Bedtime for Brianna: Get It Right!

A new study examines the relationship between melatonin secretion and children’s sleep patterns.

Early bedtimes set by parents can backfire, putting children at risk for insomnia.

If baby cries when you put her to bed, you may be putting her to bed too earlyPeter, who owns a bookstore, is convinced his insomnia began because of his parents’ insistence that he go to bed too early.

“Being forced to go to bed when I wanted to stay up was really hard,” he said. “It was a physical sensation: all I wanted to do was be up and moving around. Instead I had to lie quietly in bed. It got me in the habit of thinking a lot. Now my problem is that I just can’t turn my mind off.”

A new study that examines the relationship between melatonin secretion and children’s sleep patterns suggests that bedtimes set by parents can put children at risk for insomnia. The influence starts as early as toddlerhood.

“This study is the first to show that a poor fit between bedtimes selected by the parents of toddlers and the rise in their evening melatonin production increases their likelihood of nighttime settling difficulties,” said lead investigator Monique LeBourgeois of University of Colorado Boulder in an interview with ScienceDaily.

Importance of Melatonin Onset

The hormone melatonin is a key player in the body’s sleep system. In adults, melatonin secretion begins about two hours before we feel sleepy enough to nod off. But the timing of melatonin onset varies a lot from person to person and is determined mainly by our genes. So some people like to go to bed early while others like to stay up late.

About 25 percent of toddlers and preschoolers have problems settling at bedtime: trouble falling asleep, tantrums, or coming out of the bedroom repeatedly to ask for attention. LeBourgeois and her colleagues wondered if these behaviors might be related to differences in the timing of melatonin secretion.

They enlisted the participation of 14 families with children ages 2 ½ to 3 to find out. To ascertain when the toddlers’ melatonin secretion began, the researchers collected saliva samples over a period of 6 hours by getting them to chew on dry cotton rolls while playing games.

What They Found

Melatonin onset did vary among the children, with the average onset occurring at about 7:40 p.m.–about 30 minutes before parent-preferred bedtimes. Once in bed, the toddlers whose secretion started early fell asleep fairly soon. But those put to bed before their rise in melatonin took 40 to 60 minutes to fall asleep.

“For these toddlers, laying in bed awake for such a long time can lead to the association of bed with arousal, not sleep,” LeBourgeois said. “This type of response may increase children’s lifelong risk for insomnia over time.”

Help Your Child Settle Down at Night

  • Postpone bedtime for 30 minutes to an hour. Your child will then wake up that much later in the morning.
  • Establish a consistent bedtime routine.
  • Turn lights down in the evening. Light exposure blocks secretion of melatonin in adolescents and adults. So dimming lights in the evening may help trigger earlier melatonin secretion in toddlers.
  • Turn lights up full force in the morning. Exposure to bright light upon awakening helps adults get to sleep earlier at night, and it may have the same effect on tots.

Can you trace your sleep problems back to childhood? If so, what do you think triggered them?