Help! My toddler won't go to sleep!

Are you putting your toddler to bed at the wrong time? Research out of the University of Colorado suggests you're doing it all wrong.

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Gillian gets some sleep. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children.

“But I’m not tired!” my three-year-old daughter shouts nearly every single night at bedtime — even on the nights when she’s got bags under her eyes and her crabby disposition tells me otherwise. Bedtimes are a battle in my house. As early as infancy, Gillian was a rotten sleeper, her brother, Isaac, was no better when he was the same age.

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On weeknights, our bedtime routine starts shortly after 7:00 p.m. — and even sooner on the days when the kids seem more wrung out than usual. But new research from the University of Colorado Boulder suggests that the clock shouldn’t rule what time kids go to bed. They believe that melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone, is the best indicator of when kids should call it a night.

Over a six-night period, researchers studied the sleep patterns of 14 toddlers, plus measured the amount of melatonin in their saliva to see when the hormone increased at night. The increase triggers a biological bedtime, rather than the “I-told-you-so” bedtime set by parents. They discovered that the average rise in melatonin occurred at 7:40 p.m. — 30 minutes earlier than when parents were tucking their kids in for the night. This difference in times explains why some kids — like my own — need one more book or a glass of water: they really aren’t ready to fall asleep yet.

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“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,” says Colorado University Boulder Assistant Professor Monique LeBourgeois.

LeBourgeois points out that there is very little research on the physiology of toddler sleep and how it contributes to sleep problems that may continue into adulthood.

While there’s no realistic way to measure melatonin at home (researchers had the children chew on cotton rolls, which is amazing to me because I can’t even get toothbrushes into my kid’s mouths at night), it does shed some light on why my own toddler fights sleep. I’m not ready to give up on our bedtime routine and let my three-year-old pick her bedtime, but I’ll be more willing to read the one extra story she needs before falling asleep.

No matter how flawless your bedtime routine, so your kids still fight sleep? When is bedtime in your house? Tweet me @jenpinarski.

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