Your Toddler Isn’t Sleeping Well Because You’re Putting Him To Bed Too Early

200216113-001It may be your fault that your toddler isn’t sleeping well. The bedtime you set for him may be in conflict with his internal clock, says a new University of Colorado Boulder study. There is no winning here.

The study pinpointed the time when the hormone melatonin increased in the evening, indicating the start of the biological night, in a group of 14 toddlers whose sleep also was studied over the course of six days. The study showed that toddlers with later melatonin rise times took longer to fall asleep after being put to bed, said CU-Boulder Assistant Professor Monique LeBourgeois.

While adults get to choose their own bedtime, toddlers rarely have this option, said LeBourgeois. “This study is the first to show that a poor fit between bedtimes selected by the parents of toddlers and the rise in their evening melatonin production increases their likelihood of nighttime settling difficulties,” said LeBourgeois.

I put my toddler down at nine o’clock every night. Many parents are horrified when they hear that he has such a late bedtime. Guess what? He still stays up for another hour, talking and entertaining himself. I don’t care what this study says, there is no way in hell that little man is getting free run of the house until 10 o’clock at night. I need some peace in my life, thank you very much.

He does all the things this study warns he may do if he’s not ready for bed; bedtime resistance? Check. Tantrums? Check. Episodes known as “curtain calls” that “manifest themselves as calling out from bed or coming out of the bedroom, often repeatedly, for another story, glass of water or bathroom trip?” Check.

So what to do? Researchers are looking at ways to arm parents with tools to help them understand their child’s biological clock, to help them make the best decisions about pre-bedtime activities. For example, research in adolescents and adults has shown that “exposure to light in the evening can delay the timing onset of melatonin.” So they are looking to see if they can prove that restricting light will help the rise in melatonin happen earlier for toddlers.

The study showed several toddlers who were put to bed before their rise in melatonin took 40-60 minutes to fall asleep. “For these toddlers, laying in bed awake for such a long time can lead to the association of bed with arousal, not sleep,” she said. “This type of response may increase children’s lifelong risk for insomnia over time.”

I honestly had no idea it may be a problem for my child to lay awake in bed at night, entertaining himself before he goes to sleep. I’ll be keeping an eye on this “research” to see if they have any more bedtime routine tips. I certainly don’t want to groom a child for a lifetime a sleep difficulty.

(photo: Getty Images)

You can reach this post's author, Maria Guido, on twitter.
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    • Bethany Ramos

      So the study said the average melatonin time for a toddler was 740pm. I put both kids to bed from 7-7 and am suuuuper strict about it because I’m obsessed with good sleep. The majority of the time, my toddler is happy to go to bed, and sometimes he’ll fall asleep ASAP, other times by 8. I think because of the routine, he enjoys chilling in bed either way and “reading” in the dark.

      • Andrea

        Yeah I was like you too when mine were younger. I needed my evenings, thank you very much indeed. I was super anal about it, including holidays and weekends.
        I have only recently (they are 10 and 13) allowed later bedtimes on holidays, weekends and summers, but only because they don’t bug me in the evenings anymore and are more self-sufficient.
        I cannot even conceive dealing with a toddler until 9 at night. I used to start counting down the minutes at 5 pm; I was so over it by 7 pm.

      • Bethany Ramos

        Waiting till 7 is like an eternity! Also, weeeeird observation – I just watched my toddler on the video monitor fall asleep about 735-740. Whoa, science!

      • Andrea

        Who knew!!!

      • rrlo

        See, you are with the kids all day long. We usually start our evenings with my son around 530/600. For us the longer he stays awake (without any detrimental effect), the better. But during my year of Mat leave – I couldn’t wait for the baby to go to sleep. I find the older my son gets, the more fun it is to hang out with him too.

      • http://ichasekids.com/ Litterboxjen

        My mom used to put me to bed at 9, as I would then sleep until 7. My grandmother looked after me for a week and decided my bedtime should be 7 – I was then up at 5. Apparently that was hellacious to break.

        My kid used to go to sleep for 7, and I only get to pick her up around 4:30-5…. and would have to pick my husband up at 5:30, then get dinners, take my turn with bathtime… it was awful. She started going to bed around 7:30/8ish a few months ago and that worked, but now she’s up talking/singing to herself in her crib until after 9. Sorry kid, but I’m not putting you to bed at 9; I’m up at 5ish a.m. and need at least a bit of time to myself in the evenings.

    • Boots

      My little girl is usually in bed about 8pm, give or take an hou. Many of our fri ends are horrifiedat the’late bedti me’, but it works for us. Both parents are night owls, so she didn’t have a chance really.

      • Alanna Jorgensen

        Are you kidding me that people are horrified? I get HOME at 7pm, then have to cook dinner and bath time. Heaven forbid I actually get to see the child I birthed…

      • Boots

        Holy crap! So many phone typos – sorry guys! Tired, one handed typing on the phone is not my strong suit.

        Also – yeah. We cop flak for letting her stay up if she’s not tired. 10pm & not sleeping? Well… Can’t exactly give her a double scotch…

    • Ana

      I put my daughter to bed at 9 too. It used to be even later. But both of our jobs are 10am-6pm+, so she sleeps in later than most kids. Her dad wouldn’t even get to see her at night if I did a more “normal” time. When people ask I’ve learned to say “late”, and leave it at that.

      • Andrea

        Just curious, what will you do when she goes to school? Most elementary schools I know start pretty early, between 7:30 and 8:00

      • jessica

        The schools in our area start at 9am. (Well the high school starts at 8:30 but that isn’t really relevant to our lives at this point in time). My youngest is usually up by 6 am, his sister sleeps about an hour more. 9pm-6am is still about 9 hours of sleep. I’ve found that with my youngest he’s actually super groggy if he sleeps longer than 8 and a half hours. Is that weird? Literally everyone I’ve talked to says they have never heard of a young kid with that issue. Their kids seem to need at least 9 to function normally.

      • Andrea

        No it’s not weird! Some kids are like that, just like some grown people are like that too!
        I can’t remember exactly how many hours kids need of a sleep a day, but the APA has a chart on their website that says how many hours they need based on age. And it is divided between night time sleep and nap time sleep.

      • jessica

        Thanks so much for your input! Its hard for me as a mom to just relax and stop worrying- especially now that my kids are getting closer to the age where they have tests in school and performance during the day matters. It seems our son maybe takes after me and his dad and just needs less sleep period. I’ll try to relax about it so long as he’s not showing any signs of sleep deprivation and just let him be.

      • http://ichasekids.com/ Litterboxjen

        Aw, I was hoping I`d worry less as they got older. :(

      • http://ichasekids.com/ Litterboxjen

        When my kid was under a year, I asked about naps – I kept reading that she was supposed to sleep for 90 minutes, several times a day, and she was 45 minutes on the dot each time. Our pediatrician explained that there are the ‘averages/guidelines’, and then there are genetics – if one or both of the parents doesn’t need a lot of sleep, sometimes the kids don’t, either.

      • jessica

        Glad to hear. My husband’s a fireman, I’m a nurse… we don’t sleep because we don’t seem to really need to. 4 hours is good for us, at anytime of day and whenever we feel like we need to. We’re cats basically. But we worry a lot that our habits will rub off on our kids in a negative way- especially now that they are in school and need to be on a 9-5 type schedule with tests in school and all of that. I guess our son just takes after us in terms of not needing so many hours, while our daughter doesn’t. So long as he isn’t showing any obvious signs of sleep deprivation I’ll try not to worry too much.

      • Ana

        She has a few years still, but the Kindergarten she’ll go to starts at 9, and is only a block away. I’ll adjust as needed. Luckily my job is a little flexible with when I come and go.

      • Alanna Jorgensen

        I don’t even get into the discussion because I frankly don’t care to hear the judgmental attitudes. My child’s bedtime works for our schedules and that’s that.

      • Guest

        It’s beyond me why anyone would be judgmental about when someone else’s child goes to bed. To me that is the most ridiculous thing to be judgmental about. Now, if the poor child is always tired and not growing properly because of lack of sleep – I can understand some concern but other than that it’s completely ridiculous.

    • Rachel Sea

      In my personal experience, light makes a huge difference. I had a sleep disorder where my body associated light with sleep and dark with waking – not so bad in the winter, hell in the summer. I was able to switch back, but now I notice that if I don’t keep artificial lighting, including screen-time, to a minimum at night, it totally bollockses my sleep schedule. I keep the lighting in my home as close as possible to equinox all year, and it helps keep me on track year round.

      Toddlers who need to be on a schedule might benefit from consistent lighting too, otherwise I’d expect that, like most other mammals, their sleep/wake patterns would change with the seasons.

      • keelhaulrose

        My daughter just would not go to sleep in the summer until it was dark out. We finally had to get blackout curtains. I don’t think it was anything wrong with her, she slept in the middle of the day for naps, and would fall asleep in the car with the sun in her face, but at night it had to be dark to get her to go to sleep.

      • http://wtfihaveakid.blogspot.ca/ jendra_berri

        My husband takes the baby in the morning on weekends and for the longest time was so confused why he wouldn’t take his morning nap. Finally, I asked, “Was the TV on?” Yes. “Don’t watch TV with him in the morning.” Still no good. “Did you Factime with your parents?” Yes. No screen time at all then. Too bright.
        Kid started taking his morning naps on the weekend again. Screens really bojangle your brain for sleep.

      • keelhaulrose

        See my daughter is odd. She won’t sleep if there’s any natural light in the room, but she has a soothie and a projector light, and she has to have those on to get her to sleep. So there has to be some light, but if any of it is natural she won’t go to bed at night. But, as I said, she naps in the middle of the day no problem.

    • Blueathena623

      I really wish I could read the whole study because some info would make the world of difference. According to the article linked here and the abstract, it was 14 kids, who I believe only had their saliva tested on one night. The average rise in melatonin was 7:40, plus or minus 48 minutes. Kids put to bed after their melatonin rise fell asleep after about 30 minutes, while kids who spiked later took 40-60 minutes. So a 10 to 30 minute difference in falling asleep, with the average spike having a range of 1.5 hours. I would like to know how many kids had their spike really late. Was it half the kids, or like 2 kids? Because I’ve seen this article everywhere and I’m concerned that every parent with a kid resisting bedtime will just assume they have a late-spiking kid.

      • Guest

        Exactly! And therein lies the problem with the sensationalist press releases that come from studies. Nobody ever gets to see the full picture, and when you dig even just a little bit below the surface, you’ll often find that the study didn’t even remotely prove what everyone wants to say it did.

      • Kay_Sue

        The entire study was only 14 kids?? Because that doesn’t really sound representative to me?

        I imagine most sleep studies are smaller, but I don’t know that a study of 14 children would be enough to make generalizations based on. I’d like to see the full study too.

      • AP

        Certain research methodologies (ones where data collection is unusually expensive, onerous, or subjects are uniquely hard to find) use smaller sample sizes than ones where the data is cheap and easy to come by (say, surveys.)

        I worked in a MRI memory research lab, and those studies often had a sample size of 15-20 just because 20 subjects was 100 man hours and $41,000. I’d imagine sleep research is similar, because sleep labs are small and getting parents to consent to participation is difficult.

      • Blueathena623

        I agree that some studies can get by with a small sample size, but I still think its important for us to know what percentage of kids had really late melatonin release times. In the article the author is quoted as saying 25% of toddlers have bedtime resistance. So did 25% of the kids have the late release time, or was it less than that.
        And not that it really matters, but the kids were not in a sleep lab, they werer at home.

    • Andrea

      Maria, here’s a question for you: at what time does he get up? When does he nap and for how long? If you are at all interested in him getting to sleep earlier, it might be a question of shifting all things: wake up, nap, and bedtime.

      • http://twitter.com/mariaguido Maria Guido

        He wakes up at 7 and naps from about 1-3…

      • Andrea

        Ok, I should STFU.

        That’s a pretty early wake up and nap; I would think he’d be dead in his feet by 7. Sorry. I’m no help.

    • FF4life

      We put mine down at 8 now.. but she still cries and whines until about 10ish. In the past her bedtime was around 10:15 because I would have to drive her stepfather into work at night. Back then she would go to sleep without any resistance. This research actually kinda puts the pieces together as far as why.

    • Katia

      REALLY don’t know why “research” is in quotation marks in the article. Is there some reason you want to disrespect professionals? So off putting to be snarky like that. Do you actually feel superior the creators of this useful study, or that you could create a better study?

      This is very interesting to me. But there’s always hope for an early bedtime if you tire them out then give them a big meal and glass of milk, and a bath. Maybe a small dessert before the bath. Sugar high leads to sugar low.
      We should all figure out what time the kids need to be up for school (or if they don’t), ask our kids dr how many hours of sleep they need and count backwards to figure out what time the going to bed routine starts.

    • CelesteF

      I feel bad for my poor mom. I have Circadian Rhythym Sleep Disorder and it wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult. I’m glad more studies like these are coming out to help make parents more aware of children and adolescents biological functions. All my years growing up my parents assumed my irregular behavior was due to stubbornness/defiance/laziness and I have plenty of negative experiences and memories because of it. Perhaps more parents will learn to modify the environment instead of reprimand the child.

    • Kay_Sue

      There’s a lot of research in circadian rhythms coming out right now that is fascinating to me.

      I got lucky–both of my kids go down at 8, and are usually out like a light shortly thereafter.

      I don’t think the actual bedtime is as important as keeping it consistent, personally. When I was working, it was hell. Bedtime was whenever we all got home, had dinner, got the boys bathed, and read some stories, and got down. We tried to keep it consistent, but it was hard with mine and my partner’s schedules. Mine was never consistent from week to week, and his at the time varied based on whether it was a work or school day. Once we got to the point where his school finished and his work scheduled equalized, bedtime got much, much easier.

    • rrlo

      Research findings are often contradictory. As my son was growing up, I used to be in a tizzy over his sleep routine and bed time – because I felt it was a cornerstone of good parenting (I was wrong).

      I believe around when he was 9 months old I realized that some of it I can control, other parts I cannot, and some of it I didn’t want to control. After that we had a semi flexible sleep time for him – I found that it was easier for him to to go to sleep earlier in the winter, later in the summer. He has a slightly later bed time on the weekend. It fits with our family lifestyle – otherwise it is too hard.

      Also, sleep requirement for children change over time as well. So I try to use him as a cue – as long as he is alert and happy during the day and averaging around 12 hours with naps and night-time sleep – I am happy.

      Because of my son’s delayed bed time (he is asleep between 930/945), my husband and I (we both work) get to spend a solid 3/4 hours with him every day – which I just love.

      Long story short – I don’t believe there is a “perfect” bed time for any human (child or otherwise) and all studies look at averages – so for every kid going to sleep at 5pm – there is one going to bed at 11. As with everything else, the important thing to note is the family lifestyle, the children’s average sleep requirements and overall well-being. Obsessing over a hypothetical bed time that suits a researcher’s notion of the ideal bed time is a fool’s errand and not worth the effort.

    • Timba

      I get the same gasps of horror, and my kid’s bedtime is 9pm, too. (Well, somewhere between 8:30 and 9:00, depending on how tired he seems.

      Granted, he is happy to go to sleep at that time.

    • http://www.twitter.com/ohladyjayne allisonjayne

      I don’t give a fig about when other people put their kids to bed. The majority of parents I know are working parents and do whatever works for them depending on their own schedule.

      That said, it is hard to keep my thoughts to myself when I hear other parents complaining about how unruly/challenging/ornery their kid is and in the next breath talking about how they’re such free-spirited parents and their kid goes to bed anytime between 8pm and 2am and schedules are for suckers and whatnot. I do keep my thoughts to myself, and I know that there are absolutely some kids for whom structure and routine are not ideal…but I think for the majority of kids, having some structure and routines can be a huge benefit especially if you’re seeing potentially related ‘issues’.

      Anyway, my kid goes to bed around 8pm most nights…we aim for a bit earlier but it usually doesn’t happen, and she’s generally pretty happy to go to bed at that time.

    • Jennifer

      8pm that’s all I would have to say. Anything else the leather comes out. Being a single mother of three well two now it has to be some kind of structure within the home. Kids in this generation need all the structural guidance that’s available.

      • Jennifer

        Lmao! Being single mother of three means you’re worthless no man that anymore, because that trash is loose as fuc and you’re loser too. You probably got those kids by being a street walker.

    • Tara

      If one more damn person tells me my kids would sleep better if I put them to bed later, my head might actually explode. My two girls get up no later than 5:30 every day. And thanks to daylight savings, it’s actually been 4:30 most days. It’s been that way since we had our oldest and we’ve experimented with every bedtime possible, going as late as 10:30, and they still wake up at the same time. Except when they go to bed later they are just up super early and extra grumpy as well. At least the newborn is a sleeper. Anyway, yeah, I’m gonna need a study with more than 14 participants to make me have any interest in the outcomes.

    • pineapplegrasss

      I need this topic! I actually thought about writing an anonymous mom letter, but I don’t need anonymity, just some other mommies perspective and suggestions. Everything I read is so contradictory. Take their naps away, then an over tired child is harder to fall asleep. Put them to bed earlier, put them down later.. I have a 2.5yr old (who is a super hard child anyway) and he used to sleep great when contained in a crib. We moved him to a bigboy toddler bed around his 2nd bday, Which has proved to be one of the biggest mistakes ever. We had bought a new house and I thought that would be a good transitioning time. And, I was concerned about him climbing out and hurting himself. I have been bedtime battling him for 6 months now. It’s really hard, being pregnant and working, and then this night time fight. I really just need him to ‘turn-off’ at 8:30 like my other kids do. He’ll just get up over and over and over. I’ve tried the supernanny sleeptraining, where you sit there and ignore him. I’ve spent weeks sitting on the ottoman outside his bedroom door putting him back over and over. But I have a really hard time staying calm, I honestly start to lose my shit after a few hours. He will only stay in bed if I actually lay down with him, and I’m so over that at this point. Our evening to bedtime routine is dinner, then freeplay/family time (Sadly, I’ve gotten to the point where I even stop any excited, fun play with the boys and daddy bc I don’t want the overstimulation) then baths and jammies (the jammies are the bedtime clue to him, he used to start crying at that stage but doesn’t do that anymore) then get water cups and into bed. Its pretty consistent, the only variances are which boy gets the bath first (the 8yo showers by himself) so then the length of time btwn bath and actual bed. I really need to get him to go to bed and stay in bed and be a good sleeper before this new baby comes. This has honestly been probably the hardest parenting battle over anything that I’ve yet faced with any of them. I can usually find a solution to whatever it is, but I am at a loss. Ladies! help?

      • Genevieve

        I had this trouble with my son when we moved to a big boy bed, it was around a month after we moved him though.

        Honestly I just lay in bed until he was really drowsy, then after a week of him falling asleep at the same time and me resting instead of stressing outside his door he started to take less and less time to fall asleep.

        After he started falling asleep easier with me by his side ( as in no trying to get up and play ) I then started leaving while he was less and less drowsy.

        He still needs me to sit next to him until drowsy one night a week but this only takes 5 minutes and being pregnant as well I don’t mind sitting in a quiet room.

        Not sure if any of that will help, but I have been there done that. Oh and I also found that not changing the bedtime was key, I was fiddling with it for so long that he was just getting confused.

        And as others have said light! It’s summer here and I pull the curtains before his bath now.

        Good luck and I’m sorry!

      • pineapplegrasss

        I do dim all the house lights too. I’m ready for the next phase. The falling asleep part. If I leave before he’s completely asleep he will just wake himself up. Sometimes, when laying there, (if I do, I don’t always lay with him, I do the back and forth battle but it takes literal hours) I can feel him like kinda wake himself up when he’s almost asleep and then sit up and start talking again. Or mess with me, he likes to mess with my face and hair and stuff, and when I’m almost asleep. I’m sure to get reaction, its hard not to react. Its also hard to fall asleep in a cozy coupe toddler bed too. haha, this is all so comical when I think of reading it if it were someone else and I hadn’t been here myself.

    • Simone

      You know, I love me some science. I love it. Bring on the revolution, get the Church out of everyone’s faces and bring in the equations, I’m all over that shit. But sometimes, I do get kind of sick of Man Science telling women more and more Sciency things about how to be a parent.
      Early in the century women were told to use formula, not to pick up their babies when they cried, and to run them on a tight schedule. Then we had fresh batches of Sciency Men in later decades who had to carry out studies to tell women not to do those things, but to go back to what they were doing before that. Every day there is a study somewhere about how women parent their children and frankly, very little of it is of any use.