Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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Should toddlers pick their bedtime?

I’m a firm believer in an earlier bedtime.  From my sleep consulting experience, the most common mistakes parents make, is putting their infant or toddler to sleep too late.  This results in the child being overtired by the time bedtime rolls around, making it harder for him to fall asleep, and at increased risk of night waking and early morning waking.  Thus, you can imagine that I was very interested in reading this article : http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/449269/Why-it-is-best-to-let-toddlers-pick-their-bedtimes,  which states that it is best to let toddlers pick their bedtime.  When I saw that title I even had a moment of self-doubt that perhaps I was giving out physiologically poor advice… but then I read the article.

Should toddlers pick their bedtime?

This article discusses a study that concludes that peaks in melatonin are associated with the toddler’s ability to fall asleep at night. The article says that putting your toddler to bed when the melatonin is not optimum leads to tantrums, getting out of bed and a negative association with bedtime, which puts them at a greater risk of insomnia later in life. The author’s also state that choosing a bedtime that is out of sync with the baby’s melatonin level causes sleepless nights for parents and child. This study is based on a subject group of 13 toddlers.  No that’s not a typo…. just 13 toddlers.  That is a very small pool of subjects and cannot be statistically significant.  In addition, there is no discussion about what other factors influence the melatonin levels.  Can sleep in the form of naps earlier in the day influence the melatonin level? We do not know.

The clinician added: ‘If your child is resisting bedtime or having problems falling asleep, it is likely he or she is not physiologically ready for sleep at that time.’    This could be true.   It could also be that your child is going through some developmental changes and needs more parent time before bed, or it could mean that your child napped for too long during the day.  There are many more psychological variables associated with bedtime than are discussed in the article. If you have a toddler who is resisting bedtime, you can try a few things:

  1. Experiment with adjusting the bedtime in 15 minute increments.  15 minutes later or 15 minute forward based on the semblance that they are overtired or not ready, and see if that makes a difference.
  2. If your toddler is in the 12 – 14 month range, have you dropped down to 1 nap yet?  This  may be an indication he is ready.
  3. If your toddler is 2 and still having 3 hour long afternoon naps, consider shortening this nap to preserve  bedtime.  You could wake him up after 2 hours.
  4. If your toddler is between the ages of 3 and 4, it may be time to lose the afternoon nap all together and bump bedtime up significantly.
  5. Consider if anything has changed in your toddler’s life recently that may have her feeling insecure.  Has daycare changed?  Is she learning a new skill or language?  Maybe she needs an additional 10 minutes of snuggling and reading with Mom or Dad before bedtime.

In summary, while this study made a great headline – “why you should let your toddler chose his bedtime”… it is to be taken with a grain of sensationalism rather than practical advice.  This tactic would do more disservice than benefit to the average parent.  I stand by my principle that most parents inadvertently put their children to bed too late leading to more sleep problems.

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