Do you want your child to sleep better? The timing is everything.

Adorable little girl sleeping in the bed

By: Joleen Dalk Salyn

Do you want your child to sleep better?

The majority of sleep issues in children that I encounter as a certified pediatric sleep consultant fall into two categories; dependency on sleep associations and insufficient sleep amounts.

Most people have heard the term ‘sleep training’ to help change sleep associations (and have an opinion on it one way or another), but a more important issue; having a healthy sleep routine, (which doesn’t require any formal sleep training at all), is often overlooked when parents are struggling to solve their child’s sleep problems.

When I speak to parents about sleep deprivation, many don’t believe that that term pertains to their child. The words “sleep deprived” seem so extreme, but young children require such large amounts of sleep, that even missing one or two hours can have significant repercussions.

Is your child overtired? Here are some common signs:

    • Your child wakes up crying during the night, in the morning and/or after a nap
    • Your child cries, arches their back, squirms or throws a tantrum before a sleep period or while you’re trying to do your wind down routine
    • Your child frequently starts the day earlier than 6:00am
    • Once your child is sleeping, it is fitful and short; waking every few hours in the night or after 25-30 minutes for a nap
    • Your child will frequently fall asleep during a car ride, even if it’s short and/or they just had a nap
    • Your toddler or preschooler becomes cranky, irritable, emotional, defiant, or hyper in the late afternoon

To help get a child’s sleep on track, I frequently recommend that parents ensure that nap and bedtimes match biological rhythms or sleep windows after 4 months of age. The reason for this is scientifically based.

Our bodies are regulated by naturally occurring circadian rhythms or body clocks, which are controlled by a master clock called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus or SCN for short. The SCN is responsible for our sleep/wake cycles, feeding patterns, body temperature regulation and other cycle fluctuations. The SCN is located in the brain, close to where the left and right optic nerves cross paths.

Why is this important?

Because children’s sleep/wake cycles (and yours too) are regulated by the amount of light that is received by the SCN.

As the child’s brain perceives different intensities of light throughout the day, it will regulate when the child is best suited for a nap or bedtime
If a child naps at a time when the SCN isn’t preparing the body to sleep, or if they are kept up too long when their body is actually biologically ready to sleep, they are going against their natural sleep drive. The longer they stay up past their sleep window, the more overtired they become and the harder it is for them to eventually settle to sleep. It seems counter-intuitive, but overtired children do not fall asleep easily nor sleep solidly once asleep.

This is why the timing of sleep is a crucial factor when establishing a healthy sleep routine in children. If this key component isn’t addressed, then sleep problems will often persist.

When parents master this critical element of their child’s routine with a solid and consistent nap routine and well-timed bedtime, sleep issues will have a much higher chance of being resolved quickly.

Joleen Dilk Salyn is a certified pediatric sleep consultant and founder of Baby Sleep 101. She helps tired parents get their children sleeping through the night by working with the science of sleep and healthy sleep best practices. She is a member of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants and in addition to her certification as a sleep consultant, also holds a Bachelor of Education, and Post Baccalaureate in Education. Joleen is also a mother to two wonderful children.

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  1. 1

    Good article. Thank you. I wondered if it would be of interest if I told you that many of the teenagers that I treat have had sleep issues that have related to a deficiency of magnesium. My own child had sleep issues due to anxiety caused by magnesium deficiency, which was shown up on a hair test, once her magnesium level was increased she was able to sleep with no problem and night terrors also stopped. I have treated many children in the same manner.
    With kind regards Elaine Mummery

    • 2

      Thanks for sharing! Yes insufficient levels of magnesium as well as iron deficiencies have been linked to some sleep disorders such as Restless Leg syndrome in older children and adults.Through my work, however, many times sleep terrors are directly related to a young child simply being overtired. The great news is that when that’s the case, all that’s needed is a better-timed routine and earlier bedtime. 🙂

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