Sleep plays a huge and important role in the growth and development of young children. Understanding sleep regulation in infants and young children helps us provide the necessary support to establish healthy sleep habits.
One of the key factors influencing sleep regulation in young children is their circadian rhythm aka the “internal body clock.” A circadian rhythm is a biological process that repeats roughly every 24 hours. Our circadian rhythm is influenced by several external cues, with light-dark being the most important. Other cues include meal times and social activities. The circadian rhythm first develops around 12 weeks of age. In infants, these rhythms develop over the first several months of life. It can take up to age 6 months to have a fully developed circadian rhythm. This development explains why young children tend to have irregular sleep patterns and may experience difficulty in falling asleep or staying asleep through the night.
For more information about melatonin in children, take a look here.
Another essential factor in sleep regulation is sleep-wake homeostasis. Basically, this is the buildup of sleep pressure (sleepiness) across the day. The longer a child is awake the more sleep pressure she has and the easier it should be to fall asleep. As young children engage in various activities, their bodies accumulate sleep pressure, resulting in an increased need for sleep. When this sleep pressure reaches a certain threshold, it triggers the urge to sleep. This helps ensure that children obtain the rest their bodies need to grow and develop appropriately. Sleep pressure decreases rapidly as children sleep overnight or during naps so they wake up energized. Recognizing the signs of sleepiness in your child should help to establish age-appropriate nap and bedtime routines. Check out this post to make sure your little one is getting enough sleep.
The environment in which infants and young children sleep also influences their sleep regulation. Temperature, noise levels, lighting, and comfort can significantly impact their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Creating a sleep-friendly environment involves maintaining a cool and quiet space, minimizing exposure to stimulating activities or screens close to bedtime, and providing a safe sleeping area. For help setting up a solid bedtime routine, check out this post.
Knowing how sleep is regulated, we can use this knowledge to set up our little ones with healthy sleep habits. I believe one of the most important things you can do to set up a strong foundation is to create routines around sleep. Consistency helps synchronize your little one’s circadian rhythm, and routines cue that it is time to sleep. Creating a predictable bedtime routine signals to children that sleep is approaching. Furthermore, setting a regular wake-up time can help regulate sleep-wake homeostasis and establish a consistent sleep schedule. With time, these practices help young children develop healthy sleep habits that contribute to your little one thriving.
If you are struggling to set up an age-appropriate sleep schedule or have questions about how to help your child get the best sleep possible, I’d love to connect with you. Please reach out to me here.