Staying up late to watch TV or play in the garden, with the chance to lie in the next morning, can mean children’s sleep cycles naturally shift away from the ideal bedtime.
At Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic we see children of all ages who aren’t ready for bed until very late in the evening but then appear tired and cranky during the day. If this is left uncorrected, a late sleep phase might last indefinitely. However, the good news is that once you have recognised the problem, it can be reversed very effectively with a structured programme.
The case study below should help you to get your child back on track whatever their age. Try using the same plan if your child sleeps well but at the wrong times, settling very late in the evening, sleeping through the night, and waking late in the morning.
The sleep problem
Will was almost six years old with an older brother. He had his own bedroom but sometimes slept in his parents’ room.
He had sleep problems from birth. He’d start getting ready for bed at 8pm. One of his parents would go up with him to read him a bedtime story. They would then say goodnight and close his bedroom door.
Will would get up a number of times for books and toys and come downstairs, saying he couldn’t sleep. Eventually, he’d drop off alone in his own bed, but not until 10 or 12pm and sometimes he would sleep-walk! His parents would then have great difficulty waking him every morning at 8am and he’d be tired and grumpy. At weekends he would sleep until 9am, occasionally even 10 or 10.30am.
Sleep-deprivation resulted in Will getting into fights at school and made him tearful. His parents had tried everything they could think of to get him to sleep earlier and for longer, but without success.
We asked the family to keep a sleep diary. It revealed that Will had a late sleep phase problem and sleep deficit, which was contributing to his sleep-walking at night and his moods during the day. He needed about ten and three-quarters hours sleep each night and was currently only having around eight or nine.
We formulated a ‘late sleep phase programme’ which allowed Will to go to bed at whatever time he naturally fell asleep, however late this might be. Then, once he was able to fall asleep within 15-20 minutes of ‘lights out’, his bedtime could be moved forward in 15-minute stages over a period of days. This gave his body clock time to adjust to the earlier sleep time. As with all sleep programmes, it was vital that his parents ensured he had a relaxing bedtime routine lasting no longer than 30 to 45 minutes.
To begin with, Will was even more tired because he was also woken up at 8am every morning including weekends. This was an important part of the plan, as some children catch up on their sleep at weekends, which means they can sleep late again by Monday night.
Will responded very well to the programme and was soon falling asleep each night within 15 minutes of going to bed.
We felt that slow progress was the key in Will’s case, so the 15-minute-earlier changes to his bedtime were made just once a week. However, in the case of a child with a relatively new late sleep problem, perhaps following a holiday or an illness, adjustments to the bedtime could be made every three nights. Remember, though, that each change should only be introduced once the child is falling asleep within 15 to 20 minutes of going to bed.
By the end of two months, Will was asleep most nights by 8.30pm. As he had caught up on his sleep deficit he was no longer sleep-walking and he was a happier, less moody child.
Remember, for this technique to succeed, you must wake your child at a regular time each day, including at weekends.