Using an "OK to Wake" Clock with a Toddler

Child stretching and yawning as they wake up

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Anyone who has ever attempted to re-settle a very alert (read: noisy) toddler at 5 a.m. will know that it is never as simple as ushering them back to bed. Pleading "shhhh, it’s the middle of the night" rarely works, but an "OK to Wake" clock could be the key to reclaiming your early mornings. 

An "OK to Wake" clock is a product that aims to establish a healthy sleep schedule for your little one, letting them know via lights or sounds when it is an appropriate time to be awake. Many parents describe their "OK to Wake" clock as a game-changer for the entire family's quality of sleep, while pediatric sleep experts agree that, if used correctly, they can be a useful sleep training tool. Here’s how to get the most out of your "OK to Wake" clock.

What Is an "OK to Wake" Clock?

An "OK to Wake" clock is a clock that provides toddlers and young children with a visual or audio cue to let them know if it is an appropriate time to wake up. Most "OK to Wake" clocks change color, but others use a combination of both light and sound so you can fully customize your child’s sleep routine in accordance with their preferences. Here are some of the most popular models on the market:

Hatch Rest, $69.99. This clock comes equipped with 11 different sounds (such as rainfall or birdsong) and 10 light colors. Parents love that, after creating a schedule that works for you and your child, you can use the app to make adjustments to volume or brightness without having to enter their bedroom. 

LittleHippo MELLA Ready To Rise, $49.99. The simplicity of this sleep training clock is a hit with families; the red light signals sleep, the yellow light means that it is almost time to get out of bed, while the green light signals wake time. However, unlike the Hatch, the Mella does not have smartphone connectivity. 

Groclock Sleep Trainer, $46.99. The sun and stars clock face make this device easy for toddlers to decipher between wake and sleep times. The stars gradually disappear throughout the night, which parents say helps illustrate the passage of time. There's also an adjustable brightness setting and an optional alarm mode.

NOVO 123 Ooly The Sleep Owl, $94. This one is arguably less of a clock and more of a night light with some added extras. What makes the Sleep Owl an attractive choice for parents is that there are no cords or cables, so it's safe for your child to touch and snuggle up with. It has app connectivity and a library of science-backed lights to choose from, all of which promote positive sleep hygiene. Like the Hatch, you can customize your schedule according to each day.

How and When to Introduce an "OK to Wake" Clock

While you can use an "OK to Wake" clock as part of your bedtime routine at any age or stage, it is recommended to start when your child is 2 years or older. It is at this age that your toddler reaches the developmental milestone where they begin to understand visual cues, and demonstrate increasing independence, which means that introducing an "OK to Wake" clock at this time could be most effective.

To begin, set the clock’s schedule to coincide with your child’s current wake time. Then, gradually adjust it by five or 10 minutes every day until you reach your desired sleep pattern. Resist the urge to adjust the wake time too quickly, as this could derail your child’s progress. “It is important to set the child up for success,” says Sujay Kansagra, MD, director of the Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program at Duke University Medical Center. 

Don't forget to talk through how the "OK To Wake" clock works with your child, and offer them lots of positive encouragement.

Why Do Some Children Wake Up So Early?

“Toddlers are naturally early birds,” says Dr. Kansagra. “They often prefer an early bedtime with a corresponding early wake time.” While this can leave parents and caregivers feeling exhausted, your toddler’s early rising is only a problem if it coincides with them not getting enough sleep.

Most toddlers require around 11-14 hours of sleep over the course of a day and night. “The key is to ensure the child is getting [an] adequate total amount of sleep in a 24-hour period inclusive of naps,” says Dr. Kansagra. 

If your child is getting an adequate amount of sleep but is still waking too early, it could be an indication that they are sleeping for too long during the day. Adjusting daytime naps (if your child still has them) could help encourage them to sleep longer in the morning. 

However, although it is possible to tweak your child’s sleep schedule, it is also important to respect their circadian rhythm. “We all have internal clocks and it is not that unusual for toddlers to wake up between 5-7 a.m.,” says Jen Trachtenberg, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and parenting expert from New York. “It’s more that we like them to wake later because it's better for our sleeping schedules.”

Benefits of an "OK to Wake" Clock

A combination of daylight savings and seasonal changes means that it isn’t always clear to a child when it is an appropriate time to wake. If used in association with other self-soothing techniques, an "OK to Wake" clock can help curb nighttime wandering into your room and/or frequent early rising. 

“If a child is having trouble remaining in the room and is not getting adequate sleep, pairing a signal such as a timed light cue with positive reinforcement such as a sticker chart can be a good behavioral strategy,” says Dr. Kansagra. “But it's just one of many options.” 

Additionally, the "OK to Wake" clock can encourage early birds to play quietly in their room for a limited time. Other benefits include helping both you and your toddler establish a consistent sleep time schedule, which has been shown to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and even improve their overall wellbeing.

What Are The Drawbacks of an "OK to Wake" Clock?

Unfortunately, creating a sleep schedule that works for both you and your child is not as simple as setting the clock to wake at 8 a.m. and hitting the snooze button on your own alarm. The key to getting the most out of your "OK to Wake" clock is to use it in conjunction with other positive sleep hygiene techniques and to manage your expectations.

“It is not always possible to drastically change an early morning awakening, especially after a good night's sleep for a toddler starting at a 7 p.m. bedtime,” explains Dr. Trachtenberg. “They feel well-rested and they are ready to start their day.”

Dr. Kansagra agrees. “There are a variety of reasons why such a clock would not be appropriate,” he says. “One example is that there is a mismatch between a parent's expectation for the total amount of sleep compared to the child's biological need.” 

Expecting your child to stay in their bed or room for too long after they have woken could have an adverse effect on their relationship with sleep and their sleep space, warns Dr. Kansagra.

As such, Dr. Trachtenberg urges parents to be reasonable with their desired schedule. “Don’t force your child to have to sleep,” says Dr. Trachtenberg. “As long as [they are] resting in their room or playing quietly in bed, that’s ok. You want children to listen to their bodies and internal clocks.”

Other Ways to Promote a Healthy Sleep Schedule

A healthy nighttime sleep schedule actually starts as soon as your toddler wakes up. Melatonin, a hormone that helps us establish sleep patterns, is inhibited by natural light exposure and is one signal to the brain that promotes wakening. So, open up those curtains and let the light in while getting your child ready for the day! Then, at the end of the day, and at least 30 minutes before bed, steer clear of any screens. Instead, introduce a period of quiet time where you read or play a quiet game together. 

“There is no one right way for sleep training, [but] good sleep hygiene and routine is key,” says Dr. Trachtenberg. “A quiet sleep environment with a dark room, cool temp, even a fan for white noise, can be helpful.” 

Allowing your child to fall asleep by themselves, without the aid of rocking, shushing, or feeding, is crucial, says Dr. Kansagra. “If a child has difficulty self-soothing, they might find it difficult to go back to sleep during a normal nighttime awakening, particularly an early morning one,” he says.

A Word From Verywell

While "OK to Wake" clocks can be a valuable addition to your bedtime routine, they only really work if used in conjunction with other sleep training techniques. These include a realistic sleep time schedule, a relaxing wind-down routine, and practiced self soothing techniques.

Make sure you show your toddler how the "OK to Wake" clock works and give them plenty of positive encouragement along the way. If you have additional concerns about your child's sleep habits, be sure to reach out to their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Nicola Appleton
Nicola Appleton is a UK-based freelance journalist with a special interest in parenting, pregnancy, and women's lifestyle. She has extensive experience creating editorial and commercial content for print, digital, and social platforms across a number of prominent British and international brands including The Independent, Refinery29, The Sydney Morning Herald, HuffPost, Stylist, Canva, and more