Adventures in the No-Fly Zone: Toddler Sleep Problems0

Does your child struggle with falling asleep? Sometimes, changing the time you put her to bed can make it much easier. But you may need to go later or earlier to get the full benefit. Even though it sounds complicated, it doesn’t need to be. Fixing bedtime is one of the best ways to fix toddler sleep problems. Note that I have a whole chapter on finding your child’s ideal bedtime in my book, It’s Never Too Late to Sleep Train. 

Later bedtimes work for a lot of kids

If you’ve read my work for a while, you know I’m a big fan of matching your child’s bedtime very closely to the time she falls asleep. For a lot of kids, this means moving the bedtime later.

Imagine a 3 yo whose parents put her to bed every night at 7pm. This typically produces a short tantrum, then multiple trips out her her room where she demands a cup of water, a cuddle, or another story. In the sleep field, we call these field trips “curtain calls” and they are the hallmark of behavioral insomnia due to limit setting. (For the best curtain call ever, read about a boy you used to throw his glass eye out of his crib).

Eventually, she falls asleep by 8 pm, sweaty and tired. Perhaps her parents feel guilty for yelling at her.

This is a situation where a later bedtime will be helpful. If her parents start moving her bedtime later by 30-40 minutes, (7:30-40pm). This will typically not make her fall asleep later, but it will make bedtime go much better. Sometimes, in sleep training, we even move the bedtime later than that to harness her natural sleep drive— a technique called “bedtime fading”.

Some kids need an earlier bedtime

However, some children actually need to go to bed earlier. This most commonly occurs for children who have a late bedtime— later than 8:30 for most children between late infancy and elementary school. They may be entering into a period that a sleep physiologist named Peretz Lavie called the “forbidden zone”. I think of it as the “no fly zone” because if you are trying to guide your child to calm landing after a long day, you are going to be disappointed.

Every night, I feel pretty tired around 9 PM when my older child goes to bed. If I stay up past 10:30 PM, I get a second wind and I’m wide awake until 11:30 PM in midnight. I’m in the no-fly zone.

This happens to children as well. Here’s an example from a friend and former colleagues Diana Balekian. Diana is an allergist as well as an excellent chef. Check out her excellent blog White Coat Pink Apron— I’m especially fond of her vegan chili recipe). Diana notes, “C is actually not good at nighttime sleeping outside of our house, ever. She went to bed before 9:00 maybe once on our family vacation in Feb. She is also a “spirited”/strong-willed child.” (Comes with the territory when you are 2.5 years old).

Diana wrote about some difficulty she was having with her daughter while staying at her parent’s house during a home renovation. I asked her to write a description of her bedtime routines both at home and at Grandmas house:

Home routine:

Finish dinner around 6:30 PM. Generally one kid or another gets to watch a show (I know, I know) or we do a bath. At 7:15, change into PJs. Usually there are some shenanigans between the two kids, and by 7:30 we start reading 1-4 stories. Then she goes to bed–most recently, she would sometimes want to sleep in her brother’s bed (that was a new thing within a few weeks of moving in with parents). Generally falls asleep by 8:15 latest.

Grandparents house routine:

Dinner at the same time. Same thing re: watching a TV show or getting a bath. 7:15 or 7:30 change into PJs. 7:30 begins the fighting to go up and brush teeth. Read 1-2 books. In bed by 8:00 pm. She is sharing a full sized bed with her 4 yo brother because that’s what has worked out best here (she is afraid of her own room), and he goes to bed closer to 8:30. My husband will occasionally lie down with her for a few mins while she falls asleep. Immediately after leaving the room, yelling begins. At the beginning, my mom would go in every time, but now she only occasionally goes in if it’s very close to when C was put to bed.

Diana initially attributed these issues to Grandma’s involvement at bedtime, or fear of being alone— all good thoughts. Note the curtain calls and the yelling.

After writing me about these routines (and before we spoke), Diana moved her daughter’s bedtime 30 minutes earlier — to the time she was going to bed before– which actually resolved the majority of their problems.

In retrospect, I suspect a lot of the issues Diana and many other issues face on vacation is at least due to the fact that bedtime was moved a bit later. On vacation, it’s best to either keep your home bedtime, or lean into it and accept that your child will probably be going to bed later and shoot for the other side of the no-fly zone. (For more on this, read my article on the painful topic of vacation “sleep”).

In many kids the forbidden zone can be 60-90 minutes long. As one mom said on my Facebook page, “My kid needs to be in bed at either 7:30 pm or 9 pm. There is nothing in between.” Often, this surge in energy is attributed to being “overtired” but it’s more accurate to say say kids who are overtired are experiencing a natural surge in wakefulness and energy— which is VERY ANNOYING to tired parents.

Here’s a short video explaining the relationship between sleep drive and the wakefulness drive

How can you find your child’s best bedtime

  1. Most kids in early childhood benefit from a bedtime in the 7:30-8:30 PM range, provided that this allows them a long enough sleep opportunity to wake up spontaneously in the morning.
  2. If your child is on the earlier end of this range and struggling with bedtime, a later bedtime (by 30 minutes) is often helpful. However, in other children, this can put you in the “no-fly zone” as with the child above.
  3. Writing down your child’s routine often helps you pinpoint the painful sticking points.


For further reading, here are some articles on understanding your child’s sleep drive and body clock.

If you like this content, chapter 5 of my book It’s Never Too Late To Sleep Train will walk you through the best way to find your child’s ideal bedtime and avoid pitfalls and disasters along the way.

Now your turn. Have you found your child’s best bedtime yet? Or are you living in the no-fly zone? Let me know in the comments below

The post Adventures in the No-Fly Zone: Toddler Sleep Problems appeared first on Craig Canapari, MD.

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