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Whoops! Researchers Confirm Parents are Guilty of Putting Toddlers to Bed Too Early

Photo credit: Meredith Carroll

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There’s lots that I do for my kids because I know it’s the right thing to do, such as love them, bathe them, feed them and dress them. There’s stuff I also do for them because I just can’t help it, such as love them, and get annoyed with them because I’m constantly having to bathe, feed and dress them. Then there’s the stuff I do even though I know I shouldn’t, such as put them to bed even though I know they’re not always tired.

The latter is in large part because of a study out in October that found kids without regular bedtimes are more prone to behavior problems, which was, indeed, starting to be an issue with my 5-year-old daughter. So instead of just winging it at night, we started putting her to bed at a regular time — 6:30 p.m. — and there’s been a major positive shift in her temperament over the past couple of months.

The issue, though, is that she shares a room with her 2-year-old sister, who often wakes up from her afternoon nap as late as 4 p.m. After that, she often has no interest in going to sleep as early as her big sister, although she doesn’t really (or at least usually) complain.

As it turns out, though, we might have just shifted around the deck chairs on the Titanic. According to researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, “the bedtime you select for your toddler may be out of sync with his or her internal body clock, which can contribute to difficulties for youngsters attempting to settle in for the night.” Their findings were published in the December issue of the Mind, Brain and Education journal.

“Sleeping at the wrong ‘biological clock’ time leads to sleep difficulties, like insomnia, in adults,” said CU-Boulder Assistant Professor Monique LeBourgeois.

Unlike adults who get to choose their bedtimes, toddlers have little say in the matter (other than, you know, tantrums).

LeBourgeois said the findings of the study are important because they show “about 25 percent of toddlers and preschoolers have problems settling after bedtime,” and “sleep problems in early childhood are predictive of later emotional and behavioral problems, as well as poor cognitive function, that can persist into later childhood and adolescence. In addition, parents of young children with sleep problems often report increased difficulties in their own sleep patterns, which can cause chronic fatigue and even marital discord.”

The idea is to give toddlers more time between when their nighttime melatonin kicks in and when they go to sleep in order to get them to fall asleep quicker and spend less time looking for stimulation in bed.

One tip is for parents to start lowering lights in the house (dimming switches, low-watt bulbs and shades will help) in the late afternoon and early evening in an effort to coax the onset of melatonin, as exposure to too much light can “delay the timing onset of melatonin.”

The study found that the average nighttime melatonin begins at around 7:40 p.m., or roughly 30 minutes before the time most parents (except me) choose to put their toddlers to bed. Children resisting bedtime are most likely not biologically ready to go to sleep, even if their parents (like me) are more than ready for them to go to sleep.

So while I’m the first to be thrilled to stuff my kids in bed so my day can finally end (or begin, depending on your perspective), and doing so has resulted in improved behavior from my older daughter, I don’t relish the idea of my little one lying awake and associating bedtime with trying to come up with ways to entertain herself until she’s finally ready to nod off.

I’m sure the solution lies somewhere in putting my toddler down for her nap earlier and putting both of my girls to bed a little later — and at the same time every night. It’s not the most convenient remedy for me on either end, or, frankly, the most desirable, but then again, we often sacrifice a lot in order to become parents in the first place. Unfortunately giving up sleep or free time for our kids is no different, or nothing new.

Photo credit: Meredith Carroll

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