One question I am asked often is “What time should my baby go to sleep?” There are many articles and books that talk about how sleep begets sleep, or a baby who isn’t sleeping well needs to go to bed earlier. For a baby who is truly overtired, getting them to bed early may help. For many infants, a bedtime that is too early can create more sleep issues.
From a biological perspective there is no ideal bedtime. How we organize sleep is determined by where we live and the flow of our day. Our desire to have our babies to go bed early is driven by our cultural attitudes of parenting and adult time.
House work and Down time
American parents, especially the educated parents, think we must interact and stimulate our young children every minute they are awake. We have been told the first three years are critical to development. The result is parents overstimulating their infant and exhausting themselves. Yes, we need to provide for our infants needs. We needs to respond to them then they ask for acknowledgment or support. We need to provide them with a stimulating environment. Providing those things is very different then looking, talking to, or playing with your infant every minute they are awake. If fact your baby needs time without being stared at.
This belief of continuous stimulation makes the sleep times the only times parents have to work or rest. By the end of the day parents have used up all their resources. They are tapped and tired. The trick is learning how to do take care of yourself while the infant or toddler are awake. It can be difficult to imagine as a first time parent, and harder to accomplish with multiple children in the house. Yet, finding ways to read a magazine, do the dishes, or answer emails while your child is awake, actually makes getting baby to sleep less stressful. Your not desperate for your child to sleep, so are more relaxed if it doesn't happen exactly how you planned.
Early to Bed, Early to Rise
Doesn't just make a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. It makes a parent tired. Last week's blog discussed how most babies only sleep 8-10 hours at night. If you put a baby to bed at 6:30 pm that means baby is done sleeping between 2:30-4:30am. Now you can keep a baby sleeping until 6am by holding them or nursing them or bringing them to bet with you. This sleep is usually pretty light during those morning hours.
The biggest complaint about moving bedtime later is that baby doesn't sleep later. Babies will usually still wake up between 6:00-7:00am because they are done sleeping. Because 8:30p-6:30am is 10 hours of sleep. Moving the bedtime results in a better day to night ratio of sleep. It allows for more day sleep, and longer naps. Shortening the night sleep also improves the quality of the sleep through the night. Allowing for longer stretches of sleep and fewer wakings.
The other issues with the early bedtime is the incongruent sleep schedule. Parents stay up later then baby, to get in those hours of work or couple time or self care. Yet, the first stretch of sleep for an infant is usually the longest most restful sleep. The stretch that happens when parents are still awake. This means the baby sleeps best when the parent is still awake. Parents get better sleep if the long stretch of infant sleep matches up with when the parents are sleeping. Some parents will solve this by going to bed early with the baby. But most parents don't want to be in bed that early.
Finding the Right Bedtime
Despite the fact that so much sleep information says infants should go to bed early, the average bedtime for infants and toddlers in the United States is 8:30pm. In most of the rest of the world the average bedtime for infants and toddlers is 10:00pm.
The optimal bedtime for a child is greatly influenced by in the amount of day sleep and the total sleep an individual child needs. The biological rhythms play an important role in bedtime too. Studies have shown the importance of the circadian rhythms and bedtime being in sync. If you put a toddler in bed before the brain is ready to sleep, it can cause more wakeful nights.
The families schedule is also a major factor in finding the best bedtime. What time the parents get home from work, when the parents want to go to sleep and when the day starts all affect bedtime. The right bedtime for your child and your family may be drastically different from the bedtime that works for anyone else.
While the time a child goes to sleep can vary, a bedtime that works should be fairly consistent. Once an infant is over 6 months, bedtime should stay consistent within an hour window. If the target bedtime is 8:30 then baby should be asleep between 8-9pm most every night. Moving bedtime due to an early or late nap makes it very difficult for the brain to regulate sleep cycles through the night. So once you have a bedtime that works for your child and your family, it is good to stick to that time.
The optimal bedtime is different for every family. But bedtime is an area where parents can make adjustment so it works for the whole family. You may want your child to go to bed early, you just need to be aware of the results of that choice. For may families a later bedtime makes more sense to the flow of their day.
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