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).


  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!

  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!

    • 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 😉

            • Hey Kate! Just wondering – did you end up covering the bright red light? We are on night 1 with the clock and I’m with you – it seems very bright. But she’s asleep so I’m hoping it doesn’t wake her… Have it set for 5am so here we go!

  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.

      • 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.”

            • Hi, my two year old is out of the crib because he was jumping out and we had to spend an evening in the ED because he hit his head. We put up the toddler clock and whenever he gets out of bed we put him back- no milk, no cuddles in our bed or his.We have a baby, two months old, and since she arrived his sleep is worse than hers! He wanders all over the top floor or sits outside his door crying about three times a night. We had a lock on his door before baby sister arrived, he figured out how to open it. We are thinking of putting up a gate to keep him in for safety and sanity and not going in until the sun is up on his clock. Is this isolating him too much from the rest of us? We are concerned he will be a complete mess when the gate goes up. This is a child who cried for over two hours when we did CIO as an infant. Any thoughts? We are exhausted!

          • 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.

  12. So my almost 18 month old is a good night sleeper. He goes to bed independently for naps and doesn’t wake in the night but he wakes up early sometimes… When he wakes up between 6:30 and 7 I know he’s gotten all the sleep he needs and he’s happy. If he wakes up earlier I go in and give him his pacifier back and rock with him for a minute and hell go back to sleep for a bit. I can tell he is still tired when I do that– today it was 5:40 and he fell sleep immediately when I picked him up. I know this was a bad habit to get into and I’m kicking myself. I don’t understand why he can put himself back to sleep all the times he does in the night but not in the early morning when he wakes up. I am dying to use this alarm clock but I know he won’t understand it yet. Any tips to help us until he turns two?

  13. Ah the toddler alarm clock. It worked so well until my daughter out-smarted it. She’s 2 and 5 months, and has been sleeping (quite successfully) in her toddler bed for 3 months now, because she started climbing out of her crib. She also started waking up at 6am, so bought the toddler alarm clock, and explained that she couldn’t get up before the green light went on. She did OK for a couple of months, sleeping or lying quietly until the light went off at 6:45, until she figured out that if she just pushes the buttons on the clock, it lights up. Now for the last three nights, she gets up and lights up the clock, and then wakes me up at exactly 6:11 yelling “Mama, the light is on!” into the monitor. (I also explained to her that if she ever needs me, she can just call out and I will hear her through the monitor, so she likes to walk right up to it and yell directly at it.)
    So maybe buy a clock that your kid can’t manipulate. (We have the OK to Wake clock that also works as a nightlight and can thus be turned on my the kid.)

  14. I had this exact problem but decided to make my own solution instead of shelling out for a more expensive clock. After some thought, I decided to “make” an alarm clock for my boy using an old cellphone handset that was no longer being used. I had taught myself to code while on mat leave and this was something to do during my ever so scarce “me time”. Well it’s done and works wonders! and all with things I already had at home. Feel free to try it out using an old handset or tablet you might have kicking around: just plug it in and download the app! I use screen pinning to keep kiddos from leaving the app and they won’t have easy access to the menu screens either. We use it for nap time too. My boy loves his new alarm clock 🙂

  15. Hello!

    So you recommend a toddler clock for a kiddo older than 2. What about a 1 year old who wakes too early and just wants to sleep all day? I cap his naps but the early morning wakings are getting even earlier!! Thanks for any advice!

    • Toddler alarm clock is not going to fix things for a 1 YO. There are many things that can lead to early wake ups at this age – MANY. So I can’t really answer your question. But I will say that long day sleep will lead to short night sleep, especially as you’re at an age where he’s likely heading into the nap dropping (2->1 zone). So it feels like you’re on the right path by capping/limiting day sleep.

      • Thanks Alexis. He just turned 1 on Tuesday so he’s a young one year old – I hope to hold on to his 2 naps until mid August when he will go to daycare FT and they only do 1 nap. Right now he takes 2, 1.5 hour daytime naps which I have to cap or he sleeps and sleeps. I have been trying to cap his 2nd daytime nap lately to only one hour and not allow him to sleep past 3:30 to see if this will help with the early wakings that are progressively getting worse. As of now, it hasn’t. Someone else recommended earlier bedtime which we will try tonight and for a few nights. Please let me know if you have any other ideas. I look like a zombie haha

        • Emily – We are in a similar position with a 17mo who naps like a champ (2 1.5hr naps) and goes to bed easily but wakes at 5:30am.

          I know he’s due to drop a nap soon, but he has really strong (cranky) sleep cues and doesn’t like to stay awake more than ~3.5 hrs at a time.)

          Would love to hear how you manage with yours. I would love an extra hr of sleep since 3yo big sib uses the clock and stays in bed til 6:30 at least!

          – Michelle

  16. What about a 19 mo old? He’s been waking up at 4:50 pretty consistently. He goes to bed at 7pm and is taking one nap from 12:30 til 1:30 or 2:00. Sometimes he’s crashing around 9am for an hour because his wake up time is so early and we haven’t fully transitioned to one nap per day. I am still breastfeeding and I just started holding off on the first feeding until 6am. I am hopeful that that alone will help, but it’s only been a couple days. Do you think a toddler alarm clock might help as well? Or is it still too early?

  17. My two year old was waking up between 5-5:30 for months… Read this article and bought the clock. Worked wonders for about 2 weeks, he was sleeping till after 6:30 everyday and napping really well. Now all the sudden he is back to waking up around 5:30 and his clock is set to 6:15. The first 3 mornings I talked to him through the monitor and told him I wasn’t coming to get him till “bunny woke up”, he proceeded to cry whine my name until that time. do I need to move the clock back to 5:45 and start over? Also should I talk to him or just let him deal until it’s time to get up?

  18. Hello! Good read. What do you do when your kid is not consistently waking up early every day? Four times in the last week my 1.5 year old has woken up at 4 AM. Other times he sleeps until his regular wake time of 730/8 o’clock. Schedule hasn’t changed. I’ve capped naps at 2 hours. I’ve let him cry, I’ve gone in to soothe and put back in his bed- both fail. I bring him to our bed which I hate but he eventually goes back to sleep but then I sleep like crap and I don’t want to create a habit. What gives? I don’t want him to learn I cry mommy comes but he’s going on being awake screaming and whimpering for over an hour at this point….and I know he’s tired. Thanks!!

  19. What about kids ages 1-2? My 18 month old’s wake up time has been creeping all the way from 7am to, recently between 5-6, and now the last two days- 4:45am.

  20. Hi! What time should I set the alarm, if the toddler doesn’t wake up at the same time each morning? I didn’t see this brought up in the post or comments, of course my toddler would be the anomaly! I’d appreciate any suggestions/tips.

    • Hey Sam,

      To start with you want to encourage compliance, to establish that the clock determines when we get up. So you want to set the clock so that it turns on before or soon after the EARLIEST time he’ll wake up. Say he wakes up between 5:30 and 6:30. Start with 5:30. The light shouldn’t WAKE him up so if he happens to sleep till 6:30 GREAT!

      As soon as he wakes up AND the light is on, you go get him and give huge praise, “Well done buddy! The light is on so it’s time to get out of bed!”

      The key at first is to establish the Law of the Clock. Once he gets the idea of “we don’t get out of bed until the clock says so” we can experiment with setting it later and later (gradually, say 15 minutes a day). So 5:45. 6:00. Etc.

      We’re looking to see if, with the encouragement of a light cue, he CAN and WILL sleep later. If this works you’ll see him actually sleeping later because the reward (getting to come play with you) of early waking is removed. Ideally he’s hanging awake in bed no longer than ~15-20 minutes most nights (you’ll see an off night here or there). If you find he’s CONSISTENTLY sitting around awake in the AM for 30+ minutes then you may have overshot and might need to move the clock a bit earlier.

      Does that help?

      • Thanks Alexis! I was thinking along those same lines. The 1st night, before I saw your reply, I hoped for the best and set the light alarm to 5:40am, hoping he would not wake up earlier than 5:30. He woke up 5:30, and when the light came on at 5:40, I came in and made a big deal about it. This morning (2nd morning), he woke at 5:30am again and eventually started crying for me. But thru the monitor I saw him point to the clock and hear him say “Clock! On!” when it turned on at 5:40. I did the same again, came in and praised him =)

        Since he’s on the young side for the clock (19months), I am planning to go a little slower, so planning to set it 5 min later each day.

        I’m really looking fwd to the “light” at the end of this early morning tunnel! Thank you!!!

        • SO day 3…he woke up at 4:50! UGH! no idea why…and the clock alarm was set to 5:40 so that meant he had a long way to go before I could go in. I stuck to it tho, and didn’t go in till the light came on. I’m hoping it was a fluke and we can get back on track! OH and he’s actually 20 months- time is flying by too fast, I can’t keep up!

  21. Somewhere in the comments you say that AM CIO probably won’t work – so what will?? I have 16 month old that wakes up between 4:15 and 5:15 each morning. Crying. I’ve been trying timed checks method… just makes him scream A LOT more. And it’s not helping. I end up getting him up, lights on, big good morning at 5:45 – it’s the longest I can go listening to his wild screams. So, what do I do?? Everything I read says treat it like nightwaking, hence the timed checks. He has 2 naps a day which I limit to 2.5- 3 hours. He has a bedtime of about 7:45. Thank you for any help!

    • Hi! Will he go back to sleep with a snooze feed?
      The only other thing I can suggest, which has helped us, is putting LO to bed a little earlier…our LO was waking up too early due to overtiredness at bedtime (especially after moving to 1 nap). We committed to an earlier bedtime for a week to see if it would, and it did. We still have early morning wakeups but much less frequent. Good luck!

      • Thanks for your reply! I used to do a feed at 4 or 5 am when I was still nursing, but he stopped that months ago. I tried giving him a bottle at 4:45 a few days ago, but it didn’t work. He just screams and points to the door like he wants to go out of the room. I could try an earlier bedtime but he wakes up from 2nd nap at 4:15… I think we need to move to one nap but he isn’t fighting his naps at all so idk!

  22. Our 2.5yo occasionally goes through phases of waking up 30min prior to DWT and we got a toddler clock to help with this. Mostly, it’s been brilliant. Lately though, not so much — he poops as soon as he wakes up and starts screaming. Like you said, the clock is merely a fancy nightlight if we go in before it changes. But we can’t just let him sit in poop, and his screaming only intensifies if we leave again (waking baby sister). He is stubborn as all get out. Help!!

  23. First off, I just found you and what an awesome website! Thank you for providing all of this information to us sleep-deprived parents! Anyway, our daughter will be 3yo in two months. We just got the Hatch Baby ok-to-wake yesterday and the first night wasn’t great. Our issue is that she won’t stay in her ROOM! If she has a night wakening or early wake up in the morning, she comes straight into our room and wants to lay on the floor. This morning I took her back to her room kicking and screaming and then she immediately got out of bed and got out again. I haven’t seen what to do in this case??!! Are most people’s toddlers still in cribs….how does one keep a toddler in their room without locking the door?? HELP!


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