in Articles, Ask the Shrink

How Can I Get My Toddler to Sleep Later?

Q: How can I get my 18 month old to sleep past 6 am? Welcome to the wonderful world of sleep deprivation, I mean parenthood. 🙂 – Cricket

Dear Cricket,

my child needs to sleep laterWhat an odd coincidence. I just received an email from an 18-month-old asking, “how can I get my mother to stop sleeping past 6:00 AM?”

The short answer to your question is, I wouldn’t bother trying. I’ll tell you why, but let me give you the basics on sleep cycle development and you can make your own decision.

Before we do any of that, let’s assume that your baby is perfectly healthy. If your bambina is waking up unhappy, or isn’t getting enough sleep, it’s definitely time to see a pediatrician. But if Junior is waking up happy and ready to start the day, you may be squaring off against Mother Nature herself. And what have we learned from 1970s margarine commercials? Don’t mess with Mother Nature.

Here’s what Mother Nature has to say about the matter. Infants are born without established sleep cycles. That’s one reason newborns seem to wake up at random times. Within several weeks, babies begin to develop a sleeping pattern. The graph below represents a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week recording of one baby’s sleeping and waking periods. The pattern moves from chaos to order within the first six months. By about 12 months the pattern is pretty well established, though most kids experience discrete periods of sleep instability through their third year (Scher, Epstein, & Tirosh, 2004).

sleep cycle development

If we aren’t born with these patterns, then where do they come from?

Like Superman’s powers, they come mostly from the Sun. Light is probably the primary factor in developing sleep patterns. When the lights dim, the brain slows down. No matter your age, it’s a good habit to begin dimming the lights about an hour before bedtime. When the lights come back on (or the sun comes up) the brain becomes active. (As an aside, a dim light bulb in the middle of the night is enough to awaken the brain and start the process of falling asleep all over again – a one-minute exposure to a 60-watt bulb can lower melatonin levels for up to 40 minutes.)

Since fetuses can’t see the sun very well from the womb, it takes a few months to get the internal clock up and running.

Another factor in sleep pattern development is the family environment. Young ‘uns are remarkably sensitive to the rhythms of their parents, particularly Mom (see Feldman, 2006). When the activity around the house begins to slow down, you slow down biologically. When you slow down biologically, Little Cricketina slows down.

Mom Quixoti

If you were so disposed, you might try shaping your baby’s sleep pattern. “Shaping” is a behavioral term that refers to encouraging gradual change. For example, you might try adjusting the cycle of light, temperature, and activity in your baby’s room to better match your schedule. Adjusting the schedule ten-minutes every third day might work.

However, that might be a bad idea for several reasons. If your Little Cricket is getting enough sleep, then you should count yourself among the fortunate. Sleep problems are fairly common among babies and young children, and they’re often related to the environment. Besides, changing this pattern may be a futile effort. Remember the margarine, Cricket. Always remember the margarine.

But here’s my main reason for recommending against such a thing. There’s more at stake here than a good night’s sleep; you’re also teaching her the rules for handling differences and disagreements in your family. It’s generally a dangerous idea to exert parental control over biological functions such as sleep, appetite, or the passing of pumpkins. This often degenerates into a battle of wills in which nobody wins. Such futile contests can become a damaging habit within the relationship. Perhaps it’s better to let nature take its course, where sleep is concerned, and save your strength for the other challenges that Little Cricket has in store for you.

Now, Cricket, I realize that I haven’t addressed your real problem, which is: HOW IN MARGARINE’S NAME DO I GET SOME SLEEP???

Rather than battling nature through your baby, it may be easier to slowly adjust your own internal clock so that your pattern more closely matches hers. Enter the term “sleep hygiene” into any Internet search engine and you will find scads of suggestions on how to manage your own sleep pattern. Sleep deprivation, as you know, is unpleasant and unhealthy. And trust me, your little one doesn’t want to wake up to a grump every morning.

If your toddler is waking up at 6:00 a.m., happy and ready to start the day, then you’ve probably done a good job of creating a peaceful, consistent environment for her development. Either that, or she’s learned to sleep through your incessant chirping through the night. You should be congratulated.

-IS

References:
Feldman, R. (2006). From biological rhythms to social rhythms: physiological precursors of mother-infant synchrony. Developmental Psychology, 42(1), 175-188.

Scher, A., Epstein, R., & Tirosh, E. (2004). Stability and changes in sleep regulation: a longitudinal study from 3 months to 3 years. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 28(3), 268-274.

Wenner, W., & Barnard, K. E. (1980). The changing infant: sleep and activity patterns during the first months of life. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 28(19-24).