Meet the expert: Dr Monique LeBourgeois is a sleep expert and psychologist from the University of Colorado
If you’re dealing with tantrums at bedtime, it could be because your toddlers’ body clock is out of sync. Like a bad case of jet lag, if your little one is taking more than 30 minutes to get to sleep, it’s a clear sign his internal clock isn’t recognising it’s time for bed (even if yours is exhausted!)
“The way your child’s body clock works depends partly on genetics: some of us have a tendency to be ‘morning people’ and some of us have a tendency to be ‘night owls’” explains sleep expert Dr Monique. But even the sleepiest night owls can struggle to nod off and this is down to the cells deep inside our brains, regulated by a hormone called melatonin.
The science of sleep
Far less complicated than it sounds, Dr Monique explains how melatonin guides sleep: ‘Levels are low during the day, increase during the evening and peak at night’. Our levels of melatonin start to rise about two hours before we start to feel sleepy, and by the time those two hours are up, our ‘sleep window’ is open and we find it easy to nod off.
The good news is that in a few simple steps (seven to be precise), you can maximise your little one’s melatonin production, helping him to feel sleepy when you put him down. All of them revolve around increasing the amount of natural light your tot gets: ‘Exposure to natural light helps set his body clock to be alert during the day and sleep at night, so your aim is to maximise this in the daytime’ says Monique.
1. Get those curtains open
Make sure you open his curtains as soon as he’s awake. Play games that mean he spends time looking up to the sky – encourage him to find shapes in the clouds or spot different birds to make it fun.
2. Get outside
Have a go at the who-can-get-ready-to-go-outside-first race every morning. Go for a five-minute wander round the garden or park as early as possible to maximise his exposure to daylight.
3. Re-think lunchtime
Especially during winter when the mornings might be dark, mixing up your lunchtime routine and getting outside for five-minutes before lunch can make all the difference. This doesn’t have to be for a long time: simply extending the walk between the front door and your car can help make his body-clock tick louder.
4. Pick a nursery that has outdoor play
An important question to ask when visiting nurseries: how much time will my child spend outside? Make sure you find a nursery that has outdoor spaces and regular times for outdoor play, so he is active outside in the day light, as well as indoors.
5. Use dimmer switches to control light
It might seem like a drastic step, but changing the light switches upstairs to dimmer switches will allow you to reduce the intensity of light during your bedtime routine. This can help your little one ease into sleep.
6. No Peppa Pig before bedtime
Don’t let your toddler watch TV or play on the iPad in the 90 minutes before bedtime. ‘The bright light these gadgets give off increases alertness and can have a big negative impact on sleep’ says Monique. Opt for a bedtime story instead, which will help your child to unwind without light disruption.
7. Give your tot a glass of milk with dinner
Offer your toddler a glass of milk with his evening meal, rather than juice or water. Milk, along with chicken, turkey and beans, contains an amino acid called tryptophan, and his body clock uses it to make sleep-inducing melatonin.