Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
91
Why Early Bedtimes Are Important
August 8, 2022

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Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child

5th Edition: 
A Step-by-Step Program for a Good Night's Sleep

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Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child

5th Edition: 
Chapter 1 (only 16 pages!) outlines everything you need to know about your child's sleep.

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Introduction

A Healthy Child Needs a Healthy Brain, A Healthy Brain Needs Healthy Sleep

If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.

Blog 91Why Early Bedtimes Are Important

Some statements are easy to understand and easy to study, for example: “teething causes sleep disruptions”. This popular myth, and others (Blog Posts 36 and 37) are clearly identified as false statements in scientific publications.  

Other popular, but false, beliefs arise from an incomplete understanding or a simplistic point of view. For example, healthy sleep might be viewed only from the perspective of sleep duration. Thus, a parent might incorrectly conclude that early bedtimes are not that important because they believe that their child will sleep in longer in the morning and/or take longer naps. Stated another way, a parent might believe in the ‘myth’ that a later bedtime associated with a later wake-up time and/or longer naps is equivalent to an early bedtime associated with an earlier wake-up time. With this mind-set, the timing of the sleep period or the consolidation of sleep is ignored. But sleep quality is more than just sleep duration (Blog Posts 6, 8, 11, and 15).  

In the past, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” was a popular proverb. But today, modern parents may struggle with long commute times and may conduct business online at home. Or they may be distracted by digital devices at home. Thus, early bedtimes for their babies and children are especially challenging.  

Here are some reasons why early bedtimes are especially important:

  1. Often, when children have a late bedtime, the later wake-up time (and/or longer naps) does not fully compensate for the late bedtime, so the night and total sleep duration is short.

  2. Mental health problems or obesity (Blog Post 81) are more likely to occur with late bedtimes even when night sleep duration is normal due to late wake up times, or total sleep duration is normal due to long naps.

  3. Frequent bedtime routines are valuable, unrelated to sleep, and they are also associated with longer night sleep duration (Blog Post 10). However, I asked the authors whether longer night sleep durations were more associated with frequent bedtime routines or early bedtimes. Answer: “the biggest drive of nighttime sleep is what time a child goes to sleep.”

  4. Consistent bedtime routines produce longer night sleep durations (Blog Post 87). However, I asked the authors whether longer night sleep durations were more associated with consistent bedtime routines or early bedtimes. Answer: “[Early] bedtime is a more direct and stronger predictor of [longer] concurrent sleep durations from 3 to 24 months, above and beyond bedtime routine”

  5. Parental sleep-related cognitions are important for children, unrelated to sleep, and some sleep-related parental cognitions predict longer night sleep duration (Blog Post 88). However, I asked the authors whether longer night sleep durations were more associated with parental sleep-related cognitions or early bedtimes. Answer: “[Early] bedtime is more strongly correlated with [long] sleep durations than maternal cognitions.”

  6. Over A 15-month period, assessment of night sleep duration showed a significant dose-response trend for subsequent changes in measurements in four domains: hyperactivity/inattention, conduct problems, peer relationships, and prosocial behavior. Children who increased their sleep duration had a concurrent decrease in measurements, less hyperactivity/inattention, fewer conduct problems, better peer relationships, and more prosocial behavior.  Nighttime sleep duration at baseline was a predictor of measurements at follow-up but not vice versa.  “Among 2- to 6-year-old children, both [more] nighttime sleep duration at baseline and an increase in nighttime sleep duration from baseline to follow-up were associated with lower emotional and behavioral difficulties at a 15-month follow-up (Blog Post 75). However, I asked the author whether the quality of night sleep (Blog Post 15) might be more important than the duration (Blog Post 6) and specifically on the importance of an early bedtime as a contributor to better quality sleep (and longer sleep duration). Answer: “This is a great point, and I couldn’t agree more.”

  7. Early bedtimes are associated with taller children (Blog Post 23).

Moving the bedtime only a few minutes earlier, over time, may produce dramatic results; it’s as easy as ABC:

A. Begin soothing and bedtime routines when drowsy signs (Blog Post 9) begin to appear or just start 10-20 minutes earlier than you customarily do this.

        and/or

B. Do not allow a late afternoon or early evening nap to occur.  

Start this on a weekend when both parents are available to help distract and soothe your child through a possible rough patch.

and/or

C. Control the wake-up time. Nobody wants to wake a sleeping child. But if your pre-school child is falling asleep late at night and waking up way too late in the morning, then start waking your child in the morning around 7:00am to reset his sleep-wake cycle to be in synchrony with his circadian rhythm.

The importance of small differences in sleep duration cannot be overstated (Blog Post 6). A few minutes of extra sleep in the early evening might make a world of a difference! Please don’t get stressed if circumstances make it impossible to get ideal early bedtimes on weekdays. Remember, a bedtime that is a little too late is still better than a bedtime that is way too late.  Maybe your child can get some catch-up sleep on weekends.

Late bedtimes coupled with late wake-up times and/or long naps are not a substitute for early bedtimes.

For more expert child and baby sleep advice, subscribe to my blog now.

Comments

  1. Hello Dr Weissbluth, I have been listening to the audio version of Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child, and used your methods to get my very tired 6 month old sleep trained in 3 nights. She was sleeping 12-14 hours at night starting around 5:30 or 6 pm (which is when she gets drowsy in the evening) Around 7 months she started teething and waking earlier and earlier in the morning. First at 5 am, then 4 am and now (at 8 months old) usually between 3 am and 4 am. When she first started waking early, I thought she was ready to get up for the day because she had already gotten around 11-12 hours of sleep. But with the wake times getting even earlier, that now seems unlikely. Do you have any advice on how to stop these early wakings? Daytime naps have decreased as well, from 2 hour naps 2-3 times a day to just 1-1.5 hour naps 2 times a day.

    1. Currently, when do you start your bedtime routine?
      When are lights out?
      When do you leave the room?
      When does she actually fall asleep at night?

  2. We start the routine around 5:30 usually. She nurses, takes a bath, gets dressed, sometimes a little massage, I sing a lullaby, nurse her a little more and I put her down. Lights are out usually about 5:55. I lay her down and leave the room right away around 6. She usually falls asleep right away.

    1. How is her mood and behavior between 4-5pm when she is by herself with toys and not in front of a screen or interacting with you?

  3. Around 4 her mood is pretty good and she likes to crawl around and play with her toys and try to get into stuff. As it gets closer to 5 she is usually fussy and will still play if I’m there playing with her but is not as interested in her toys

    1. This is evidence that her sleep tank is going to empty. For 4-5 nights, move all your bedtime activities earlier so that you are leaving the room (expected fall asleep time) at 5:30pm. Do not go to her in the morning until about 5-6am, but if she is asleep, don’t wake her. Listen to the section in my book, ‘Sleep Begets Sleep’ to understand why this works.

      MOVE THE BEDTIME EARLIER
      This may seem counterintuitive if your child is having trouble sleeping, but dramatic improvements occur even when children get very small amounts of extra sleep. Hyperarousal in your child causes difficulties in falling asleep and staying asleep. Early bedtimes dampen or eliminate hyperarousal. Early bedtimes will not necessarily cause your baby to wake up earlier in the morning. More sleep at the front end at night makes it easier for babies to sleep in later in the morning and/or wake up better rested.

  4. Dr Weissbluth, thank you very much for taking the time to respond. We will give the 5:30 fall asleep time a try.

  5. Hi Dr. Weissbluth, I am hoping you can offer some advice on getting our 7 month old back on track. The past 3 weeks have had significant disruptions in his routine (travel, move, first illness and eczema flare). Things are finally settling back to normal but we have a lot of work to do — namely getting him on two naps and sleeping the entire night in his crib.

    Here is what has been happening:
    9am first nap, about 1 hour
    12:30/1pm second nap, about 1.5 hours
    4pm drowsy signs emerge. Offering catnap of 40 minutes, waking him by 5.
    7pm falling asleep time.
    5am he wakes, happy in his crib and rolls around for about half an hour before crying. If we bring him to bed with us, he will sleep until 7am. We have been doing this which we now regret.

    We would like to drop him to two naps and move bedtime significantly earlier.
    Yesterday he did:
    9am nap of 1 hour 5 min
    1pm nap of 1 hour 40 minutes
    5:30pm falling asleep time (latency 8 minutes)
    5:15am woke up, brought him to bed with us immediately and he slept until 6:50am.

    I am concerned we are reinforcing the early morning wakes by bringing him to bed, which he likes. I am also concerned that if we don’t get him to sleep past 5:15am, he won’t “make it” to his 9am nap. I do not want to put him down to sleep much later because he was clearly tired (fussier, etc) by 5:30. What do you suggest?

    1. Please continue, temporarily, with the 5:30pm bedtime. No new nap starts after 3:00pm. Stop taking him to your bed in the morning. Try to “stretch” him to about 9am but don’t worry now if this nap is earlier. Let me know how it goes after 3-5 days/night.
      Because he was a good sleeper before the disruption, he should be on track within a few days; please be optimistic and patient.

  6. Thank you! We will continue with 5:30 bedtime and stop bringing him to bed. If he wakes at 5am, should we get him up for the day (and move the morning nap a bit earlier), or leave him in his crib until 6am?

    1. Around 5ish, if, and only if, you think a quick change and feed will allow him to snooze a bit longer, try it. Otherwise, start the day. Prepare to do extra soothing as you attempt to stretch him towards the goal of a 9am nap.

  7. Hi Dr. Weissbluth, reporting back after 5 days “resetting.” Latency for all sleep was 2-10 minutes. We made amazing progress at first but now back to early morning wakes the past two days.

    Day 1: 8:00-10:15 morning nap, 1:10-2:10 afternoon nap, 5:32pm out the door bedtime, slept till 5:40 am and up for the day.
    Day 2: 9:00-10:50 nap, 1:40-3:07pm nap, 6pm bedtime (no drowsy signs prior), slept until 6:41am.
    Day 3: 9:07-10:32 nap, 1:28-2:30pm nap, 6pm bedtime, slept until 6:53am.
    Day 4: 9:20-10:26 nap, 1:38-3:21pm nap, 6pm bedtime, slept until 4:50am, resettled with diaper change, up for the day at 5:52am.
    Day 5: 8:45-10:20 nap, 1:25-2:30 nap, 5:30 bedtime (drowsy signs at 4:30), slept until 4:12am, resettled with diaper change, then up again at 4:45am, resettled with help, then up for the day at 5:50am.

    I noticed the past two days he has woken from his afternoon nap angry/mad and clearly still tired. I am certain he is not hungry so I’m unsure why. Please let me know your thoughts and if we should continue with the early bedtime. In a dream world he would wake up around 6:30am, but we will follow his natural clock. Thank you for your help!!

    1. Please try for a few days to shorten the interval of wakefulness before the second nap. You decide whether it should be 5-10 minutes earlier or 20-30 minutes earlier based on drowsy signs. If he falls asleep earlier, than you’ll know, after the fact, that 1:30ish was too late. Then the nap might be longer or better quality or both. If so, then the bedtime might, or might not, become a little later. Watch your child more than watch the clock. Please report back in a few days. Does this help?

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