Possible reasons range from travelling, falling sick or frequent late nights, all of which may throw junior’s body clock out of whack. This will affect the natural production of melatonin ― a hormone that adjusts the body’s circadian rhythm and boosts their ability to sleep through the night.
“Melatonin is a natural hormone made in the pineal gland, a pea-sized gland just above the middle part of the brain,” explains Dr Michael Lim, senior consultant (Paediatric Pulmonary Medicine and Sleep Division) at the National University Hospital.
He adds, “The pineal gland switches on to produce melatonin when darkness occurs at night, and melatonin is released into the blood ― causing increased sleepiness. Melatonin levels fall back to very low or negligible amounts by the morning, when the sun comes up again.”
As melatonin plays a crucial role in regulating one’s sleep-wake cycle, triggering its natural production will help your toddler resume their healthy sleep routine. Here are several strategies to try…
1. Prioritise a regular sleep routine (over melatonin-rich foods)
Dr Lim says of foods containing melatonin, “There is a lot of advice on the Internet about consuming tryptophan-rich foods (such as milk) to help one sleep. Tryptophan is an amino acid which helps the brain produce the chemicals serotonin and melatonin ― both of which aid with sleep.”
However, he notes that the amount of tryptophan reaching the brain (from consuming such foods) is tiny, and in truth, insufficient to help with sleep. Additionally, serotonin from foods such as bananas does not cross the blood-brain barrier, and therefore, does not reach the brain, he explains.
“I would also not advocate for the use of melatonin supplements to help toddlers sleep,” he adds. “The establishment of a regular sleep routine and conducive sleep environment are far more important than the effects of specific foods in boosting sleep.”
“Given that our bodies naturally produce melatonin when the sun goes down, an early bedtime of between 7 to 8pm is really the best window for your child to fall asleep easily.”
2. Establish a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine
Noting that parents should establish a regular bedtime routine that occurs at the same time each night, Dr Lim says, “Consistent bedtime routines are important to transition from high levels of activity to a sleep-friendly state. Consistency leads to quicker sleep onset and improved sleep at night, as the child’s sleep-wake schedule is regularised.”
Baby and child sleep specialist Zoe Chu of SG Supernanny notes that a child’s bedtime routine should be relaxing and pleasant. This enables your toddler to wind down as they transition from day to night, increasing the production of melatonin.
3. Ensure that bedtime is early
Chu says, “Given that our bodies naturally produce melatonin when the sun goes down, an early bedtime of between 7 to 8pm is really the best window for your child to fall asleep easily. It also helps reduce the sleep debts accumulated from any disturbed sleep that your toddler may be experiencing.”
When this happens, it’s important to be firm and persistent. Set strict rules about turning in early, also, refuse to entertain their requests for more playtime.
4. Expose your child to natural light during the day
Though it should be dark and silent at night, natural light and activity is essential in the day.
Elevated nighttime melatonin levels rely on low melatonin production during the day.
So, exposing your child to bright light in the morning and afternoon helps suppress daytime melatonin levels. As a result, your child remains alert in the day and is sleepy at night.
Therefore, maximise junior’s daylight exposure by taking him outdoors as much as possible. Bring him to the park, beach or an outdoor playground for a healthy dose of vitamin D. During the day, do also ensure that the house is brightly lit, and that naps are taken with the curtains or blinds open.
5. Let your child fall asleep on their own
“Allow your child to fall asleep without your help or presence, so that they can connect to their next sleep cycle on their own,” says Chu. “This is essentially the key to getting your child to sleep well and through the night.”
For children who have not learnt to sleep by themselves after age 1, getting them to start doing so may be especially challenging. They may wake up frequently during the night, and call out for an adult to soothe them back to sleep, Dr Lim observes.
When this occurs, he advises against offering night feeds or giving them attention when they wake up, as these negative reinforcements will hinder their ability to self-settle.
6. Ditch devices before bedtime
Chu advises that children should stop playing with gadgets or watching TV before bedtime. The blue light emitted from the screen they stare at will be too stimulating and also inhibits melatonin production, she warns.
Dr Lim states, “Any device with an electronic screen (eg TVs and mobile phones) should be taken out of your toddler’s room, as they might provide light exposure that suppresses the evening melatonin surge.”
7. Maintain a dark and quiet sleep environment
When it comes to your toddler’s sleep environment, darkness is your friend. This is because artificial light suppresses the production of melatonin, which stops junior from falling asleep.
Chu notes, “Ensure that their room is completely dark ― even a night light is not recommended.”
If your child wakes up really early because sunlight is streaming into their room, consider installing blackout curtains or getting sleep masks for them. Besides keeping the sleep environment dark, make sure it’s quiet, too.
So, at night, keep your voice low, conduct conversations out of your child’s earshot and turn down the TV volume, especially if your toddler’s room is close to the living room.
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