Bedtime in high school was whenever our parents made us get off the phone. Bedtime in college was 12am on weeknights (and way after 12am on weekends). Bedtime in parenthood…..dare I say as soon your child’s door closes at the end of the night? Can I get an Amen?? However, most children are master negotiators, and can sometimes convince us that “Yes, maybe it IS too early for them to go to bed……”- they seem to be bouncing off the walls (and the bed, and the couch) right? So what is an age-appropriate bedtime and why do children seem to have so much energy right before you plan to turn off the lights?
The Science Stuff: So most of us are familiar with melatonin, yes? Melatonin is a hormone released by our brains when it gets dark & close to bedtime, making us naturally drowsy and ready to sleep, ultimately one of the major components of our internal light/dark cycle. Children over 5+ months of age also receive this magical secretion from the pineal gland, helping them sleep better at night. "But wait, if melatonin is supposedly working it’s magic right now, why does my child suddenly have their second wind?!” Enter Sleep Public Enemy #1: Cortisol. Also referred to out there as the “stress hormone”, cortisol is the anti-sleep (or fight-or-flight) hormone that kicks in after a prolonged period of being awake, temporarily tricking us into thinking we are no longer drowsy. Once this hormone is combating our friend melatonin, it becomes increasingly difficult to then fall asleep on our own. For adults, this is when you’re desperately searching for the Nyquil or Lunesta because you have a huge meeting tomorrow and you can’t seem to settle. For children, this is where the meltdowns, bedtime battles, increased fussiness- basically losing their sh*t right when you think you’re almost out of the clear.
How to determine the “right” bedtime for any age child: My rule of thumb for ages 4 months to 6 years old is to be waking up at the same time every day, and going to bed about 13 hours later. So yes Mom & Dad, that means if your sweet angel is cooing away in her crib at 6am, you’ll want to aim for a 7pm bedtime. It also means waking up your kid every day at the same time, even if it’s a weekend or following a “big” day. If you do allow your child to catch some extra zzz’s here and there on the weekends, be prepared for a later-than-usual bedtime (note you don’t have to move your bedtime routine back, but your child will most likely not be completely asleep after you turn off the lights and shut the door.) Consistency is a BIG factor in my business, and if you’ve ever worked with me than you understand why: children LOVE routine, and love to know what’s coming next- similar to how they choose a favorite book at night and read along, they experience joy knowing what comes on the next page or how the story will end.
"That cortisol hormone you mentioned above seems to be kicking in every night, how do get my child down before that releases?" Keep an eye on the clock and watch for sleep cues (rubbing eyes is the red flag in my family, but you could see a yawn, staring into space, slowness to respond) and know that you have 15 minutes MAX to get that child asleep. Make sure you’re not engaging in any negotiation or continuous requests from your child for another hug, another bathroom break, another sip of water; the more the bedtime process is prolonged, the more you are in danger of this happening. If all else fails, move your bedtime routine back by thirty minutes to give yourself and your child more of a “cushion” to get settled.
"What about my older kids?" Although I specialize in children under 3, here is a great chart that's circulated on the web that I refer clients to:
"Help! I might need a new routine; no matter what I do my child is still fighting bedtime!" Even the best sleepers will think of a new way to prolong bedtime from time to time. The key is consistency, and making sure whomever is a part of the bedtime/put-down routine is on the same page. There are SO many components of sleep training, and throw in huge cognitive leaps, gross motor skill advances, new schools, new siblings- you’re bound to eventually experience a disruption in sleep/bedtime if you haven’t already. Drop me a note here if you want to talk about how we can work together to get your little guy or gal back on track, with a little work it’s completely possible for your child to sleep through the night!