Having trouble getting your toddler to go to sleep? You may be fighting her body clock. That’s the finding of two fascinating studies from the University of Colorado that investigated why some toddlers take so long to fall asleep and why it’s so important.
About 25 percent of toddlers have difficulty at bedtime, according to study author Monique LeBorgeios. One reason that parents are trying to get them to go to sleep before their natural levels of melatonin. The hormone that signals the body to fall asleep kicks in.
The first study, in the journal Mind, Brain and Education, looked at 16 preschoolers. Like most kids this age, they took regular daily naps. Bedtime was around 8 p.m. Some slept fine. But those children whose melatonin levels weren’t at their peak around this time struggled with bedtime. And took longer to fall asleep. “One reason children may be having trouble settling down at night is that they have later clock times in the midst of an early bedtime,” says LeBourgeois.
Resetting Body Clocks
If you want your preschooler to get to bed earlier, consider gentle actions to nudge his body clock a little earlier, suggests Bourgeois. Based on studies with adults and adolescents, the primary factor in shifting the rise of melatonin levels is light. By using techniques involving light, the timing of the rise in evening melatonin can be shifted forward.
At least an hour before you want bedtime to happen, avoid bright light (from any screen especially). It’s also important that your child get exposure to bright light in the early hours of the day. “Evening light pushes the clock to a later time and morning light pushes the clock to an earlier time.” “So parents should reduce evening light and increase morning light if they think their child’s evening rise in melatonin is late.”
Combine these melatonin-shifting tactics with common sense bedtime strategies and exercise during the day. Only a light meal snack right before bedtime, no electronics in the bedroom, and a consistent bedtime routine that’s calm and rewarding. And you’ll be on your way to a child who gets to sleep at the right time of the night more easily. If your child’s sleeping problems continue, try soothing music and meditation techniques.
Reap Sleep Benefits
A second study led by her colleague, Salome Kurth, a postdoctoral researcher in the Sleep and Development Lab, reinforces why getting your child a good night’s sleep is so important: It’s crucial for brain development.
In measuring brain activity with a non-invasive EEG monitor, the researchers discovered that during a night of sleep, connections in the brain strengthened between hemispheres. During early childhood, new nerve connections are formed, and myelin, the sheeth that covers nerves and helps them form bonds, strengthen.
Getting children on a daily sleep schedule that coincides with their natural sleep cycle is
key to help bedtime run smoothly. says Bourgeois: “Sleep, just like nutrition and exercise, is known to affect children’s health and development. Although there are individual amounts of sleep that are optimal for young children. We know that sleeping less than 9 ½ to 10 hours a night is a risk factor for obesity, mental health problems, and academic difficulties.”
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