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Toddler Sleep Problems? Try a Different Bedtime

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When it comes to issues that concern parents of toddlers, sleep tops the list. No longer confined behind the bars of their crib, toddlers make good use of their newfound freedom by popping out of bed again ... and again ... and again. Those multiple requests for one last book, drink, or hug could be behavioral or due to the separation anxiety that is common in toddlerhood. But a recent study suggests that solving your toddler’s sleep problem could be as simple as changing her bedtime.

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At some point near our natural or biological bedtime, our bodies help us out with a rise in melatonin. This hormone is associated with the sleep/wake cycle and is highest right before we (should) go to sleep. Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder studied 14 toddlers and were able to precisely define when each hit their peak of melatonin. When they compared that peak to the toddlers’ bedtime, they found that those whose melatonin rose later had a harder time falling asleep.

Having a routine may not be enough.

Parents of toddlers know routine is important to this age group, and bedtime is an important part of that routine. But the authors of this study suggest that having a routine may not be enough. If you’re dealing with tantrums and bedtime avoidance or long periods of wakefulness before falling asleep, you may be putting your toddler to bed before her melatonin spikes. Researchers found that the rise in melatonin occurred at 7:40 p.m. on average, and that the average bedtime was 8:10. Those children fell asleep within 30 minutes. But children who were put to bed before their rise in melatonin took up to an hour to fall asleep.

Children with special needs often struggle with irregular sleep cycles. They may have a neurological disorder that affects their circadian rhythm, or they may be physically unable to get themselves comfortable in bed, or they may have sensory issues that make it difficult for them to fall asleep. Sometimes, a doctor may suggest a melatonin supplement for children who are really struggling with sleep. Since there are side effects associated with melatonin supplementation, this should always be discussed with a doctor before trying.

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This is a small study (though their methods—which included special wristwatches and “sleep fairies”—are fascinating), and the average parent is not going to be able to pinpoint when her own child has a surge in melatonin. But if you’ve been struggling with sleep, it might be worth playing with your bedtime schedule to see if you can get a better result.

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