Q. Our 3-year-old sleeps through the night, but wakes before dawn, which rouses us too. How can we get him to sleep later or stay in his bed longer?
A. It isn't boring being a parent, is it? The minute you think you have a handle on the latest challenge (such as getting him to sleep through the night in his own bed), your little chameleon is off to another -- waking with or before the crows.
You might be putting him to bed too early, which could be the cause of his early rising. Most 3-year-olds need at least 10 hours a night, so if you want your son to sleep until at least 6 AM, don't put him to bed before 8 PM.
It may also be that his biological clock is just naturally set to wake him at what feel like the wee hours to you. In this case, all you can do is teach him how to occupy himself (safely) until you're up.
Try these two strategies that have, to varying degrees, worked for me. First, leave a basket of picture books by your son's bedside. Explain that when he wakes up and sees it's still dark out, that means it's not morning yet and he can't leave his room, but he can put on a light and look at books. Place the book basket close enough to his bed that he'll see it and remember what to do. If he's not a book browser, you could instead set up a tape player loaded with a cued-up story tape, so that all he has to do in the morning is press Play, and you get to sleep another half-hour.
You could also try the somewhat Pavlovian method of providing your son with a musical alarm clock, which you set to a humane-but-not-unrealistic hour. When the music plays, he knows he can come to your room. The drawback is that he has to be patient enough to lie in bed, wide awake, waiting for the music -- patience being a rare trait among 3-year-olds. (Or, you can combine the book basket with the musical alarm -- your son "reads" until song time.) But choose your music carefully: One desperate friend supplied her toddler with a radio-alarm clock, which she had inadvertently set to a station with Howard Stern's morning show. Very nice.
Regardless of your strategy, you'll have to be resolute and firm with your little morning person when he chooses not to comply with the new routine. Just act as if the new plan is simply in accordance with the laws of nature.
Contributing editor Trisha Thompson is a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine.