If there’s anything that can send your child’s sleep off the rails, if there’s an arch-enemy for sleep training, it is, without a doubt, the dreaded condition of overtiredness.
Kids, as with all people, have a natural rhythm when it comes to sleep. Our bodies secrete hormones to keep us up and running during the day (cortisol), and different ones to help us rest at night (melatonin). They’re dependent on a variety of factors, but timing is the most prevalent.
So what happens when your little one stays awake past the time when these natural cues to sleep are activated? Well, the body assumes there’s a reason that it hasn’t been allowed to get to sleep, assumes there’s a need to stay awake, and fires up those daytime hormones again.
And that’s when the trouble starts.
Because once those signals to stay awake get fired up, they’re tough to shut down, and baby’s already tired. So less sleep leads to more daytime hormones, and the cycle perpetuates itself.
So the best way to prevent this situation is to get baby to sleep before they get past that window of opportunity. But babies, especially newborns, are a little bit cryptic when it comes to signaling when they’re ready for bed. However, if you know what to look for, it can work wonders in assessing the right time to put baby down.
Some good signs to watch for include tugging at their ears, or rubbing their eyes and nose, arching their back, and turning their face into your chest.
Now, those are all strong signs that your baby’s ready for bed, but they’re also easily mistaken for signs that your baby’s hungry, so it’s best to combine your keen eye for signals with a keen eye on the clock.
Newborns can usually only handle about an hour of awake time in a stretch, so make a note of the time when they wake up and set a reminder or make a mental note that they need to be headed down for a nap around 60 short minutes after that.
They’ll be able to stay awake for longer stretches as they get older, but even toddlers should only be awake for a few hours, so stay aware of the schedule and error on the side of more sleep, not less.
Here is an average awake window schedule:
On the subject of toddlers, they have their own quirky little habit when they get overtired. The sudden influx of those daytime hormones can actually make them quite manic, so they might seem to be super happy and giggly for a while; just the opposite of what you would expect from a child who needs to get to bed. But you’ll see before long that their mood will take a big shift into crankiness, and then you’ve probably got a bedtime battle on your hands.
The best advice to curb the “second wind” is to get your child down before they get too tired, as to avoid the surge in hormones to keep them awake.
I know that this schedule can sound a little rigid for parents who aren’t used to it. After all, an hour at a time is barely enough time to get a diaper changed, a feed in, and a little bit of playtime before baby’s got to get back into their crib and down for another nap. But I can assure you, no client I’ve ever worked with has ever come back to me after implementing it and said, “I have a feeling that baby’s getting too much sleep.”
So give it a try for a couple of weeks and see how it works. I can almost guarantee you’ll be seeing a happier baby.
Bedtime Beginnings is a team of Pediatric & Adult Sleep Consultants from Southwestern Ontario, Canada. We help exhausted parents teach their infants & toddlers to sleep well every night with gentle, customized solutions and both group and private coaching options, so your family can all be at their best. Our team can support families in home and also virtually around the globe to ensure everyone is sleeping their best.
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