I’m a big advocate of children going to bed early. I wish I’d started it sooner, and it hits a nerve when I think back to how late my older girl often went to sleep as an infant.
Why does an early bedtime help?
We all have a built-in circadian rhythm that controls when we want to sleep and when we want to be awake. This internal clock is developing from birth and by 3-4 months of age it has matured enough to work with it to support sleep and wakefulness.
When the circadian rhythm wakes you up, it’s hard to fall asleep, and if we do, we don’t sleep as restoratively. Similarly, it’s hard to stay awake and alert when the circadian rhythm makes you tired. This daytime sleepiness makes children naturally tired between 6-7pm in the evening. Then it’s the perfect time for a soothing bedtime routine that ends with the child being put to sleep. If the child is put to sleep at this time, it is easier to fall asleep, it is more likely to sleep well and for a long time and to wake up refreshed.
The physiology of sleep is such that in the first part of the night children sleep in long sleep cycles that contain a relatively large amount of deep sleep, in the second part of the night or from around 3 o’clock children sleep in short sleep cycles that contain a relatively large amount of loose sleep. This deep, restorative sleep before midnight is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that the child wakes up refreshed the next morning. The earlier the child goes to sleep, the more of this deep restorative sleep the child gets.
Going to bed early allows the child to go to sleep when its body calls for sleep, there is less chance of bedtime struggles, less chance of night-waking and the child waking up very early. The child is more likely to sleep longer at night, wake up well rested and take long and regular naps during the day.
Let’s also not forget the important point that if the child goes to bed early, the parents get a quiet evening to themselves, which is worth its weight in gold. There is enough time to charge our batteries and nurture the relationship.
So, the child going to bed early has direct benefits for the child and indirect benefits for the parents. The “Wolf time” decreases or disappears, there will be a calmer atmosphere in the home and the weekends will be more pleasant as everyone is well rested.
But doesn’t the child wake up early the next morning?
Many parents are reluctant to put their children to bed early for fear that they will then wake up early in the morning. It usually doesn’t happen because if the child goes to bed early, it gets better quality sleep, it’s easier to fall asleep on its own and connect sleep cycles at night, including in the early morning when the child sleeps loosely.
If the child goes late to bed, this vicious circle of overtiredness and difficulty with falling asleep and sleeping well can develop. The routine during the day gets messed up because the child is tired, and the child is irritable in the afternoon and at night. This fatigue-driven irritability ends up in overdrive at bedtime, making it difficult for the child to fall asleep. The child doesn’t even fall asleep until it falls asleep from exhaustion. It wakes up way too tired the next day, the naps are messed up and the vicious cycle continues. This may be an extreme example, but you understand what I mean.
Going to bed late and waking up early are linked. If the child is too tired, the body starts to produce cortisol to stay awake, it is difficult to fall asleep, will sleep more loosely and is more likely to wake up early. It doesn’t make up for the sleep it lost that night by sleeping longer in the morning.
What is the best bedtime?
You may now be wondering when the best time for your child is to go to sleep. In the daily routine I suggest, bedtime is at 7 p.m. It depends on the age and how the child has slept during the day, but a bedtime between 6-8 p.m. would be within the framework. However, I would always advise to have the routine so that bedtime is at the very latest at 7:30 p.m. in order to preserve this restorative sleep before midnight. Regarding age, I advise you to start thinking about moving bedtime forward after 6 weeks of age.
If your child wakes up early in the morning or is full of energy at bedtime, this is usually not a sign that they need to go to bed later, but most likely quite the opposite. It is likely that the child is overtired due to excessive fatigue.
Of course, going to bed so early also comes with disadvantages, you always have to be home early and some might find this strict, restricting the ability to attend dinner parties, etc. I arrange dinner parties so that if the family invites us to dinner, it is scheduled early and everyone is happy with it. If friends invite us to dinner, it is usually a child-free dinner party, and then it’s very convenient that the children are asleep when the babysitters come. If the friends want to meet to eat good food together with the children, we usually do it over brunch, when everyone is fresh and happy. It’s no fun having tired children with you at a dinner party.
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