How to Use a Toddler Alarm Clock

March 13, 2011 |  by  |  2 YO, Q&A
Early Bird Babies

It's Not Time to Get Up Yet Flickr@Audrey Elizabeth

Question: Our 2.5 year old wakes up every morning at 4:30 am. We purchased a toddler alarm clock that lights up when it’s morning. We’ve set it for 5:30 am. When she wakes up we go in and lie down with her to keep her quiet until the light turns green at 5:30, at which point we get her up to start the day. Usually she falls back asleep when we go in and wakes up, again, around 5:15 and just plays with whatever parent is in her room with her until 5:30. She is reasonably well rested and goes to bed at 7:00. But we’re really REALLY tired of getting up at 4:30, any suggestions on how we can improve this?

Answer: Once families get over the [insert: trauma, exhaustion, frustration] hump of getting babies to sleep through the night, the next biggest challenge seems to be how to get your early riser to STAY in bed. This challenge gets elevated to the expert level when we move our babies to their big boy/girl beds.

For kids 2 and older, the toddler alarm clock can be a fantastically effective solution. I really like the street light version. Basically these give your kid a visual cue that it’s still nighttime and thus Mommy & Daddy are asleep and so should they. Think of them as a visual anchor for your child. Some people have had success with what is called a “reverse alarm clock.” This basically means that when the alarm clock comes on, you are allowed to get out of bed. The obvious drawback of the reverse alarm clock is that if your child is still sleeping (a few times each year the fates will smile upon you and this will happen), it wakes them up. Which is why I think the visual toddler alarm clocks are a worthy investment.

So you shell out $40 for a cool new nightlight for your toddler and now the problem is solved. Hazzah! Everybody should be investing in toddler alarm clocks because once word gets out these things are going to be hotter than the iPad!

Why The Toddler Alarm Clock Didn’t Work

Like every parenting challenge, it’s not that simple. So where was the lovely family I was working with going wrong?

  • They set the toddler alarm clock too far from the actual wake up time of their toddler.
  • They told the toddler that “morning is when the light turns green.” But then they went into her bedroom when it wasn’t.

If you are struggling with an early riser and have a child older than 2 who DOESN’T sleep in your bed/room, I highly recommend a visual alarm clock. Provided you follow my sage advice:

  • Set the wakeup time on the clock for ~15 minutes later than your toddler currently wakes up naturally. The family mentioned here should have started with 4:45. A kid who has been waking up at a certain time is not going to happily entertain themselves in their bed for 30-45 minutes while they wait for a stupid light to turn green. They’re going to complain and/or leave. Start small. Wait a week. Then try adding another 15 minutes to the clock. Rinse. Repeat.
  • If you tell your toddler/kid that everybody needs to sleep until its wake up time and that the CLOCK WILL LET THEM KNOW WHEN ITS TIME TO GET UP, you need to mean it. If morning is when the light turns green then don’t go in until the light turns green. If they call for you, play dead. Set the rules for your house. Perhaps they need to STAY in bed until the light turns green. Perhaps they can play quietly or look at some picture books in their room. However if you run in there the minute they call for you, then you’ve wasted $40 because you just taught your child that the wake-up clock is simply a fancy night-light and morning time is whenever THEY say it is.
  • When the light turns green you go into their room with your happy parent face on. “Honey, you stayed in bed until the light turned green! What a great way for us to start our day!”
  • Make the clock something of an exciting gift. Buying one is not punitive, it’s a privilege! When it shows up in the mail, wrap it! Let them pick out where it will go in their room. THEN talk about how we’re going to use it. Highlight the advantages to the child (gets a special cool light JUST for them, Mommy will get the sleep she needs to play barbies all morning long).
  • For older kids (3 years and up) you may (although it’s not necessary for most kids) further sweeten the deal with a reward chart. You could do something simple like they get a star sticker every morning that they stay in bed until the light turns green and if they get 7 stars they get an ice cream cone. I would suggest keeping this as a back-up plan in case the thrill of the new nightlight is not sufficient.

For die-hard early birds the toddler alarm clock may only get your kid to stay in bed until 6:00 am or so although anybody who wakes up at 4:30 am would be delighted just to make it to the crack of dawn. Continue to periodically move the time further out by 10-15 minutes until you hit the time of the morning where your child is consistently waking up JUST prior to the alarm (so that they have to hang out alone for a few minutes but it’s not an excessively long time).

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  1. Great read and very helpful- thanks!

  2. Can I get one of these for my 9 month old who is working on sleeping through the night but whose internal clock is set to 4:30! Glad to know these exist for when she’s older. ;o)

  3. I just found your site while randomly googling. We just started using a toddler alarm clock (really an old ipad with a toddler alarm clock app, but same exact concept). We have been doing exactly what you mentioned above but our problem is that our kids (2 year old twins) won’t stay in their rooms, let alone their beds. So it’s not an issue of us running in when they call for us and destroying the whole concept, it’s us having to physically return them to their rooms (at this point I just want them to stay in the room, I don’t even care about the bed). Do you have a recommendation for situations like this? Short of locking the door, I don’t know how to ignore them until the “sun comes up” on their clock.

  4. Awesome. We have tried toddler alarm clocks but none were this simple, so I think this one stands a better chance of working.

    Here’s what happened — linked through to this post, linked through to the Amazon post to see what you were talking about, finished reading your post, went and ordered the toddler clock, all in about 4 minutes (I’m an Amazon superuser). Any chance you can work out a deal w/Amazon for commissions?

  5. I have a 14 month old who sleeps from 7 pm until 4:45am. We would love to know if you think this would benefit him? He is very switched on. Or should we stick to the principles of crying it out? The problem is he wakes has a bottle and then is back in bed by 8am. Would love the extra sleep in time. And would make life easier if his sleeps were 10 and 2.

  6. AM CIO is unlikely to work although you’re welcome to give it a go. It does work sometimes but not often. So if you’ve been ignoring him and it’s not getting you anywhere, there you go.

    Personally you can try the alarm clock but at 14 months I’m not optimistic. I guess worst case you could sit on it till he’s closer to 2 and try again.

    You might want to try a few other tricks however. The first thing that jumps out at me would be to try a dream feed at say 3 to see if we can break out of his habit of waking for a bottle at 4:45. Essentially you’re trying to remove hunger and habit and see if that disrupts his sleep pattern enough to extend his sleep. Like AM CIO this isn’t a guarantee but something to try for ~7 days to see what develops!
    Alexis recently posted..The Ultimate Baby Food Allergies Survival GuideMy Profile

  7. Love this — same as the other person, read the article, clicked to Amazon, bought the clock!

    One question though: it seems like the red light must be on, does this affect sleep at all (or I am missing the trick to keep red light off, but still have timer for green light to come on)? We are diligent with the dark room, white noise, etc, so we now have a dark room with what seems like a giant red light glowing all night long.

    • Yep – you have a giant red night light. I haven’t found them to be THAT bright and most kids have night lights of some sort anyway. You can have red+yellow or just red. If the red is too bright for you….

      Um…I’ve got nothing. I guess I should put a disclaimer on this – you have a red light nightlight!
      Alexis Dubief recently posted..The Secret to Baby Sleeping 12 Hours at NightMy Profile

    • We have the same issue with our model–it doesn’t have the stoplights but it does have a base that glows yellow all night long. The first night we used it I think this was really a problem–kiddo woke up constantly. So I’ve covered the offending portion with a blanket and the problem is fixed. He can still see the green light part when it comes on. On the stoplight model, it looks like you could just cover up the red with paper or tie a dark colored dish towel around it or something?

      • Now we just have to wait and see whether the damn thing will work! Night one was pretty much FAIL, constant waking due to the nightlight function I think. Night 2 he woke up 5 minutes before the light and night 3, 15 minutes before the light. Both times he screamed for me until it came on, at which point he got really excited for the green light so that’s a start. Fingers crossed he’ll figure out QUIET UNTIL IT’S GREEN very soon!

      • Day 3: brief complaining at 4:15 a.m., then sleep until 5:18 and he was so excited to find the green light on when he woke up! Hooray! I know, hooray for a 5:18 wake up seems uncalled for. But we will keep inching forward . . .

        • Kate your updates are wonderful! I’m so glad I found this post and the comments. Our clock was delivered today so I am super anxious to see how it can help. Of course the day it arrives the little devil slept till 6:22 but i know that is just a trick!

          • Good luck! We went through a period where he’d yell for me at PRECISELY 6:00 every day. I know he was in there patiently waiting for that wonderful little clock. He now often sleeps a bit past 6, even up to 6:45 sometimes which is amazing. :-)

            My 22 year old self would die if she could read this. Sigh. One day they’ll be teenagers and then the whole family can sleep until 11!

            • HA! My 22 y/o self too AH! the good ole days:)

              I have to say teaching a 2 y/o old to say clock and it coming out all kinds of wrong has provided if nothing else some humor to this otherwise not so funny early morning waking business.

            • That is FANTASTIC! That’s an extra 1.5 hours of sleep each day no? Honestly I would pay far more than $40 to not have to get up at 4:30 AM.

              My 22 year old self would probably want to punch me in the mouth. I don’t say so because I was a violent ruffian at 22, but because on a relative scale I’ve gotten really lame. Like how I go to bed so early and get way to excited when there are new episodes of Sherlock coming out ;)
              Alexis Dubief recently posted..When Babies Drop Naps and What to Do About itMy Profile

  8. And day 4: quiet as a mouse from bedtime until he called for me at 5:17–“MOMMY THE GREEN LIGHT IS ON!”

    It comes on at 5:20 tomorrow. I’m going 5 minutes a day and we are seeing the (yiddle green) light at the end of this early waking tunnel . . .

  9. Day 12: We had some backsliding for a few days (because he has a cold? extinction burst? no idea) but back on track now. Light now turns on at 5:40 and this morning I didn’t hear from him until 5:50. Our goal is modest (6:00) so we’re almost there. This really works!

    • Katie, I’m curious how it’s working out for you? I have a 2 year old who also wakes up at 4ish and I’m skeptical if this will work or not.

      • Villa,

        Get thee to Amazon and order this! 4 AM is crazypants early (my mouth doesn’t make human noises until at least 6). Use it as directed – set it for 4, 4:15, 4:30, etc. Talk to your child about it – sell it with BIG EXCITEMENT! This is a PRESENT! Wrap it! But also be consistent – Mommy doesn’t come in until the light turns green.

        I can’t promise you roses but I can promise you at lest 5 or 5:30 AM. Which will feel like happiness in a bottle after 4:00 AM.
        Alexis recently posted..The Best Christmas Book of 2013My Profile

      • YES YES YES. Most (but not all) days now we don’t hear a peep until 6. He absolutely loves his “special yiddle clock” and I swear I would pay $40 every single day for that extra hour of sleep. Two hours is a big move for you but I bet after a month you’ll be at 5 a.m. and maybe you can get to 6 with another month or two of inching it along.

        • Question: do your little ones sleep with their door closed? Do you use a gate? Still use a monitor? Our 2yo comes padding into our room at 5:30. Dont usually shut the door because I can’t hear if he wakes at night. We just transitioned to toddler bed from crib. When he was in crib he slept til 6:45/7ish (amazing!!) I long for those days…

          • My thought is put him back in the crib. I am a huge proponent of kids in cribs until at least 3. For many reasons but the big one is that 2 YO have no self control so if you offer them mobility they’ll take it 99% of the time. So if that’s even remotely an option that’s my answer – crib till 3.

            It’ll be a lot harder to train a 2 YO to “obey the light” because it requires him to use self-control. The message is the same, “You’re not allowed out of bed till the light turns green.” You’re welcome to try but ESPECIALLY for boys (yes I know I’m gender stereotyping) it’s unlikely that he’s going to wake up at 5:30 and go, “Well Mom said to stay put till the light turned green so I guess I will.”

          • My 2 YO is in his crib and I’m with Alexis–I can’t imagine him staying in bed if he had a choice. He knows very well not to start yelling for us until the light comes on, and 75% of the time he can manage that. But if all he had to do was get up and walk out his door . . . I am thinking we’d be seeing him the moment he decided it SHOULD be morning! So no toddler beds for us for a while yet.

  10. FWIW, we started using one when our (sleep-trained) daughter was about 18 1/2 months. She is an early riser and we were tired to wake up between 5 and 5:30 and hear her call us or cry. She didn’t care for the little booklet and probably was too young to understand the concept, so we just trained her like you would do with young babies: we would either not go back before the light was on, or, if it was too long a time for her to wait, we would go in but stay with lights off, hold her or pat her, until the “sun” was on. Then we would point to the sun and explain we could wake up. We did this consistently for a couple of weeks, and voila: at about 19 months and change she started getting it and for the last ten days she patiently waits until the “sun” is up. As soon as the light changes she starts calling for us. So it can work for children younger than 2, especially, I suspect, if they have been conditioned in other ways (that’s what sleep training is, after all!).

  11. I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to add an option for those who don’t want to dish out 40$ on a ‘red night light':

    We simply used a really dim wall light and a 9$ timer set for the time our kids were allowed to call us/get out of bed or room.
    We could also set multiple times for different days on it and therefore also used it to signal when bedtime was and they needed to put their books down for the night.

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