Survival Mode

Screen Time Limits Don’t Exist Before 9 AM

We literally tried everything to curb this early riser. This is what worked for us.

A little girl being shocked by something on the TV and another child laying on the couch in the back...
Thanasis Zovoilis/DigitalVision/Getty Images

At a very dark time in mine and my husband’s life, our toddler was waking up every single morning as early as 4:30 AM. If you ask a sleep expert, that’s technically the middle of the night. But not if you lived at my house. My little girl was ready to party, bright-eyed, and screaming at the top of her lungs for someone to come get her out of her crib at dawn. Groggy and already crabby, I’d reluctantly shuffle into her room and basically ask her why she insisted on torturing her parents. She’d usually just smile at me and laugh. Brutal.

When the early morning wake-ups became more constant, we tried pretty much every single thing to try and get some extra sleep. We’d tried letting her work it out in her crib. We tried the “wake to rise” clock. Black out curtains. White noise machines. Extra lovies in her crib. Putting her to bed early. Putting her to bed late. Skipping nap. Letting her nap go long. Literally every single suggestion I got from my mom friends (and the internet) I tried and nothing would keep this girl sleeping past 5 AM.

Then, once she was awake, she was ready to start the day. She wanted to “go somewhere fun,” or do a craft. She wanted to play dress up with me — at 5 AM. After unsuccessfully explaining to her that nothing “fun” is open that early in the morning and that mommy needs her coffee before we play anything, I was desperate to find sanity and make sure I didn’t lose it on her. I didn’t want to keep starting off our mornings on this note — crabby, anxious, resentful of my toddler. What could I do?

Prior to these habitual early morning wakings, my husband and I had been pretty strict about screen time. She only got an hour a day, and we were pretty particular about what shows she was watching (we lived in a Cocomelon-free zone). However, when we were continually being woken up by the bloody screams of our kid before the sun had even come up, we bent the rules a bit. And when I say we bent the rules, I mean we completely threw them out the window.

Now screen time limits don’t exist before 9 AM. If my little one is up and awake at daybreak, she can sit in front of the TV for hours, and I do not care. I will sip my coffee in peace, answer some e-mails, and even get a workout in (when I’m feeling ambitious) while she sings along with JJ and the rest of the Cocomelon gang. When the world starts waking up, the library opens, and I’m feeling energized enough to set out some art projects, then we can turn off the TV and try something different.

Getting rid of screen time limits has kept our mornings from totally derailing. Why punish myself even more by not letting her watch some TV before breakfast? What was I trying to prove and to whom?

When I first started letting her watch TV first thing in the morning with no time limits, the guilt weighed heavily. Social media and societal pressures had reminded me time and time again that her brain would rot away if I didn’t have her engaged in play with wooden toys I ordered on Etsy. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls for no screen time at all for children until 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting, and says kids ages 2 to 5 should get an hour or less of screen time per day. There is definitely a stigma around moms who let their kids watch an iPad when they’re out to dinner or use the TV as a babysitter when they have a meeting while working from home, but can we be real here for a second? Why are we all so ashamed?

I was raised by the television. Being the youngest of my siblings, I was watching The Real World and Party of Five when I was six years old. If my mom was home with me, it was also guaranteed that the TV was on while I ate dinner or slurped Fruit Loops before school. I watched a generous amount of television growing up, and I’m fine! (*looks around for confirmation from loved ones*)

Let me clarify that I am not saying that unlimited screen time all day, everyday is not harmful. If kids only used screens and had no physical activity or social interaction with others, then yes, screen time can be detrimental, but does this ever really happen? And if it does, those days are far and few between.

One of the most interesting things I noticed about throwing away screen time limits was that once the TV wasn’t a big deal in our house, our daughter cared about it so much less. When we had strict limits on how much she could watch (or what kid shows she could watch), she put up much more of a fight when we told her it was time to move onto another activity. We’d usually be stuck in a loop of letting her have screen time, the inevitable tantrum when we have to stop, and then finally calming down before moving on. That in and of itself was exhausting not to mention the constant asking if she could watch it.

Now that the TV isn’t this precious gem she can’t touch, she realizes that the TV isn’t that amazing. After watching Paw Patrol for a bit, she typically moves on and chooses to play with her toys or color or listen to her music. She is in control of her own regulation now that I realized this is something I don’t need to be regulating so closely.

Does this mean I’m going to let her watch Love Island? Of course not, but letting go of the control (pun intended) and allowing both of us the space in the mornings to wake up and enjoy something for ourselves has set our days off on such a better note. I know this won’t work for every family, but I’m thankful that it works for us.

Katie is a contributing Scary Mommy writer covering parenting, celebrity, and viral moments.

She has written content for Distractify and Cuteness as well as personal essays for Thought Catalog and Clean Plates. She has a degree in English from North Central College.

In her free time, she’s hanging with her 3-year-old and husband, planning their next family trip, and watching restocking videos on TikTok.