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Troubles at Toddler Bedtime—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

We have an eighteen-month-old who cajoled his way to staying up w-a-a-y past his bedtime when Daddy was on duty and I was at work.

I usually have him asleep for the night by 7:30 pm after a short routine, but they were snacking in the kitchen at 9:15 pm. We also have a four-year-old who still occasionally needs something in the middle of the night, so when I work evenings I expect to get right to bed when I get home. 

Unhappy Mama

Dear UM,

There is a science to getting good sleep. We rest best with predictable routines that line up with age, activity level, and a lot of individual variability. Sleep science is real.

Typical Patterns

First of all, there is no “typical pattern” to guide the timing of the best bedtime for all toddlers. If you polled enough families you might find toddler bedtimes ranging from 5 pm to midnight! The hour at which a child starts the evening’s bedtime routine usually depends on many factors beyond his age, including cultural norms, parents’ work schedules, and the child’s individual temperament. 

The National Sleep Foundation’s chart of normal daily requirements suggests an average of 13 hours a day for a child of eighteen months. There is often a later bedtime for children in cultures in which napping is expected beyond infancy. In households where slowing down to have an afternoon nap just doesn’t happen for toddlers, they will naturally be ready for bedtime earlier. 

If parents need to get up and out early, this dictates an early bedtime for children. If there are two or more children, the whole bedtime routine might last longer, and therefore would start early enough for each child to have the attention they need to be able to drift into a good night’s sleep. 

Temperament plays a role in overall length of a person’s optimal sleep time as well as the requirements for a successful routine for letting go of the day in order to fall asleep. Some toddlers do fine on less than 12 hours of sleep a day, and others are cranky if they don’t get more than 14. An afternoon nap, assuming it can be provided for, may persist until school-age for some children, or may be dropped before age two for others. Again, a daily nap, whether it’s regular or irregular, comes with a later bedtime. 

The length of a bedtime routine can vary from five minutes for pajamas, lights out, a back rub, and a good night kiss to two hours for a rotation of multiple children’s baths, tooth brushings, laying out tomorrow’s clothes, story readings, evening prayers, and lullabies. The important thing is that your routine be routine whether it’s Mommy or Daddy or a sitter who conducts it. 

Mental and Physical Growth Spurts

Once you have closely approximated the proper time to begin your child’s bedtime based on all of the above, you’ll need to make regular adjustments. Some observers of child development say to expect alternating spurts of mental growth and physical growth. Your late night snacker could be going through either right now. His body might have been craving more calories than he could pack in during daylight hours and he needed to fuel up for a night of bone and tissue growth. And or, his brain may be making amazing connections for verbal communication, cicada studies, weather observations, challenging interactions with his sibling, or other subjects he is currently pursuing. Maybe he couldn’t easily fall asleep at the “usual” time because his mind was racing. And maybe he napped longer and or slept later into the morning because his dream state – in which he processed lots of new information – was complex and protracted. Busy mind, busy dreams.

These periodic bursts of mental and physical growth are common in early childhood, then sporadic until adolescence at which time school assignments can be accomplished with an “all nighter” and “slugabed syndrome” becomes the characteristic weekend behavior.

An important factor for good sleep, and healthy growth, is the amount of exercise in one’s day. Toddlers need plenty of opportunities to toddle and climb. If the weather isn’t conducive for outdoor play, put on some music and dance!  

How Was Your Day?

Another reason your little one was up so late might be that he couldn’t unwind. Stress is indeed a factor when it comes to getting to sleep at night. A toddler is getting a bigger and bigger picture of the world every day. Some of his new experiences may be thrilling – such as cicada watching, or worrisome – such as a conflict with his older sibling over possession of a toy. An everyday experience for the four-year-old, such as getting a haircut, is a major life event for the little one. 

Children also pick up on the stress level of those who are close to them. They feel a little less secure when the people they count on for food, comfort, entertainment, and protection are not at their best. After all, they’re still just learning what everyone’s “normal” looks like.

Try to add extra time for a young child to decompress after an exciting or stressful day. While toddlers don’t really need ANY screen time, be sure to turn off electronic stimulation at least two hours before bedtime. Use familiar books with very little drama for bedtime stories (Goodnight Moon is the best example) and save the more adventurous tales for earlier in the day when he has a more alert mind to process them. (Find tips for enjoying books with your child in a recent Good Parenting.) Extend any or all of the parts of the bedtime routine – bath time, story time, gentle head strokes while you sing – to help erase away the tensions of a particularly rousing or frightening experience that has him still unsettled at the end of the day. 

Hot/Cold, Dark/Light

It may take a little detective work to create the ideal sleep environment for your child. At the very least, take note of temperature and lighting. If two children share a room, achieving the ideal room temperature for each child may involve different thicknesses of clothing and blankets. And if they differ in their preferences for lighting, you can carefully arrange the nightlight or the furniture to block the light from the one who sleeps best in total darkness.

Yes, there’s a science to getting a good night’s sleep. Figure out the formula that works best for the people in your family. 

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist www.drdebbiewood.com and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum www.theccm.org.

Tune in to Facebook Live on Sunday, June 6, 2-4 pm, for an online Kids ‘n’ Kaboodle – the totally free fair for all the children of Annapolis.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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