What's an Appropriate Bedtime for Toddlers?

The appropriate bedtime for toddlers depends on your child, but here are some guidelines to help you figure it out.

By Sheryl Grassie

Children between the ages of 1 and 3 years who have just started to walk are noted as having an unsteady gait. They toddle or wobble, and this style of walking has earned them the nickname “Toddlers.” That funny walk is a characteristic of their age group.

Along with a wobbly walk, toddlers are notorious for shaky bedtimes. They cry, they cajole, they downright refuse to go to bed. What is causing your child’s refusal to go to sleep? They may be overstimulated, have had too much sugar, be afraid, or have missed a nap and become overtired. Interestingly when young children don’t get enough sleep, they have a harder time sleeping. Experts suggest that children between 12 and 36 months need roughly 11 to 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. In essence, your child should be sleeping somewhere around half of every day; however, experts also note that the average for this age group is more like 10 hours, which probably isn’t enough sleep.

If your toddler is resisting a nap, fighting bedtime, or just not getting enough sleep, there are ways to improve things. Let’s start with the question, “What’s an appropriate bedtime for toddlers,” and look at ways to make the whole process work more effortlessly.

Where to Begin

To start with, there are some natural windows when toddlers wake in the morning and some natural windows when they are tired at night. Irrespective of their bedtime, most toddlers will wake between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. In a similar fashion, most toddlers are naturally sleepy and ready to go to bed between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m.  If they fall asleep at 8:00 p.m. and wake at 6:00 a.m. they will have had a good 10 hours of sleep. Then with a nap, usually only one a day at this age, they can reach their needed sleep range of between 11 and 14 hours daily. Given these natural sleep patterns most experts have recommended a bedtime between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m.

Recent research is confirming natural bedtimes by checking children’s melatonin levels. A study from the University of Colorado found that the melatonin levels of the children they studied peaked at around 7:40 p.m. This would indicate a natural lights-out time approximately 30 minutes after that, or just after 8:00 p.m. These findings corroborate earlier research that children who fall asleep before 9:00 p.m. are adhering to their natural rhythm. They were found to be more likely to sleep through the night and to get better sleep overall.

Setting Toddlers Up for a Good Night’s Sleep

There are numerous variables that affect how easy a toddler will fall asleep and stay asleep. Sleep is very important for toddlers and sleep problems can lead to lowered cognitive function, problem behaviors, ADHD, and immune suppression. These little ones need their sleep, and for many, it does not come naturally.

Sleep training is a process of teaching your child good sleep habits and setting up their environment and routines to support sleep. Some sleep experts say that a good night’s sleep starts first thing in the morning. Here is a day-long look at sleep supports for toddlers and a few miscellaneous tips.

Morning Light

Melatonin is necessary for sleep. It is a hormone referred to as the “sleep hormone” and regulates our sleep-awake cycles or Circadian rhythm. If children don’t get enough daylight it can dysregulate melatonin production and cause sleep problems.

Melatonin which makes us sleepy, stops in relation to light and is stored throughout the day. It is released into the system starting in the late afternoon and through the early evening as the light starts to fade. These higher levels in our blood make us sleepy and signal our bodies to get ready for bed. For the proper regulation of melatonin to take place, children need morning light. This is the perfect time to go for a walk or play outside. An hour is considered ideal, but even 15 minutes can make a difference in having a naturally sleepy child at bedtime.

Daytime Activity

How engaged your toddler is, how much exercise they get, and how generally active they are, makes a big difference in how well they sleep. If their day was varied and interesting, they did lots of different activities, and ran around a bunch, they will fall asleep and stay asleep much better. Conversely, if they spend the better part of their day in front of a screen, you can expect they will have excess energy to burn and won’t fall asleep easily.

Midday Nap

To get enough sleep, a child of 12 to 36 months needs a nap. Just after their first birthday they may still be taking both a morning nap and an afternoon nap, but by 18 months, they will be down to one nap.

This nap should ideally happen in the very early afternoon or just after lunch. Feeling full can add to a child being sleepy, and an early afternoon nap leaves a good amount of time to be awake later in the day. Naps that get pushed back too late in the afternoon will affect you toddler’s tiredness at bedtime.

Nighttime Routine

Children thrive on a consistent routine. As you are sleep training your child, you want to develop an easy sleep routine that you can do daily and that your child can count on. Tell them it is time for bed, help them change into pajamas and brush their teeth, pick out two books (less interesting is better for bedtime), read to them, tuck them in, kiss them goodnight, and turn out the lights. And yes, your toddler will sleep better in a dark room versus one with a light on. The key to success is maintaining a consistent routine including putting them to bed at the same time every night.

The Don’ts

Things to be aware of that you want to avoid doing. Giving them no sugar in the hours before bedtime is a good practice. Have dessert with your evening meal and nothing later. If your toddler complains of being hungry before bed, then give them a small protein snack like nuts or a hard-boiled egg.

Another don’t is no screen time at least 2 hours before bed. Screens emit a blue light that can affect melatonin and brainwaves and make falling asleep and staying asleep difficult for toddlers.

The Do’s

Toddlers have very active imaginations. During the two years of toddlerhood they will likely have nightmares and develop some imaginary fears of monsters, ghosts, or other scary creatures. Give them lots of reassure that nothing is going to hurt them, they are safe, and mommy and daddy are just in the next room. Do add things like a dream catcher over the bed to stop the bad dreams or a “prayer for protection” before sleep to further reassure your toddler.


Summary

Most toddlers are naturally sleepy around mid-evening between 7 and 8 p.m. A bedtime in that range, and definitely before 9 p.m. is considered ideal. Melatonin levels in toddlers support a bedtime at this juncture as well. You can help your toddler by exposing them to morning light which will regulate their melatonin, make sure they get lots of daytime activity, a good mid-day nap, and a consistent nighttime routine. Put them to bed at the same time, eliminate sugar before bed, and no screen time in the evening. Following these basic tenets will go a long way towards an appropriate and successful bedtime for your toddler.


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