

Features to avoid: I like to keep it simple when it comes to sleep rules and toddlers. The more complicated, the less adherence is what I have found. Some clocks have lights that go on at bedtime to signal it’s time to sleep and then also function as a night light. I don’t usually recommend night lights because the room being dark enough can affect sleeping through the night as well. I like to relegate night lights to the hallway or in the form of a flashlight that can be used only if needed. A light that is on when your toddler initially falls asleep and then turns off on a timer can also be a reason your toddler wakes at night. You want your toddler’s sleep environment to remain consistent the entire night. White noise all night and darkness all night. The other function that some toddler clocks have is an additional wake up light that turns on at a set time prior to the actual time that it’s okay for your toddler to be out of bed in the morning. This pre-okay to wake light’s purpose is to alert your child that it’s almost time to get up. I prefer to avoid this feature because it complicates things. Your toddler has to remember which light means what. There’s also the chance that the first light could wake your toddler and you don’t want your toddler to wake before the actual time it’s okay to wake up if at all possible. So keep it simple!

Features to consider: Some toddler clocks now also have the capability for you to control the time the light comes on from your phone. This feature might be useful if you feel like you won’t be able to stay consistent on the occasions your toddler wakes before the clock lights up. You can simply change the time the clock is scheduled to light up to an earlier time from the comfort of your bed. So, here’s the scene: Your toddler wakes at 6:45am and the clock is set to light up at 7am. From under your cozy blankets, you use your phone to change the time the clock will light up from 7am to 6:45am. The light turns on and you can now retrieve your toddler without your toddler realizing that it isn’t, in fact, actually time to start the day. I’m still sticking with my original statement that keeping it simple is best for toddlers, but this feature may be appealing to some of you reading this.

As you have learned, purchasing a toddler clock is just the beginning of helping your toddler down the path to becoming a healthy sleeper. Toddler clocks absolutely work, but they are just one piece out of the 1000-piece puzzle that is toddler sleep. No one tells us parents that after you make it through teaching your child to sleep as a baby, that they will require additional sleep training as a toddler! Unfortunately, sleep training is less like a one and done activity and more like an ongoing project that will require frequent tweaking and navigating through various developmental milestones. I always tell parents that with toddlers, sleep and behavior often becomes much worse before it becomes better. Make sure you consider why your child is waking early and come up with a holistic sleep plan to address the entire sleep picture when you start utilizing a toddler clock. Then stay consistent! I routinely guide parents through formulating sleep rules, holding effective family meetings, and most importantly, staying consistent with their plan….. so reach out if you need help!

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