I watched the numbers tick by on the clock, my stress growing with the time.

My nearly-two-year old had been in his crib for almost an hour, but still he laid there, rolling around, occasionally jabbering, doing anything but falling asleep. I knew that he’d be up at the crack of dawn, no matter how long it took for him to fall asleep. And I knew that the less sleep he got at night, the more inconsolable he’d be throughout the next day.

It can be crazy frustrating for parents when your little one takes a long time to fall asleep. It takes a toll on children, too: taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep was connected to 3 times the risk of social-emotional problems in two-year-old children.[1]Hysing, M., Sivertsen, B., Garthus-Niegel, S., & Eberhard-Gran, M. (2016). Pediatric sleep problems and social-emotional problems. A population-based study. Infant Behavior and Development, 42, 111–118. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2015.12.005

The reasons why little ones fight sleep can vary. Finding the exact reason is a bit like asking a chef why your cookies didn’t come out right: sometimes you need someone to walk through each step with you to find the culprit. Fortunately there are a few general ways you can troubleshoot.

Consistent, early bedtimes (meaning a regular bedtime that falls somewhere between 6-8pm) are an essential part of having a well-rested child. And thanks to science, there are some strategies you can use to get bedtime from catastrophe to a piece of cake.


1. Cool the room. An evening drop in body temperature is the signal to wind down for the night. Before homes were insulated with environments that could be controlled at the touch of a button, we would have naturally felt the air cool as the sun went down.

This external cooling helps your body to make the 2-3 degree change in core body temperature that happens over the course of the night. As your body’s temperature drops, you become less alert.[2]Wright, K. P., Hull, J. T., & Czeisler, C. A. (2002). Relationship between alertness, performance, and body temperature in humans. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 283(6), R1370–R1377. http://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00205.2002 Your metabolism also slows down, decreasing hunger at night.[3]Lodemore, M., Petersen, S. A., & Wailoo, M. P. (1991). Development of night time temperature rhythms over the first six months of life. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 66(4), 521–524. http://doi.org/10.1136/adc.66.4.521

Aside from being a risk factor for SIDS, being too warm at night makes it difficult for your child’s body temperature to drop. Aim for a room temperature between 65-70 degrees at night. Don’t discredit the difference just a few degrees can make to the quality of your sleep.

To keep your little one warm, dress in breathable fabrics, with a sleep sack instead of a blanket until your child is old enough to keep a blanket on at night (usually not until around 3 years old).

Additionally, you can warm the toes before bed. Several studies have found that keeping your feet toasty at bedtime allows your body’s core to cool efficiently, beckoning sleep to come quickly.[4]Kräuchi, K., Cajochen, C., Werth, E., & Wirz-Justice, A. (1999). Warm feet promote the rapid onset of sleep. Nature, 401(6748), 36–37. http://doi.org/10.1038/43366


2. Dim the lights. The fading light, with the warm, reddish hue of the setting sun, is what tells your body to start making the sleep hormone melatonin. Although melatonin isn’t exactly what makes you sleep, it’s definitely an important part of sleep. You can think of melatonin as being like the orchestra conductor for the body, telling each system that it’s time to start the music of the night. (Are you humming the song from The Phantom of the Opera now?)

Again, modern life has drastically changed the natural rhythm of sleep. Before the light bulb, the only way you would be seeing light after the sun went down would be by firelight. When you consider how unnatural it is to have bright light after sunset, it makes sense how significantly artificial light affects the body’s sleep rhythms.

The lights you turn on in your home are probably around 200 lux–depending on the size of the room and the brightness of the light bulbs you’re using. This amount of light, compared with a dim 3 lux setting, delayed the start of melatonin by about 90 minutes in a group of young adult volunteers.[5]Gooley, J. J., Chamberlain, K., Smith, K. A., Khalsa, S. B. S., Rajaratnam, S. M. W., Van Reen, E., … Lockley, S. W. (2011). Exposure to room light before bedtime suppresses melatonin onset and shortens melatonin duration in humans. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 96(3), E463-72. http://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2010-2098

Little children may be even more sensitive to light at night. When bedtimes creep later, they bring with them more evening light exposure, pushing the start of a child’s internal clock later.[6]Akacem, L. D., Wright, K. P., & LeBourgeois, M. K. (2016). Bedtime and evening light exposure influence circadian timing in preschool-age children: A field study. Neurobiology of Sleep and Circadian Rhythms, 1(2), 27–31. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.nbscr.2016.11.002 The problem is, daylight in the morning keeps your child’s wake time locked in place. In other words, the light your child is exposed to in the evening, particularly if bedtime is too late, may be artificially delaying your child’s natural bedtime AND shortening your child’s night of sleep–not shifting the whole sleep period later.

To avoid light throwing off your sleep, there are a growing number of smart bulbs that will allow you to control the color and intensity of the light, such as the Philips Hue or the Lighting Science Good Night Light. Once your child is tucked in bed for the night, keep the room as dark as possible. Light affects our sleep, even through closed eyelids.

111,000 lux Bright sunlight
1,000-2,000 lux Overcast day at midday
400 lux Sunrise/sunset on a clear day
40 lux Fully overcast sunrise/sunset
0.25 lux Full moon on a clear night

Source: Wikipedia


3. Turn off the screens. Television, games, tablets, computers, phones. I know, this is a tough one. You’re not alone if you use electronic devices to help your little ones settle down in the evening (and to give mom and dad a break!). But the connection between all of these screens and sleep is powerful.

Electronic media is enticing. No child in the history of ever wants to stop watching their favorite show in order to sleep! And even if you’re successful at convincing your child that it really is time for bed, it’s still hard for their minds to slow down and rest. Have you ever had a night where you were snuggled in bed waiting for sleep to come, but you couldn’t turn off your brain? That’s what’s happening for your child. It’s like trying to go from a green traffic light to red without the yellow to signal that it’s time to slow down. Turning off screens gives that slow-down buffer.

Researchers at Penn State University found that kids who watched TV or played video games before bed got 30 minutes less sleep than kids who kept them turned off. Those who were on their phone or a computer before bed got a full hour less sleep than their tech-free peers.[7]Fuller, C., Lehman, E., Hicks, S., & Novick, M. B. (2017). Bedtime Use of Technology and Associated Sleep Problems in Children. Global Pediatric Health, 4, 1–8. http://doi.org/10.1177/2333794X17736972


4. Have a bedtime routine. This one might not seem like something that can make much of a difference in how easily your child falls asleep, but you’d be amazed–it’s actually one of the most powerful tools you can use.

A recent study looked at how a simple routine of a warm bath, massage, and a quiet activity (book, lullaby, prayers, etc.) affected the sleep of little ones 8-18 months old whose parents described the child as having a sleep problem.[8]Mindell, J. A., Leichman, E. S., Lee, C., Williamson, A. A., & Walters, R. M. (2017). Implementation of a nightly bedtime routine: How quickly do things improve? Infant Behavior and Development, 49, 220–227. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2017.09.013 Within just three nights there was a significant amount of change. Note that the only variable was starting this bedtime routine; there was no sleep training involved. Children started falling asleep faster, waking less often and for a shorter period of time when they did wake, and sleeping more overall. Not only that, but mothers also felt that bedtime went easier, the child’s sleep quality was better, and their kids were in a better mood.

Little ones learn through patterns. Having a bedtime routine that takes place in the same order every night gives your child the predictability they need to be able to relax and rest.


5. Check your schedule. Naps that happen too late in the day will get in the way of your little one’s ability to fall asleep at bedtime. For a general guideline, with babies still taking a third nap, aim for the nap to end by 5pm, on two naps, end by 4pm, and on one nap, end by 3pm.

If your child is older than 24 months, naps will also start to shorten the length of sleep your child gets at night, so you’re not as likely to get those 12-hour nights that you might have had when your child was an infant.[9]Thorpe, K., Staton, S., Sawyer, E., Pattinson, C., Haden, C., & Smith, S. (2015). Napping, development and health from 0 to 5 years: a systematic review. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 100(7), 615–622. http://doi.org/10.1136/archdischild-2014-307241

By age 3 most children are sleeping about 12 hours total in a day.[10]Iglowstein, I., Jenni, O. G., Molinari, L., & Largo, R. H. (2003). Sleep duration from infancy to adolescence-reference values and generational trends (2003).pdf. Pediatrics, 111(2). If your preschooler is still napping, that means you may be looking at a 9-10 hour period of night sleep. For those with daycare schedules to navigate, you may just have to accept a late bedtime–or talk to your provider and see if a quiet time alternative can be offered instead of the nap.

After taking into consideration your child’s age and napping status, you want to find the right bedtime. This takes a bit of troubleshooting. If you’re putting your little one to bed too early, you might find that he’s spending an hour in bed before his body is able to fall asleep. In this case, the solution is simple: move bedtime later.

But if you’re putting your child to bed much later than his body needs, you’ll find that the concept of a second wind is true: instead of winding down, your child will wind up. Bedtimes after 9pm are associated with children taking longer to fall asleep and waking more often, plus getting 1.3 hours less sleep than toddlers who are in bed before 9pm.[11]Mindell, J. A., Meltzer, L. J., Carskadon, M. A., & Chervin, R. D. (2009). Developmental aspects of sleep hygiene: findings from the 2004 National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America Poll. Sleep Medicine, 10(7), 771–9. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2008.07.016 If your current bedtime is close to that 9pm mark or later, you might actually find that your child falls asleep faster and gets a more restful night by moving bedtime earlier.


6. Boost your child’s sleep confidence. If you’ve already done everything listed above, then this is probably your stumbling block. Many little ones fall into a pattern of relying on mom or dad to help them fall asleep. Whether it’s nursing your baby to sleep or sitting in the room with your toddler until they drift off, your presence has become intertwined in your child’s sleep.

The difficulty comes when your child knows that you’re going to sneak off once they’re asleep. Your child wakes up sometime later, you’re not there, and panic sets in. This realization causes little ones to become hyper-aware of your presence, fighting sleep to make sure you don’t disappear.

Sleep is a act of trust. For your child to be able to rest soundly, you are a big piece of that trust. Your child needs to know what to expect.

To fix this you have a choice: stay with your child while they fall asleep and remain there all night long–or create a plan to help your child know that he or she is safe, loved, and capable of falling asleep independently.

Either way, your child needs to know up front what to expect: no sneaking out of the room, or gingerly slipping your baby into the crib after they’re asleep. Your child deserves a predictable sleep environment. This is how you will boost his confidence, restore his trust, and ease his anxiety over bedtime.

Sweet dreams!

Still need some help getting your little one to sleep? Contact me for a personalized plan created just for your family!

I'm ready for a good night's sleep

Welcome to Once Upon A Bedtime

A good night’s sleep isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales. It’s the spine that holds the book of life together.

My passion is to give you and your family the tools you need to rest well so you can live life to the fullest.

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