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, and different ones to help us rest at night. 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. Evolutionarily this really helped us. Cave-people who did not fall asleep with the setting sun were probably fighting off predators or needed that extra boost to stay alert in the face of danger. But now with locks and alarm systems to keep us safe in our beds, ignoring our sleepy-time hormones just leads to trouble. 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.
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:
+ Ear tugging
+ Eye/nose rubbing
+ Back arching
+ Turning their face into your chest
These 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 45 minutes to 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.
Children will be able to stay awake for longer stretches as they get older, but even toddlers should only be awake for around an hour and a half to two hours at a time, so stay aware of the schedule and err on the side of more sleep, not less.
Toddlers have their own quirky little habits 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. We've come to term this as a “second wind”. But you’ll see that soon their mood does a 180 and shifts into crankiness. Now you’ve probably got a big bedtime battle on your hands.
I know that the schedule of "time awake" 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 has 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.”
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. And if you’re not, let’s talk!