Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Do not fear the odd early bed-time...
Our children’s clock or circadian rhythm
Our natural body clock (circadian rhythm), is responsible for many different functions in the body, it regulates mental, psychological and behavioural functions, in relation to time over 24-hours and what we are exposed to, what routines we follow, etc. For example, sleeping at night, awake in the day is a light related circadian rhythm process. Natural (broad spectrum) daylight helps to regulate our circadian rhythm.
Let us remember that our new-born baby’s circadian rhythm is immature and does not develop until after the first 3-4 months, which explains the irregular night and day patterns we see in our young babies. With plenty of daily natural light exposure, and normal daily activities, your baby’s body clock slowly matures over time. This natural day-light exposure is important all the way through your child’s life because it regulates their sleep and daily biological functions. Even in winter, getting as much natural light and turning on bright lights in the house when awaking in the morning is beneficial, rather than keeping the curtains shut and lights dim, get the lights on and curtains open.
Our body clock is responsible for releasing 2 main hormones in response to the time of day, cortisol (alerting response) and melatonin (sleepy response). When cortisol is released it creates alertness and is higher in the body in the morning so we have the energy to start our day. This can help us understand that trying to get a child to sleep when they are not ready is very difficult because their body clock is telling them to wake up. This is also true of trying to keep a child awake that is too tired to be able to manage it.
Sleep pressure is the increase in the urge for our body to want to fall asleep, the more time we spend awake, the higher the sleep pressure. Eventually, the drive to fall asleep overwhelms the body and we will fall asleep pretty much anywhere, I’m sure you can relate.
The pressure builds at different rates in different people, this is why some children and babies can last between sleeps longer than others. When this pressure builds too high, the body goes into alerting mode to help keep us going and cortisol starts to be released. When the sleep pressure builds to a high level, children can become cranky and irritable or extra alert. Having naps relieves this pressure throughout the day and evidence has proven that well spaced, appropriate naps depending on age and stage, help sleep at night.
Learn your child's sleep pressure tolerance
If you learn how long your child can cope with being awake, before they are too tired to sleep or settle then bed times and nap times will be much easier. We also must remember that these needs change as our children grow and develop, therefore keeping up with the changes is important too. Knowing when to shorten, lengthen or drop a nap, add a nap or bring bed-time earlier or later, can really be a life-saver in your family's daily sleep.
A new-born would only have a tolerance of around 35-60 minutes before their bodies would crave another sleep, this varies greatly and changes every few months in babies, whereas, a 2 year old will generally tolerate between 5 and 7 hours awake before their bodies need to be asleep. This is why it is so important to really follow your child's clock, rather than the time displayed on your clock or strict schedules that maintain the exact same times for all naps, and bedtime.
I am not saying not to have some structure
Children thrive on structure and predictability and having routine to our child's day helps to sinc our children's circadian rhythm and they love to know what to expect. Regular meal times, an average set morning wake time to set the day, lots of broad spectrum light, lots of activity and movement and loving, quality time with our children are all good steps to aid sleep in our little sleepers.
Being adaptable is essential as if your child wakes at 5am, their day will be different than if they wake at 7am. Being able to adjust, adapt and not be afraid of a little give and take is essential to your sanity and their sleep needs.
Do you fear an early bed-time & try to hold your child to a set time every evening, no matter what?
So many of us fear an early bed-time, I really want to emphasise, this is not something to shy away from and is very necessary on some days. It is also sometimes an option to consider bed-time being pushed a little later, depending on the child and the family's daily routines.
The main thing I want you to take from this blog is to follow your child's lead on their tiredness and do not be afraid to add in a short cat nap or give in to an early bed-time. There is a period of about an hour or 2 before bed where children become more alert and hyper, this is normal, letting them be active, getting some active quality time can help and then after the alert period has passed will be their natural wind down time where things can slow down in preparation for bed.
The transition from 1 nap to none generally between 2.5 years and 3.5 years is a hard transition and sometimes I meet families with 2 year old's who have dropped their afternoon nap, generally because of a development phase after around 18 months and with it never re-established, they can be finding bed-times, nightimes and early mornings very tough.
Do not be afraid to keep trying for the nap, in different ways, at slightly different times and if it is a phase, it should come back. On the days your child skips their nap, which is common as some children start to have a nap every second or third day when they are between 2 and 3, let them go to bed earlier and make up for the lost sleep. A 6pm bed-time instead of 7pm, for a tired child may result in a normal wake in the morning and as a result, your child has had the opportunity to catch up on the lost sleep, instead of it becoming a constant bed-time battle every day. Even if this brings on a little earlier wake in the morning, try to keep things calm and dark and still start your day and breakfast at the same time but it can be more beneficial in maintaining your child's sleep regulation and may avoid a vicious cycle that may be hard to break.
Do not fear the early bed-time!!!
Follow your child, if they act tired, then they usually are....