Transitioning from the toddler to preschool years can be challenging in many ways (hello, tantrums), and sleep is at the top of the challenge list for many families. Sleep problems have been found in 35% of children less than 2 years old, in 23% of 2-3-year-olds, and in 14% of 4-6-year-olds.
You may be surprised to hear just how much timing can impact your child’s sleep. As children transition from infancy to toddler years, and from toddler years to preschool years, the timing of sleep can change quite a bit.
Check out 6 ways timing can affect your toddler or preschooler's sleep.
Always Before 9PM
The ideal bedtime for toddlers and preschoolers can vary depending on naps, routines, and even genetics. However, the research is clear. Nothing good happens after 9PM.
The National Sleep Foundation took a poll of 1473 parents in 2004 to examine associations between sleep hygiene (how and when you get your kiddo to fall asleep) and sleep patterns in children ages 0-10 years. Across all ages, from newborns to 10-year-olds, children who fell asleep after 9 PM had poorer sleep.
Infants with a bedtime after 9PM got 1.3 hrs less sleep at night and took longer to fall asleep. Toddlers got 78 minutes less sleep, preschoolers got 48 minutes less sleep, and school-aged children got 60 minutes less sleep when going to bed after 9PM.
If that’s not convincing enough, this study also found that children with a bedtime later than 9PM also tend to have more overnight wakings.
Sleep Pro Suggestion: If you are looking for one easy boundary to set, this is it. Get your kiddo to bed before 9PM.
Does My Child Still Need to Nap?
Naps are great. They help our kiddos get through the day. Or do they help parents get through the day? Maybe both.
However, as children develop, they become better able to consolidate sleep.
By 18 months, most babes are down to 1 nap during the day
50% of 3-year-olds still require a daytime nap
8% of 4-year-olds nap occasionally
14% of 5-year-olds nap daily – 7% sleep for 1 hr, 7% sleep for 2 hours
3% of 5-year-olds nap occasionally
5% of 6-year-olds nap, most of them occasional nappers
Less than 1% of 7-year-olds nap occasionally
Children begin to drop naps as they get older because they need less sleep.
Sleep Pro Suggestion: If your child is resisting naps... ask yourself a few questions.
What is his mood like throughout the day? How well does he sleep overnight? If you have a kiddo who makes it through the day able to learn, play, and interact well, but is grumpy for the final hour of his day, he may no longer need a nap. Consider moving his bedtime a little earlier and instituting quiet time in place of nap time.
However, if you have a kiddo who is resisting naps, but melts down in the late afternoon/early evening hours, he may still need a nap. Consider having a regular nap location and routine, and moving nap time a little bit later in the afternoon.
Nappers Need Later Bedtime
Dim light melatonin onset is a reliable marker of the timing of the circadian clock used by researchers when studying sleep. It has been studied extensively in adults, but in only a handful of studies on toddlers. A study from 2013 found that the average melatonin onset for healthy, good sleeping 30-36 month old toddlers (2.5-3 year old) occurred, on average, at 729PM, with times ranging from 535PM-907PM.
Why such a wide difference in melatonin onset for children at this age? Genetics certainly plays a role. However, so do naps.
A study from 2015 compared the timing of the circadian clock between napping and non-napping toddlers. In this study, researchers measured melatonin levels of toddlers for 6 hours in the evening and then measured their sleep. They found that naps do, in fact, affect the circadian rhythm in toddlers.
Melatonin onset was found to be 38 minutes later for nappers (7:48PM) vs non-nappers (7:10PM). Children who napped more regularly had a later melatonin onset than children who nap infrequently. Surprisingly, this study showed that the length and timing of the nap did not affect the timing of melatonin onset.
Researchers believe that naps affect circadian timing in toddlers due to light exposure during the day (more nap time = less awake time = less light exposure) and sleep drive (nap = less time in-between sleeps = less sleep drive).
Rest assured, parents, nappers and non-nappers were actually found to sleep the same amount over a 24-hr period. Nappers and non-nappers woke around the same time each morning, but nappers fell asleep a bit later.
Sleep Pro Suggestion #1: Napping toddlers will likely need a bedtime closer to 8PM. If your napper goes to bed earlier than 8PM without challenges, by all means, keep the earlier bedtime!
Sleep Pro Suggestion #2: Move your child’s bedtime earlier when transitioning from napping to not napping.
Nappers Take Longer to Fall Asleep
The 2015 nap study mentioned above also found that napping children take 16 minutes longer to fall asleep at night. Although 16 minutes is not concerning for their overall sleep time, it is long enough to cause behavioral challenges during bedtime including bedtime stalling, resistance, and tantrums.
Sleep Pro Suggestion: If you have a napper who resists bedtime and takes 30+ minutes to fall asleep, consider putting your napper to bed a little after 8PM to allow enough time between melatonin onset and bedtime. This will help to shorten how long it takes your child to fall asleep.
Routines, Light Exposure, and Stimulation Matter
The 2015 nap study mentioned above also found that melatonin onset can be affected by outside influences including routines, light exposure, and stimulation.
If you routinely put your kiddo to bed later, your child’s circadian clock will shift later. If you routinely but your child to bed earlier, your child’s circadian clock will shift earlier.
More light exposure in the evening can shift the circadian clock to a later bedtime, and more light exposure in the morning, can shift the circadian clock to an earlier bedtime.
Stimulation including excited play and exciting screen time in the evening can also shift a child’s circadian clock later.
Sleep Pro Suggestion: Consider your child's sleep cues when choosing a bedtime for your child. Their ideal sleep time may change with different seasons. Sleep time may be a bit later in the summer when there is sunlight later in the day, and a bit earlier when it gets darker earlier in the winter. Limit exciting and stimulating activities after 7PM.
Timing May Not Be Everything
Timing can certainly impact sleep. However, timing isn’t everything. There is a large body of research that agrees with the following poll.
The National Sleep Foundation poll completed in 2004 showed that the biggest predictor of overnight wakings for toddlers is having a parent present at bedtime. In this study, toddlers who woke overnight were 2x more likely to have parent present at bedtime compared to toddlers who slept through the night.
Children without a consistent bedtime routine were also found to get about 1 hour less sleep. Additionally, a television in the bedroom (3+ year-olds) and regular caffeine consumption (5+ year-olds) were associated with shorter sleep time.
Sleep Pro Suggestion: If you have a kiddo who is resisting, stalling, or throwing tantrums at bedtime, timing of sleep may be at play.
Keep your kiddo’s bedtime before 9PM.
If your kiddo is taking 30+ minutes to fall asleep, consider moving bedtime a bit later.
If your kiddo naps and is resisting bedtime, consider moving bedtime a little after 8PM.
It is also possible your child needs an earlier bedtime. If your child throws tantrums at bedtime, but falls asleep rather quickly, consider making bedtime earlier.
However, if you feel your timing is right, and your kiddo is still waking overnight, first step is to teach your kiddo how to fall asleep without you present.
Ottaviano S, et al. Sleep characteristics in healthy children from birth to 6 years of age in the urban area of Rome. Sleep. 1996 Jan;19(1):1-3. PMID: 8650456.
Iglowstein I, et al. Sleep duration from infancy to adolescence: reference values and generational trends. Pediatrics. 2003 Feb;111(2):302-7. doi: 10.1542/peds.111.2.302. PMID: 12563055.
Mindell JA, et al. Developmental aspects of sleep hygiene: findings from the 2004 National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America Poll. Sleep Med. 2009 Aug;10(7):771-9. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2008.07.016. Epub 2009 Mar 12. PMID: 19285450.
Akacem LD, et al. The Timing of the Circadian Clock and Sleep Differ between Napping and Non-Napping Toddlers. PLoS One. 2015 Apr 27;10(4):e0125181. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0125181. PMID: 25915066; PMCID: PMC4411103.
Katie Ramirez, RN, BSN, CLC
Born Happy, Owner and Coach
Katie Ramirez is a Registered Nurse, Certified Lactation Counselor, and Coach for parents of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. She has spent more than a decade serving patients at major university hospitals such as Vanderbilt University and Penn State University Medical Centers. Katie now spends her time supporting and empowering parents of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers as founder and coach for Born Happy.
Katie is the proud mother of two beautiful children, Roberto (age 7), and Veronica (age 5). She has a passion for health, wellness, and happy children, and believes that, with the necessary knowledge and support, all parents can live happy.
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