It's 4:30 am. You went to bed too late last night because you finally had the chance to unwind at the end of another hectic day. It was so delicious to relax and enjoy yourself that it was hard to make yourself get up off the couch and go to bed.
And now your beloved child is babbling in the crib. You pull the pillow over your head and try to ignore it but soon the babbling turns to whimpers and then crying. You sigh in resignation and wearily climb out of bed.
You are not alone.
The number one question I get from parents is: how can I get my child to sleep later?
Believe it or not, the culprit is nearly always a too-late bedtime.
What? How can you possibly make bedtime any earlier? You are already rushing from work/daycare/afternoon baby group/walking the dog/picking up the siblings/making dinner. Plus, won't an earlier bedtime make him wake up even earlier? You can't possibly bear that.
Actually, when children miss the ideal window for bedtime, they have more trouble falling asleep and they wake up earlier. This is because their bodies produce a stress hormone, cortisol, when they miss their ideal bedtime. The stress hormone winds them up -- producing that wicked second wind you might observe at bedtime -- and making it harder for them to sleep.
I recommend that children under age 6 have about twelve hours in bed at night. And the ideal wake time is around 6:30 am, from a biological perspective. Counting back from that, the ideal bedtime is around 6:30 pm. Some babies and toddlers can't even make it that long and go to bed as early as 5 pm.
And unfortunately, we adults can't control these times very well. Baby and toddler sleep times are biologically driven, based on the times the sun rises and sets. It's also affected by the rhythm of their meal and play times. Despite the fact that the sun rises and sets at different times throughout the year (unless you are lucky enough to live close to the equator), these times seem to work best for most babies in terms of getting the highest quality sleep.
It's very hard to move bedtime earlier. I know.
My older child, when she was four, was going to bed at 6:30 pm. We also had meltdowns every afternoon at pick up from PreK. She would lie down in the hall of the big public school and refuse to walk. She was also very shy in class and would only speak to one friend.
And then we had a week off from school and I noticed she was sleeping late every morning. So I pushed her bedtime back to 6 pm and suddenly the end-of-the-day meltdowns stopped. Even better, she started speaking up in class. She was a happier, more confident child with that extra half hour of sleep. It made all the difference.
But was it easy? No. We didn't get home until 5 pm. I had an infant to tend to once we arrived. It was a mad scramble to nurse the baby while feeding my four-year-old and getting her ready for bed within the hour. Family dinners went out the window. It was stressful and hard. But it was worth it. And six months later, she didn't need as much sleep and we pushed her bedtime back to 6:30, and then 7.
The very early bedtime is hard work. It may mean that a working parent doesn't get to see his child at night. That's painful. But just like we wouldn't deprive a hungry baby of food, we shouldn't deprive a sleepy baby of the sleep his brain desperately needs.
There are wonderful things about an early bedtime, too. With your child going to bed earlier, you get to start your evening relaxation sooner. Ideally, you set an alarm on your phone to force yourself to go to bed earlier, too. And then working parents can set an alarm to get up extra early, get themselves ready, and then enjoy some wonderful early-morning (but not too early!) quality time with your well-rested little one before work.
And sometimes, an earlier bedtime is all the sleep training you need to do. The middle of the night and early morning wakings can just disappear with the appropriate bedtime.
Best of all, you will likely see dramatic changes in your youngster. After a great night's sleep, he will be calmer, happier, and more able to focus on his play. You will see him developing at his highest potential. Mornings will be less harried and rushed with everyone getting the sleep they need.
Give it a try for two weeks and see how it goes! What have you got to lose besides some sleep debt?
Want some support in making these changes? Set up a free fifteen minute chat with me.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.