The Why, the When and the How to Use an Early Bedtime to Help your Kids Sleep Well
I get a lot of questions on how to avoid the cycle of overtiredness for babies, toddlers and little kids. An early bedtime is a great tool to help your child get caught up on sleep. For the discussion below, when I say early bedtime I am referring to an earlier than normal bedtime. This can help you avoid your little one getting into a cycle of overtiredness, which can lead to difficulty falling asleep at bedtime and for naps, increased wakings and early morning risings.
It can feel a bit wrong to put your child to bed earlier than normal because you don’t want them to wake up earlier in the morning. But baby sleep is pretty counterintuitive and often an early bedtime can even have the opposite effect!
For babies through school-aged children, a regular bedtime of 6:00 to 8:00 PM is appropriate. You want to use a consistent bedtime on a normal basis. The specific time within the range mentioned above can depend on a number of factors, including your family’s schedule, the time your little one needs to be awake in the morning to allow for the total hours of sleep your little one needs at night, your little one’s natural circadian rhythms and more.
While keeping a consistent bedtime is important, there are scenarios that call for an earlier than usual bedtime to help your kiddo get the sleep they need to thrive.
Why does an early bedtime help?
Let’s first start with why an early bedtime can help your baby, toddler or little kid get the sleep they need
Doesn’t disrupt circadian rhythm
Your body’s circadian rhythm is primarily responsible for helping you go to sleep at night. It is the internal process that regulates your body’s sleep-wake cycles over a 24-hour period. Letting your child nap late and then try to put them to bed later than normal can throw off their body clock. This in turn leads to more sleep challenges down the road.
Gets baby to sleep before they get (even more) overtired
When we stay awake through the window during which our body and brain are tired and ready to go to sleep, it causes a stress response. Our bodies assume we need to be awake and flood our systems with stimulating hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Avoiding this situation is what we aim to do with an early bedtime. (For more on overtiredness in babies check this out.)
Helps baby get more deep sleep
The beginning of the night is when the majority of our deep sleep happens. The second half of the night is when more REM sleep happens. Both deep sleep and REM sleep have a lot of benefits and are both important. Deep sleep is a time for our brains to restore themselves after all the mental activity of the day. Approximately 80% of human growth hormone is secreted during deep sleep as well. Deep sleep helps our little ones learn, grow and feel refreshed.
There is an increase of deep sleep after a period of sleep deprivation, so when your child is overtired or has a sleep debt, getting them to bed a bit earlier can help them get more of this deep, slow wave sleep to help restore their brains and bodies to optimal functioning and energy.
Our circadian rhythm controls our wake time
You’ve all heard the stories and seen the memes – “I put my kid to bed 5 hours later than normal and they slept in 6 minutes later this morning.”
The time we wake up in the morning is closely tied to our circadian rhythm. This is why your child doesn’t seem to sleep in, even when they went to bed late or are exhausted upon waking up. It is also why you may feel wide awake at the same time as usual on a day when you do have the opportunity to sleep in.
When to use an early bedtime
Here are some examples of situations that may warrant an early bedtime.
If your child is taking short naps that are between 30 and 45 minutes long, or about one sleep cycle, they are likely missing the restorative benefits of deep daytime sleep. Getting them to bed a bit earlier than normal can help them avoid getting into a cycle of overtiredness which leads to more short naps, more wakes up, a harder time falling asleep and even worse quality of sleep.
Poor sleep the night (or nights) before
Poor sleep last night can lead to cranky little one today. A slightly earlier bedtime today can help avoid continued crankiness tomorrow by allowing your little one to catch up on the sleep they may have missed the night before.
Sleep schedule exceptions during the day or days prior
Missed naps, late nights, or a combo. You’ve got to live your life and sometimes that leads to the need to make exceptions to your child’s sleep schedule or routine. Just like in the scenario above, an early bedtime can allow your baby, toddler or little kid to catch up on missed sleep.
Babies and toddlers are learning and taking in SO much every single day. If they had an extra exciting day, maybe grandma and grandpa were there to play with them or they played with a bunch of their little friends, it can be exhausting for them. Putting them to bed a bit early can help their bodies and brains process the excitement and activity from the day.
This one comes up on vacation quite a bit. Lots of new experiences, people and things to see and explore. Making exceptions to your child’s sleep schedule often happen during vacation as well. So putting your child to bed early when you can on your trip or for a few nights when you get home can help your little one’s brain and body process these new experiences.
Baby seems extra fatigued
Sometimes your baby may just seem plain exhausted even if you can’t pinpoint something specific that has caused them to be more tired than normal. Read your baby’s cues and listen to your toddler who says they are tired. Putting them to bed a bit earlier than normal that night is not going to throw off their sleep or make them wake up earlier. It may even have the opposite effect.
How early is early bedtime?
Typically, I recommend a bedtime of up to an hour earlier than normal. Except in extreme circumstances, I find trying even earlier can backfire with it being difficult for your child to fall asleep because their body and body clock is not ready. Depending on the reason for the early bedtime and the level of exhaustion or overtiredness for your baby, somewhere between 30-60 minutes early is appropriate. However, even 15-20 minutes early can make a big difference, especially for babies and toddlers.
As always, if your little one isn’t sleeping well with or without an early bedtime and you aren’t sure what to do or if you should change things, you can schedule a free evaluation call with me to chat through your specific situation, your sleep goals and how I can help.
Cheers to healthy, happy sleep,