October 19, 2021
It’s a common scenario: you wrap up your work, already exhausted from a long day of WFH life, close the laptop and rush to get dinner on the table and on to your flurry of evening events. You're looking forward to some quality time with the kids in the evening. You see your little one yawn. You glance at the clock – oops, it’s getting just a tad late, and you start moseying towards bedtime routine. They look so tired, maaaaaybe tonight they’ll settle to sleep easily?
But then... something freaky happens.
The yawning cherub from moments ago has been transfigured into a fussy revved up little monster, and they may even become downright scary! Younger babies may fuss, scream and cry. Toddlers may run around the house in either a hyper frenzy or meltdown on the floor! You thought they were tired, but now no matter what you do they simply won't calm down and go to sleep. This is often referred to as the 'witching hour,' a freaky time of night when babe becomes fussy, hyper-active and refuses to go to sleep, even if they seemed tired moments before.
How to break the spell?
This transformation may seem like magic, but what you’re really seeing is your child’s natural biological rhythms at play; Babies and children have immature circadian rhythms, which are responsible for releasing drowsy and alert hormones during the day and night, making them more sensitive to natural hormonal shifts than adults are.
Melatonin, a drowsy hormone, naturally starts rising between the hours of 6-7pm. This window of time also coincides with a natural drop in cortisol levels. Watch closely and you might see tired signs appear in your kiddo i.e. yawning and eye-rubbing around 6:30/7pm like clockwork! Essentially, your baby's circadian rhythm is sending VERY STRONG signals to your child between 6-7pm that it's time to wind-down for the day.
However, this sleepy window doesn't last forever. Later on in the evening, cortisol levels will gradually start to increase again — and continue to rise until morning. This gradual increase in cortisol levels overnight plays a role in sending 'alert' signals to our brain to wakeup in the morning. What this means for a child's bedtime however, is that if a child's bedtime is too late, there will be more 'alert' hormones in their system that they have to fight against in order to fall asleep. Remember, they're more sensitive to these hormonal fluctuations than you are because of their immature circadian rhythms.
This is why children can drastically shift their demeanor — from tired to wired — later in the evening. It's common to see this shift in your child and think, "well, they must not be tired after all!" and to actually delay their bedtime even later. Yes, your child will sleep eventually with this approach, but this can often result in children "crashing" into sleep late at night. Frequent late bedtimes may also contribute to chronic 'overtiredness', as they're missing out on some crucial hours of sleep earlier in the evening.
Children are primed for early bedtimes. If bedtime is too late, they're trying to fall asleep out of sync with their natural rhythms, and their bodies can respond in interesting ways, like crying, screaming or hyper-active behaviors, and bedtime battles may ensue! (Some sleep researchers compare this to that weird jet-lagged feeling we all get when we cross time zones and our sleep rhythms get all out of wack.) By moving their bedtime earlier, you're essentially catching a wave of melatonin and sleepy signals rushing through your kiddo's body. This can result in bedtimes being easier and more relaxed because their bodies and minds are ready for sleep.
With an earlier bedtime, they're going to bed within an optimal sleepy-window of being tired without being wired. But if you delay, that window closes!
In general, younger babies will do well with 6:30 or 7pm bedtime (aligning closely with that initial rise in melatonin). Toddlers, who can handle some longer awake times, usually do great with a 7-8pm bedtime (depending on their napping situation during the day).
I certainly don't want to put any child or family into a box — some children function well with a later bedtime, and if what you're doing now is working well and everyone is happy you don't need to change! But what I am saying is this: if your bedtimes are stressful and full of meltdowns, try moving that bedtime earlier — or as early as is feasible for your life — and see if that helps!
Weird but true: getting some good quality sleep during the day can help children sleep better at night. This again comes down to working with a child's immature biological rhythms. As they grow, they will gradually lose their dependency on daytime napping. But for young children, their bodies biologically need some naps during the day.
If a child gets behind in sleep, or has too much awake time before bed, their bodies respond by producing more of those alert hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to help them power through fatigue. It's like their bodies are saying, "well, since I'm not sleeping when I should be I better kick-it into high gear so I can keep up!" (Adults do this too, children are just more sensitive to it.) The presence of extra alert hormones can make it more difficult for them to relax into sleep at bedtime, making them wired and irritable to boot!
So is this all just a bunch of hocus pocus? Try it out for yourself, and you may become a believer in the power of working with your baby’s natural biological rhythms, or at least feel like a sleep sorcereress!
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