Is late bedtime a problem in your home? Wish you knew how to get your baby or toddler to sleep on a routine schedule?
When my twins were newborns, we’d do bedtime when my husband came home at night at about 10. He’d help me bathe and PJ them, I’d nurse them, and then we (tried) to get them to bed.
During one of my many conversations with my mother about their sleep (or lack thereof), I asked her, “Ma, when do they start going to bed earlier?”
“Oh… I don’t know,” she replied (her youngest at the time was 7). “Around 4 months? 6 months? I don’t remember.”
“But how do you get them to go to sleep earlier?”
She chuckled. “I have no idea. I really don’t remember what I did.”
We both knew that babies and young children should be going to sleep earlier, but somehow the when, why, and how got lost – especially with newborns.
And that’s how many of my clients end up with babies – and toddlers – who have late bedtimes. Sometimes very very very late bedtimes (think 1 am). They’ve gotten into this cycle, but they’re not sure how to break it or what to do about it.
If your baby is still a newborn – the information here is for you!
And if your baby is older, or if you have a toddler – this information is for you!
So let’s dive in — why an early bedtime, when do I recommend your child having an early bedtime and – if you’re in a late-bedtime cycle – HOW do you help your baby transition to an early bedtime?
Why an early bedtime?
When figuring out the ideal time for a baby’s bedtime, there are a couple things at play.
- Your baby’s circadian cycle
- Your baby’s awake time limit
- What’ll work best for your family
So let’s address those one by one:
First – the circadian cycle.
If you’re not familiar with the circadian cycle, all it is is a fancy word for our internal body clock. It controls which hormones are released when, which tells our bodies when to rev up our GI tract and when to slow it down, slightly raise our body temp and lower it, and – of course – when to make us more sleepy and more wakeful.
Most of our circadian cycles have an automatic “wakeup” at about 7 am and have a wind down in the evening between 6 and 8 pm. (Of course if we’re overtired or sleep-deprived, those times will be warped, but many babies and young children will wake at or around 7 regardless of when they went to sleep the night before.) Since your baby does need about 12 hours of nighttime sleep, tuning in to the natural circadian cycle will help your baby get the sleep he needs.
Your baby’s awake time limit (more info about that here) will play in, too.
If your baby is a newborn or young infant, sometimes that’ll mean putting her in for a late afternoon nap and then waking her so that she’s not overtired before bedtime. For a baby on a nap transition or a baby on a 1-nap or 2-nap day who didn’t take such a great nap that day, that might mean bumping bedtime a bit earlier.
And then of course – what will work best for your family?
How many kids do you have that need to get 12 hours of sleep? Can you do everyone’s bedtime at once? Will it be easier to stagger and spend longer putting kids to bed, or do everyone together and just get it done with?
When do you need to be up in the morning? When do your kids need to be up in the morning?
Do you work late in the afternoons?
All of those are factors, too, in determining the best bedtime for your child. Again, focusing on the 6-8 pm wind-down window will also help your baby or child get the sleep she needs.
What age kids does this apply to?
Most kids need 12 hours of nighttime sleep till about age 7. I know that can feel like it’s too old to go to bed at 7, but it’s about gauging what your child actually needs and meeting that.
Do you have to wake your child in the morning? Is he kvetchy once you get to the late afternoon? Will she fall asleep every time you go somewhere in the car?
All of those are signs that your child needs to be going to sleep earlier than she is.
So how young do you start?
Think I’m crazy? Well, I probably am. But I’m still serious. With my Sleep Consultant’s Baby (the one I had after I became a sleep consultant), lights were off at 8 pm in my hospital room, and stayed off till a nurse had to come check my vitals when shifts changed at 11 (whose smart idea was it to recover from birth in a hospital?!). Then they went right back off till about 8 am (with some visits from nurses in between – those are inevitable.)
When we got home, my baby and I started our night between 7 and 8, depending on the night. (And yes, we BOTH started the night then – because with the number of times a newborn wakes in a 12 hour period, we both needed a “12 hour night”).
As you might have guessed, a 12 hour night doesn’t necessarily mean 12 hours of sleep. In fact in the beginning, it probably means more like 8-10 hours of sleep. But as your baby grows and is ready to sleep longer and drop night feeds, that’ll turn into a real, solid 12 hours of nighttime sleep.
Once your child hits around 7 years of age, he’ll probably be ready to start having an 11.5 hour night, and then an 11 hour night, slowly but surely dropping down over the years, until, as an adult, he’ll only need about 8 hours of nighttime sleep.
But what if you didn’t start at birth?
What if your baby is really almost a toddler and has a crazy late bedtime that you need to shift? How do you do it?
How to adjust your baby’s (or toddler’s!) late bedtime.
Once you’ve determined what time is appropriate for your baby to be falling asleep (based on his circadian cycle, his awake time limit, what works for your family and how much sleep he needs at night), it’s time to do some math.
How much time does your baby need to adjust between “actual” and “ideal”?
Say you’re aiming for a 7 pm bedtime (because that’s a nice even number that I like to aim for), and your 15 month old is going to sleep at 8.
When you’re adjusting just an hour or so to move bedtime earlier, the easiest thing is usually to move 30 minutes every 3 days. So on day 1, you’ll make sure his nap ends no later than 3:30 (most 15 month olds are on a 1 nap day), and you’ll move bedtime to 7:30. Hold it there for 3 days. By the fourth day, you’ll make sure his nap ends no later than 3 and do bedtime at 7. Voila! That was easy, right?
But sometimes it’s trickier. So what do you do if your 1 year-old thinks that night is from 12 midnight till about 10 am. (*gulp*) How do you get to a 7-7 night?
Just jump into it.
Adjusting slowly will be long and messy, and it takes much much quicker to just jump into it.
Depending on how many naps your baby usually takes, adjust the time that his last nap ends so that he’ll be ready for a 7 pm bedtime (definitely no later hate 4, but most 12 month olds will do best if that last nap ends at 3, and some will do best with a nap that ends at 2:30).
At 6:30 do your bedtime routine. You can tell her that now it’s nighttime and she’s going to have an earlier bedtime now. (No, I don’t expect her to totally understand what you’re saying, but it always helps to explain to them, anyhow).
By 7 put her in bed as you usually would at 12. You can expect her to wake after an hour or two thinking it was a nap – but hang in there! Make sure she stays in her crib in her dark bedroom while you’re making the transition; since light signals to the brain that it’s daytime, taking her out of her crib will not only reinforce the old patter, but will actually make her brain stop producing its sleepy hormones, and start producing its awake hormones again.
At 7 am, if she hasn’t yet woken, that’s okay. If at 7:30 she’s still asleep, you can start thinking about waking her, and wake her no later than 8 am.
If your baby does wake at 7 – great! Take him out and start your day.
Regardless of when your baby does end up waking – whether it’s at 7 or it’s closer to 8 – start the day with sunshine. Going out of doors is best, but when that’s not an option, open the windows to let some sunlight in.
You can expect your baby to take 7-10 days to adjust to the new normal. That will likely mean extreme tiredness in the morning, as well as nightly wakes in the early evening. These will both slowly dissipate and disappear as time goes on.
Want to make sure you have all the pieces you’ll need to ensure bedtime success with your baby or toddler? Download my free guide on the Five Habits You Didn’t Know your Baby Needs So You Can BOTH Sleep Well At Night.