Why an Early Bedtime Is Important to Babies and Toddlers
Babies and children need lots of sleep. In fact, by their second birthday, a well-rested child has been asleep more hours than awake. Newborns follow an irregular schedule, but by six months, most children have developed a regular sleep-wake cycle influenced by daylight, or their circadian rhythm. A consistent, early bedtime is the only way to both honor that internal clock and make sure your child gets enough sleep. It turns out there are multiple benefits to that appropriate bedtime.
How Much Sleep Does My Child Need?
The CDC recommends 3 month olds sleep between 14 and 17 hours per day. As they get older, the number of hours sleep they need gradually reduces but even at 18 months, it is still 11-14 hours. While some of that sleep comes in the form of naps, most of it is consolidated into a long period overnight.
Why Would Bedtime Matter?
While it’s possible for a child to get the appropriate sleep with a later bedtime if they “sleep in," there’s just one problem — they usually don’t. A young child’s circadian rhythm naturally wakes them as early as 6:00 to 7:30 a.m. Too late a bedtime means they’ll still awaken, but with less sleep.
Just as children naturally rise early, they also tend to have a drowsy window around 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. In most cases, if they go to bed then, it will be easier for them to go to sleep, and ideally get the right amount of sleep overnight. For younger children, their daytime naps will make up the rest of their sleep in a 24-hour period.
That Drowsy Window Matters
Babies and young children cycle between REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement). The NREM sleep stage is restorative, while the REM cycle is active and when dreaming occurs. As adults, we are not always aware that we wake slightly and re-settle at night between cycles. Babies and children do too, and when they learn to self-soothe, they can fall back asleep without fully waking or crying.
An overtired child who stays up past their natural bedtime window will have a harder time self-soothing. A child who is able to fall asleep on their own at bedtime is also better able to calm himself overnight.
Children Thrive on Routine
This is well-accepted by teachers and caregivers in classrooms as well as parents who use a calming bedtime routine. When a young child knows what to expect, they feel secure. When bedtime is the same time each night, they know what’s coming. A bath, story, cuddles, and a kiss goodnight are a pretty common way to assure a calm environment before bed. If bedtime is late, those steps might be skipped or rushed, and the result is a missed drowsy window and a child who may not be ready for sleep.
Behavioral and Cognitive Connections
In a study of 18-month-olds in Japan, the neurodevelopment of children with late bedtimes (after 10 p.m.) was worse than that of children who went to bed earlier.
Another study looked at the cognitive test scores of 7-year-old girls in the UK. They traced bedtimes since age three, and found that the children with irregular bedtimes scored significantly lower.
It’s Not Just Mental
A 2009 study found that disruption of circadian rhythms can affect metabolic health. Timing meals and sleep in a regular pattern that follows the light and dark tended to help regulate insulin and glucose numbers as well as reduce the risk of hypertension.
There is also evidence that links a later bedtime in adolescents to a higher BMI. The study found significant links between later average bedtimes during the work week even when they eliminated factors like screen time and exercise.
Early Bedtimes Benefit the Whole Family
Set that age-appropriate bedtime and count backwards to figure out when dinner should be. Then plan a nice, simple, calming routine so that you hit that drowsy window. You’ll soon find your child resists less, wakes less often during the night, and is easier to get along with all day.
Once it’s a routine, it can be a relaxing and enjoyable time for you and your child to bond. Not only that, you might find yourself with some child-free time before your own bedtime.
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