Kids have a way of throwing curveballs at you just when you think you've got this whole parenting thing figured out. Case in point: After enduring the sleepless nights of infancy, you now have a toddler with a bedtime routine who sleeps through the night. Then without warning, your 3-year-old goes to bed too late. We're talking 11:00 PM or even midnight late. Or you try to get them into bed at a decent time, but somehow they manage to stay awake even as your own bedtime approaches. How did your nighttimes suddenly go from a blissful lullaby-and-lavender paradise to a nightmarish chapter of Go the F*** to Sleep?!
If it's any consolation, you're not the only parent going through this nightly struggle, assures North Carolina-based child sleep consultant Breni Malpass, CSC. "I do think that it's very common at this age," she tells Romper. "Toddlers are masters of procrastinating, and they're good at asking for one more bedtime story, one more trip to the potty, one more drink, one more hug, and this naturally pushes their bedtime later, even as the parent is trying to get them to sleep."
All this dawdling has the additional side effect of actually making it harder for your child to fall asleep. "We all have a natural window of time for sleep, and parents don't realize that it's much earlier for children," says Malpass, who coaches families through her practice, Seaside Sleep Consulting.
She explains that our brains are naturally wired to produce less of the neurotransmitters adrenaline and cortisol at nighttime, and increase production of the sleep hormone serotonin. For young children, that happens typically around 7:00-7:30 PM. But when your little one is trying their best to postpone that shut-eye, their brain reacts by producing more of the "awake" hormones. That's why your little darling is bouncing off the walls at an ungodly hour: They've missed that all-important window of sleep and are now back in up-and-at-'em mode.
Some families take the opposite approach: They intentionally let their child stay up late in the hope that they'll wake up later in the morning. "If it works for your family, great," says Malpass, "but keep in mind that our deepest sleep happens before midnight, and it becomes lighter toward morning, so your child's quality of sleep may not be as good." Other potential problems with okaying a late bedtime, as reported by Parents: less private time for the grownups, a child who wakes up early regardless of when they go to sleep, and the risk of sleep deprivation once the child enters day care or school.
For parents who want to get their child on an early sleep schedule, Malpass offers this advice:
- Tell your child what to expect. Kids like predictability, so knowing their bedtime routine will get them into the sleep mindset. "Tell your child that it's important to get enough sleep so that they can do what needs to be done," says Malpass. "You could say, 'After you take your bath and put on your pajamas, we'll read you two stories, and then it's lights-out time. It's your job to stay in bed and go to sleep.' "
- Turn off electronics an hour before bed. The light from phones, tablets, and other screens mimic sunlight, which triggers the brain to produce cortisol and stay awake.
- Create a restful environment. For optimal sleep, the bedroom should be as dark as possible, and on the cool side (between 68-72 degrees F). Skip the lullaby toys and rainforest sounds, advises Malpass: They can actually keep a child awake because their brain subconsciously listens for rhythms. If your toddler needs a soothing sound, get a white noise machine.
- Don't skip naptime. Preschoolers still need between 90 minutes and two hours of rest time during the day, ideally before 2:00 PM. Let your child know that they don't have to go to sleep, but they do have to stay quietly in bed until you say it's OK to get up.
- Transition cosleepers gradually. If you're trying to get your child to sleep in their bed instead of yours, "set them up for success" by going over the new bedtime routine, advises Malpass. But rather than expecting them to sleep alone right away, ease them into it for a few days by sitting in your child's room until they fall asleep.
- Be consistent. Once you've decided on a bedtime, stick to it. Giving in for even one night will only make your child more determined to push the limits the next night and the next.