When I work with families, I can always count on at least one piece of the sleep plan that I recommend leading to ample discussion (and dare I say, negotiation): the early bedtime. As adults, we are always trying to make sense of things, and the concept that the earlier a baby goes to bed the later her or she will sleep just doesn’t follow any logic.
To which I say what Deborah Pedrick, founder of The Family Sleep Institute, is fond of saying: “It’s not logical; it’s biological.”
Here’s the truth about early bedtimes:
An early bedtime:
- Helps keep a child well rested
- Eases the transition to sleep independently with fewer, if any, tears
- Prevents early rising
Here’s why early bedtime matters
At around 4 months of age, a baby’s natural circadian rhythms and sleep patterns begin to develop and mature. It’s usually during this time that many parents see a shift in their once-portable and flexible baby to being up more frequently at night, having difficulty settling into sleep at bedtime, and waking even earlier in the morning to start their day. This is often referred to as the “four-month sleep regression,” when in reality, it’s a four-month sleep PROgression. As their sleep patterns mature, many babies are looking to bump their bedtime back much earlier than what it has been to this point and, when they don’t get what they want, they let you know in the delightful form of night wakings, fussiness, and difficulty at bedtime.
So why does this happen? Here are some important points to remember:
- Putting a baby down too late creates overtiredness, which in turn makes it more difficult for them to fall—and stay—asleep and causes them to wake earlier in the morning.
- Overtiredness leads to a bump in the production of cortisol, an adrenaline-like hormone that our body produces, and whose production tends to peak during the early morning hours, in preparation for our natural wake-up time. (Adults experience this too. During particularly stressful times in our lives we might find ourselves waking in the wee morning hours, our brains wired and racing.)
- In babies, cortisol production is more biological (they shouldn’t have too much to be actively stressed about), and occurs more from the physical stress that being awake too much throughout the day puts on their bodies.
The power of the early bedtime is that it offers a powerful way to circumvent this cortisol production, helps ensure that sleep comes more easily and naturally. Keeping them up later won’t mean that they pass out and sleep well—at least not over the long term. An early bedtime is particularly important if a baby has had poor naps during the day or is staring down a significant sleep debt. So don’t shy away from it! You’re doing your baby a favor by following what they are biologically wired to do.