I'm sure this is a topic as old as time (and I've already read all the sleep books), but in desperation I'm posting here in the hopes that some of you with similar problems might be able to give me new ideas?
Our DD is almost 2.5, and has typically slept from around 7:30/8pm to 7am (this varies a bit, but she is not typically up before 6:30am). The last several weeks, she has been waking earlier and refusing to go back to sleep no matter what we do, even though she is clearly exhausted (and very difficult to deal with) during the day because she is over-tired. We thought originally that the early waking was because of too much light in her room, so we blacked out her window, and that seemed to get her to sleep until at least 6am for a while, but now she is back to waking at 4 or 5am every morning.
We have one of those sleep clocks, with the sheep that is sleeping and then the waking sheep lights up at a preset time. We've tried explaining to her that she has to sleep until the sheep is awake (or at least stay quietly in her room), but this has not worked - she just gets up and leaves the room when she wakes up anyway. I even tried laying out food and water and toys and books and showing her that she could play quietly if she is up before the sheep, but she just ignored it all (this morning I heard her opening her door at 4:30am even though she was doing it very quietly obviously trying to avoid detection, and she was heading off to the living room). I don't really want to have to lock her in her room, but I'm beginning to think that I may need to, as the house outside her room is not childproofed enough for me to feel that it is safe for her to wander it unsupervised. And aside from her staying quietly in her room, I'd actually like her to sleep, because during the day she is constantly breaking down into tears about every little thing because she is exhausted. (Even if we did lock her in there, I do not think she would actually sleep any longer, as once she is up she seems unable or unwilling to try to go back to sleep, and she is a stubborn kiddo with lots of determination - in other situations she has been able to keep up yelling for something for more than an hour, so I imagine she would do the same in her room after waking up if she wanted out...)
We tried bringing her into bed with us but she has never slept in the bed - she only wants to play if she is in bed with us, and even if we ignore her and or fake sleep ourselves, she still does not sleep (we bedshared in the beginning and I really wanted to keep doing it much longer, but it didn't really work after around 6 months, when she started to move around the bed all the time and seemed to want to play with us all night instead of sleeping, so we moved her to her own sleeping place around 10 months and to her own room at about 1 year).
We tried letting her stay up for a short time, and then going through the bedtime routine again (we even tried giving her a bottle of milk, which we never give her in bed, but we were desperate) to put her to bed, which works well in the evenings or in the rare cases when she wakes earlier in the night, but that has not worked either - she just comes right back out again without sleeping.
I've tried adjusting her bedtime, but that doesn't seem to work - if she goes to bed later, she just wakes up just as earlier and is even more tired and grumpy, and if I put her to bed earlier, she starts to wake even earlier - however, I haven't tried moving the bedtime significantly earlier or significantly later for a longer period of time, so maybe this is what we need to do next - I'm just afraid that it will make things even worse by establishing a new habit of her getting up at 3am that can't be broken, or that it will make her even more sleep deprived than she is now. I've heard equal advice about moving the bedtime later and moving it earlier, so it seems like a dicey thing to guess which direction might work for us anyway... Besides, she has always returned in the past to the 7:30/8pm-7am sleep schedule, through travel, illness, jet lag, changes in routine, etc, so it seems to me that this is the amount of time that she actually needs to sleep (I just don't know why she won't or can't do that for herself now!).
Aside from DD being so cranky and obviously over-tired, I am pregnant again with number 2 and tired anyway, and DH and I both work full time (I have a big deadline at the end of this month) and this is getting to be completely untenable - this is worse than the NB stage, because at least then while the sleep was interrupted, I could keep going back to sleep with her - but with this new sleep pattern she just literally does not sleep enough hours for me to get enough sleep not to be a zombie - I literally don't do anything now instead of cook, take care of DD, shop for groceries, and work - the second dinner is over I go to bed, but that still means I can't go to sleep before 9:30-10pm, and when she has us up at 4am, I am just so tired that I can't stay away during the day at all.
If anyone has any ideas or tips, I would so very much appreciate it!
Thanks for taking the time to read my really long post!