My two year olds are in bed each night at 6:30. Sometimes a little later, more often a little earlier…but I’d say on average: 6:30PM is when we shut the door and say “night-night.” Most people think I’m nuts, but honestly; early bed times have saved both our sanity and our children’s sleep habits.
Before I get into the personal benefits of early bed times, I want to address the science behind early bed times and why they are necessary for little ones. When we wake in the morning, the hormone cortisol is at its highest level in our system. As the day goes on, the levels of cortisol decrease, working in tandem with melatonin – which increases as night time approaches. Once we’ve reached a point of overtiredness or “catch a second wind,” the delicate balance between cortisol and melatonin is disrupted in an effort to keep us awake, making it really difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. You may notice that on nights when you’re out super late and then finally crash into bed, your sleep is less than restful and you may wake very early in the morning. Conversely, on nights when you get into bed early you sleep well and later into the morning. This is partly due to the fact that typically, relatively low cortisol levels at night allow your body to repair and heal. Disrupting the balance can lead to elevated cortisol levels at times when your body needs to rest, and ultimately a feeling of fatigue once you wake.
Kids are no different. Children all the way up until the age of 7 begin to produce melatonin at some point between 6:30 and 7:30pm – so if we can get them into bed as their bodies are beginning to produce melatonin, they will have the easiest time drifting off to sleep. Keeping a child awake and exposing them to bright lights, household activity and noise actually suppresses the production of melatonin, making it much harder for them to fall to sleep. Many parents think their children don’t need the recommended amount of sleep in a 24 hour period or an early bed time because their child appears very awake at 6:30PM – but this can actually be a sign of overtiredness and/or a late evening spike of cortisol. All children exhibit overtiredness differently, so while it’s obvious that those that are yawning and becoming fussy are past the point of exhaustion, hyperactivity can be a big indicator as well.
The key to a good bed time is to make sure it happens before a child enters an overtired state. We know from science how long a child of a certain age can tolerate being awake before bed time without becoming overtired. For a 4 month old, this could be as little as 1.5 hours from their 3rd nap. For a 2 year old, this is about 4 hours from their 1 nap. So, on days when my little ones take a less than ideal nap, say 1PM-2PM, they are in bed at 5:45 with the intent that they are sound asleep by 6PM. This ensures that despite less than perfect daytime sleep, they are still getting the amount of sleep they need in a 24 hour period and to bed in a rested state – thus staying rested and preventing an overtiredness cycle that could lead to night wakings, early morning wake-ups, and short naps (not to mention cranky toddlers).
Despite the science behind this, a lot of people still find it crazy that we consistently adhere to the early bed time. I will admit when we sleep trained at 4 months, the sometimes necessary 5PM bed time seemed a little crazy (won’t they wake super early in the morning?), and sad (I just got home from work and it’s time to put them to bed?!). I empathize with the moms I work with who share these sentiments. I remember saying to our daughter’s nanny that I wished they could stay up later, but I knew it would hurt the quality of their (and therefore, our) sleep. She said “don’t wish these days away, you’ll miss these nights to yourself!” Now that we’ve been on the early-bedtime train for almost 2 years, we are enjoying this time to ourselves. My patience, health, and marriage have hugely benefited from time at night to unwind, work out, and eat dinner with my husband after my kids are asleep.
Does this mean I don’t ever miss my kids when they need to be in bed earlier than usual? Absolutely not! But the rational part of my mind knows how important consistency and rest is for toddlers, not to mention that the sleep they get earlier in the night is far more restorative than sleep that takes place later. Not only are we keeping their sleep intact, but we are establishing healthy sleep hygiene that will carry through elementary school, teenage years and even adulthood. Take, for instance, a study that found that “2-year-olds who had early bedtimes were, at age 8, 62 percent less likely than those with later or inconsistent bedtimes to have attention problems and 81 percent less likely to have aggression issues.” Worth it? I think so!
Now, this is not to say that good sleep hygiene requires 100% consistency all the time. Once sleep habits are in a good place, aim for 80% consistency. Late work schedules, special occasions, travel, and all other common disruptions to your daily routine can be made up for on “normal” days with an early bed time to combat any accumulated sleep debt and keep the cortisol curve functioning as it should. So, if you are considering sleep training but are scared of early bed times, fear not. Remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup, and an early bed time can allow the “you” time you need to be the best mom or dad possible, while making sure that your child gets the amount of sleep they need to thrive.
*If you’re thinking “this sounds great! But would never work for our family,” follow Well Rested Baby’s blog and Facebook page for Lauren’s tips and tricks next week for making an early bed time happen.
**Remember that any change you make will need 2 weeks of consistency to take effect. So if you are looking to try out an earlier bed time to see if it will help bedtime struggles, early waking or short naps, be sure to give it a solid two weeks of effort before you assess its effectiveness!
Colleen Kordana is a Family Sleep Institute certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant of Well Rested Baby. She offers a host of services including in person, phone, email, and Skype/FaceTime consultations that can be tailored to meet any family’s needs and schedule. Please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consultation. Be sure to follow WRB on Facebook for more great sleep tips!
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