You are keeping your kids up too late

As a father of twins, on rare occasions I make it out of the house at night after putting the twins to bed. At these times, I am shocked by the number of infants and toddlers I see out after 8:00 at night. These poor kids often appear cranky or irritable, and no wonder. They are not getting enough sleep at night or stretching too long between sleep. Taking children out in artificial light before bed can be as harmful to deep sleep as your smartphone in bed. If you are one of the parents who have their kids up after the sun has gone down, or if your six month or older child isn’t sleeping through the night, you need to make changes.

Sleep and health experts show that bedtime consistency is actually the most important factor in getting enough rest. Rest leads to being wakeful and productive the next day. A consistent bedtime is also a leading factor in children who sleep through the night early on. Consistency teaches babies that they should mentally and physically begin ramping down at around the same time daily. Cues like feeding, turning down the lights, changing into PJs, and reading a bedtime story help habituate this behavior. The body only needs three days to build a habit like falling asleep at the same time and staying asleep. Parents who establish these habits and consistency early on have much higher odds of success with sleeping through the night in the first three months.  Doing so right out of the hospital or at least in the first few weeks home increase it further.  Setting a consistent routine and schedule is the most likely factor to go from problematic sleep patterns to succeeding at sleeping through the night.

After consistency, the time put to bed and length of time between the last nap and bedtime are the largest factors in healthy sleep. Newborns should only go 2-3 hours between naps and sleep as longer periods of time awake are exhausting for them. Reaching an overtired state can actually prevent falling asleep and staying asleep due to agitation. Babies 1-4 months should go only 2 hours at the most between sleep. At 4-8 months this increases to 3 hours. At 8-10, this goes up to 3-3.5. At 10-15, up to 4 hours. At the 15 month mark, this will finally increase to 5 hours. But, this doesn’t mean you should keep them up later. Rather, it means their naps should become less frequent and a bit earlier. Bedtime should only range from around 6pm to at most 8pm at 1.5 to 3 years old. Many children who continue to sleep through the night continue going to bed at 7 up into their teens.

An earlier bedtime also helps with sleep regressions and loss of nap sleep. The earlier bedtime means more time to “sleep in”. For children this is a mechanism to make up for lost sleep during the day’s naps or restlessness during the night. This extra time will also give you, the parents, extra time at night to have time for yourself. This is a rare commodity for parents of infants, and also allows you to get prepared and ready for the next day. It also means you can maintain a regular, not too late bedtime and get your own productive and healthy sleep. Counter-intuitively, more sleep during the day and an earlier bedtime actually result in more sleep at night. This is because children won’t get overtired and cranky.

Babies need a ton of sleep. Even into toddlerhood, children need more sleep than you might think. Up to 4 months, babies need from 15 to 18 hours of sleep a day. Much of this comes during naps, but still leaves a good amount that they need at night. By 4 months, a child should be sleeping through the night almost every night. If not, this may be a sign of needing help. Up to a year old, children still need from 12-15 hours of daily sleep. As naps decrease, the nighttime sleep becomes primary and essential. Even up to 3 years, children still need 12-14 hours of sleep. Many stop getting this much due to late bedtimes around this time. Don’t fall into this trap.

Some parents find setting an early bedtime difficult due to schedules. One parent may have a hard time even seeing the child during the day if they arrive home late from work and the child is already asleep. In that case, that parent can spend time with the child in the morning. Yes, many of us professional parents feel that we hardly see our children during the week. But, a regular and healthy amount of sleep is the most important thing a parent needs to provide for their child, after food. Inadequate sleep leads to a host of problems including increased agitation and aggression, poor learning ability, difficulty with social skills, and difficulty napping during the day. These problems exist for not only school age children, but infants as well. Your child needs enough sleep as much as they need enough food.

Don’t be a parent out at the grocery store at 10:00pm with an infant or toddler please. Making schedules work is always a challenge for parents, but no one said parenting was easy. Making sacrifices and compromises for yourself to provide better opportunities for your children is your job now. Your child will be happier and healthier and your life will actually get easier. If you are currently also sleep deprived because of a child not sleeping through the night, think how much better you’ll feel after a full night’s rest. Let’s all agree to help each other out and do better for our kids. Now, it’s time to go to bed.

This post originally appeared on dadontherunblog. DadOnTheRun features stories and lessons learned by new father of twins, runner, technologist, and homebrewer Tyler. When Tyler isn’t running after his 1-year old twins, he’s running in half marathons and marathons, or out in the woods with his rescue dog, Hershey. Follow DadOnTheRun on Facebook or Twitter.