You've probably heard them called many different things: toddler clocks, okay to wake clocks, ready to rise lights, etc. For the sake of consistency in this blog post, I’ll use the term ‘toddler clock' throughout.
A toddler clock is generally a digital clock or light, that can be set to change color or turn on at a specified time. When used consistently, a child can learn that she/he should not leave the bed or bedroom until the light turns on, signaling that it is morning. A toddler clock can be a great tool to help your child understand morning sleep expectations, and to give parents consistency when starting the day.
My four-year-old has been successfully using her toddler clock for over a year and a half, and still proudly tells me each morning “my green light came on!”
A child as young as 2.5 may be able to understand the rules of a toddler clock (though this will depend on personality and maturity of the child).
As great as a toddler clock can be, in order for it to be effective parents will have to do more than just set it and forget it (though you will get to this point eventually!)
Follow the tips below to successfully introduce a toddler clock into your child’s sleep routine…
Be realistic with wake time to set your child up for success
If your child currently wakes at 6:30am, it’s not realistic to immediately start setting the clock for 8:00am and expect your child to stay in bed. In fact, for the first week or so, you should set the clock slightly earlier than their current wake time (using the example above, we’d set it for 6:15am) to allow your child to be successful. This way, every day for the first week, you could praise and reinforce your child for staying in his room until his light came on! When your child is successful at this early time, you can start moving the wake time later in 10-minute increments. It’s important to remember that your child might not start sleeping later simply because you introduce the clock (though it can aid in improving morning wake time when paired with other methods), but they can learn that the expectation is that they do not get out of bed or leave their room. Consider what your child will be doing in the time between waking up and the light turning on; is it realistic to expect a toddler to stay in bed or entertain himself for 90-minutes alone in his room? Probably not. For most children, choosing a time that is about 20 - 30 minutes after a typical wake time would be reasonable (this will again vary by age and maturity).
Use the toddler clock 7-days per week (yes, every day)
Some parents make the mistake of only using the toddler clock on weekends when they want to sleep-in. Unfortunately, without consistent use, your child is not likely to understand the expectations. You can, however, set the wake time slightly later (slightly, again be realistic if you want your child to be successful) on the weekends to get a little extra shut eye (or a quiet cup of coffee alone). Even if you have to wake your child up in the morning during the week, set the clock and show him the light in the morning, so the routine can carry over into the weekend. You can also use the toddler clock to signal the end of nap time or quiet/rest time.
Follow the clock rules (in bed until your light turns on) all night, not just in the morning
If your goal is to teach your child to stay in his own bed/room in the morning, he should not be allowed into your bed overnight. Keeping the expectations consistent will help your child be successful (“It’s time to come out of bed when your light comes on.”) It can be confusing for a child to be allowed to leave his room sometimes but not others, as a toddler is not likely to understand the difference between middle of the night and morning.
Don’t give up
It may take a week or two (or more) for your child to understand the rules of the toddler clock. Your child will learn from practice, clear expectations, and consistency, so don’t give up if he doesn’t understand right away! When your child leaves his room too early, bring him back, put him back in bed, and remind him to wait for his light.
This is especially important early on. When your child stays in his bed or room until the toddler clock turns on- make a big deal out of it! Be over the top with praise and compliments; you did it! You may choose to offer small rewards for successful mornings, such as a little treat, a few extra minutes with a toy or activity, stickers, reward charts, tickles and hugs, etc. You might even offer larger rewards related to getting enough sleep, for example "Your body is so rested because you stayed in bed until your light came on, we have enough energy to go to the park today!" Even after your child has shown consistency with following their toddler clock rules, offer a reward every now and then to continue to reinforce the great job he is doing!
A few weeks of consistency will be rewarded with a proud child and more sleep for you- enjoy!