Tantrums and simply refusing to fall asleep are common problems parents face when getting their children to stick to a bedtime routine. One study suggests the issue may be that children have already biologically chosen their bedtimes, and that bedtime may conflict with the one set by parents.
Researchers at the University of Colorado studied 14 toddlers between the ages of 30-36 months, who slept at least 10.5 hours nightly and took daily naps for at least 45 minutes. For 6 consecutive days, researchers took saliva samples from each toddler every 30 minutes, starting 6 hours before their bedtimes. From the collected samples, the researchers were able to find the average time of melatonin onset—the time the body is naturally ready for sleep.
Results indicated that average melatonin onset time for toddlers was 7:40 pm, about 30 minutes before the bedtime selected by parents. Those toddlers on average fell asleep 30 minutes after being placed in bed. Toddlers placed in bed before their rise in melatonin took 40-60 minutes to fall asleep, increasing the chances of them getting out of bed or throwing a tantrum.
The longer the interval was between the melatonin onset time and the parent-selected bedtime, the shorter time it took for a child to fall asleep.
With 25% of toddlers and preschoolers struggling to settle into their bedtimes, the findings are significant because this may disrupt the association between beds and sleep, increasing the chances for insomnia overtime.
You may not be able to test the melatonin levels of your children, but you can create a bedtime routine that promotes sleep-inducing melatonin levels. Limit light exposure an hour before bedtime to encourage the production of melatonin and don’t forget to include relaxing activities such as bath time!
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