Parenting is no doubt an extremely challenging job, indeed rewarding, but it never hurts to have a little cheat sheet of tips to make it through the roughest patches. The sleep pattern of toddlers is one of those areas where a little help is much appreciated.
I found that applying the knowledge of circadian rhythms and the naturally occurring hormone melatonin, greatly helped to improve our bedtime routines.
The circadian rhythm is the body’s well maintained internal clock. It regulates when we eat, sleep, wake are most active and alert and so forth. Children have such a clock as well but as with everything else they rely on their parents to help them to finely tune this wonderful mechanism so they can reap the benefits of a well-adjusted daily rhythm, one of the most difficult to reliably establish.
That brings us to the function of melatonin. Melatonin is a well-known hormone that specifically regulates sleepiness and wakefulness. Its release into the blood stream is promoted by darkness and prohibited by light, especially the bluish tinted light from computers, TVs, smartphones and tablets.
The timing of the release of melatonin into the blood stream by the central nervous system can be considered the pacemaker of the body’s circadian rhythm. When this signal is sent and light conditions are ideally dim, melatonin levels rise and induce drowsiness. Another lesser known function includes lowering of the body temperature which seems to actually be a function of drowsiness.
And that specific attribute is important too.
It seems that a part of a successful transition from alert and energetic to sleepy and subdued is light and temperature regulation. With my little 16 month old, the key is learning to anticipate the general time that those warning sleepy signals tend to crop up, such as the eye rubbing, scratching their sides, and extra clinginess and then start to create a sleepy environment a little before that.
That sleepy environment should be softly lit, and quiet. Ideally, TVs or computers should not be around because not only is there light melatonin inhibiting, but they’re plain distracting. The temperature should also be a few degrees lower than before.
This I found is actually very helpful.
Have you ever noticed that when you feel sleepy you feel just a bit chilly as well, as though a warm drink and a soft sofa are calling you?
Well, it seemed as though when the environment was just a bit chilly or I gave my toddler a cool bath she became much more drowsy and wanting to cuddle up and sleep.
I believe that the cooler temperature is actually bolstering the effect that the melatonin is having and making the transition to a complete resting state smoother.
My routine for my little one starts in the early evening by dimming the lights to about half mast and I play soft music like smooth jazz. Our music tastes are very similar and I find that particular music calms me as well. Play what you know works for your child. A little while later she finds herself a blanket and I know it’s time for her lukewarm bath. Eventually the darkened room, the music and cool bath all conspire to make her bed very inviting and she’s asleep in just a little while.
I decided on this experiment as it were, when noticing how regularly like clockwork at just about ten o’clock at night I’d start to feel chilly regardless of the temperature and that when I turned down the thermostat I felt decidedly more tired just because of the chill. Turning off the computer and curling up with a book and a throw just about did me in for the night.
It seems as though the same may hold true for children and our bedtime schedule has become much smoother with the combination of the dim lights and the cooler temperature.
No more tears or tantrums just sweet dreams.
Science and children, two beautiful things I love.
Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Jan 30;31(1):1-11. Epub 2006 Aug 1