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How to Shift a Toddler Bedtime

How to Shift a Toddler Bedtime

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

Long time reader and devotee of your column. I read the pregnancy calendar when I was pregnant with my first, read it again during my second, and you are my first stop when trying to sift through the parenting interwebs. I am incredibly grateful to you for condensing down the volumes of “ur doin it wrong” pages into concise, objective information.

We have a 2.5 year-old and a 16 month old, both boys. We used a Ferber/Weissbluth hybrid approach with both and we are not incredibly fortunate in that they both now nap and sleep well. They go to bed on average around 6:30 pm and until recently were waking up around 6:30 am. The baby takes one long nap in the afternoon (2-3 hours or more) and our older son sleeps for 1-1.5 hours, occasionally 2 if he had a particularly exhausting morning.

Over the last few weeks I have noticed that our older son’s nap is getting shorter, sometimes less than an hour, and he sometimes has trouble falling asleep which is almost unheard of for him ever since we sleep trained. I am wondering whether he no longer needs the 12 hour overnight sleep, but Weissbluth still advocates an early bedtime at this age and he is clearly ready for bed by 6:30 pm. If he stays up any later than 7pm he gets classically wound up and hyper, i.e. overtired. He (and therefore his brother, because they share a room and if one wakes up early the other tends to as well and then they giggle and play and keep each other up) has also been waking up uncharacteristically early. Until a month or two ago he slept until 6:30am or 6:45am and lay in bed resting till 7. Lately he has been waking up yelling for us at 6 AM.

My husband and I have been completely, rigidly devoted to their sleep schedules. Having had two kids 15 months apart we had to be and it has been wonderful for them and for us. We have the 6:30 bedtime programmed so rigidly into our heads and have been so thoroughly committed to the Weissbluth system that I literally have no idea how to manage the schedule as their sleep needs change. At what age do they start needing less overnight sleep? How gradually do you shift the bedtime and how do you know if it’s too soon? Or is the 6 AM wakeup a behavioral thing and we have to commit to not going in until 6:30 no matter what?

Many thanks for talking us off the ledge.

Let me preface with a caveat that I don’t have a copy of Weissbluth’s book and am not as deeply familiar with his system and recommendations as I am with say, Ferber or the Sleep Lady. So I’ll be using different source materials, and as we all know, EVERY SLEEP SOURCE MATERIAL IS DIFFERENT AND CONFLICTS WITH EVERY OTHER SLEEP SOURCE MATERIAL.

So you found a sleep system that worked for you, until it stopped working for you. That’s okay! That happens! You’re not doing anything wrong, other than possibly clinging a bit too rigidly to One Particular Way Of Doing Things.

A 2.5 year old does not need 12 hours of overnight sleep. I mean, on AVERAGE. Every kid is different. But according to the broad recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics (found here on the Sleep Lady site), the 12 hour overnight sleep generally drops to 11 or 11.5 between the ages of 18 months and 2.5. Between the ages of 2.5 and 3, overnight sleep drops to 10.5 hours, with a 1.5 hour nap.

(Then overnight sleep bumps back UP once the nap goes away, usually around 3.5/4 years of age.)

Since your son’s sleep habits have only really shifted in the past few weeks, it’s likely that he still needs a bit more overnight sleep than 10.5 hours, but has probably made the first sleep downshift from 12 to 11 hours. You stick with that super-early bedtime, you’re gonna get an earlier wake time. The earlier wake time is probably what’s causing the nap issues because he’s overtired by the time naptime rolls around.

So what needs to change? Well, that’s really your call. Put the books down, step away from the Internet and look at what will work best for your unique whole-family situation, and your particular child.

If you want to stick with the 6:30 p.m. bedtime, you’re going to be stuck with a 6 a.m. waking, and possibly that will shift even earlier as the months go by and his overnight sleep needs drop even more. You’ll need to adjust his naptime and move it earlier in the day.

If the prospect of a kid waking up at 5 a.m. in a few months sounds…not awesome, then yes. I’d suggest moving the bedtime back. I personally feel like 6:30 p.m. is way too early for a 2.5 year old, but that’s just me, as a non-Weissbluth devotee. If that’s what works, that’s what works. But at some point you might want to be eating a family dinner around that time, or have the ability to take him places in the early evening without rushing home before the sun even sets. Shift bedtime later, and hopefully he’ll wake later. And naptime might get back up to 1.5 hours because he’s not overtired and unable to settle down.

How to shift a bedtime? I always went for 10/15 minute increments over the course of a few nights. Just long enough to matter (and not drag the process out too long) but not drastic enough to accidentally hit the overtired amped -up nighttime monster stage on the very first night.

So let’s say you start tonight: 6:30 p.m. bedtime becomes 6:40/6:45. The routine stays exactly the same otherwise. Tomorrow morning, see when he wakes up. If it’s 6 a.m., there could be also something behavioral going on (like a growth spurt), and you’ll want to hold bedtime steady tomorrow night at the 6:40/6:45 mark and see what happens. (It can take a couple nights of the new bedtime for the wake time to change.)

If he sleeps any later than 6 a.m. on any given morning, go ahead and add another 10/15 increment that night. Either way, move his naptime forward to be the same amount of hours apart from his “old” wake time. (For example, if he woke up at 6:45 a.m. before and went down for a nap at 1 p.m, that’s about a six hour “awake” stretch. If he wakes up at 6, he needs to be napping by noon.)

I’m gonna guess 7 p.m. will be best for him right now, and then maybe 7:30 if his naps improve and get back to the 1/1.5 hour length. Either way, eaaaaaase him into the later bedtime and make naps happen a bit earlier. Good luck and may the good sleep force be with you.


Published October 28, 2015. Last updated July 15, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • C

    October 28, 2015 at 11:08 am

    FWIW, mileage may vary, blah, blah, blah….

    My kid gave up napping at home around 2.5/3 years. He still napped for about an hour at daycare, but at home? HA! Wouldn’t happen no matter what we did. So we wound up skipping naps and still keeping an earlyish bedtime and a reasonable wake up. So maybe keep the bedtime you’ve got, but see what happens if he drops a nap.

    (We were lucky that he was ok without the nap and not a holy terror by 4-5pm. If your kiddo gets too wound up, cranky, and/or crazy, then I’d recommend NOT doing what we did. Like I said, mileage may vary.)

  • K

    October 28, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    We just had something like this happen. Except it was a little bit different, because kids cannot apparently all be the same and make this easy. Our (slightly older than yours) toddler decided that he was not going to go to bed at night anymore. And that he was also going to go ahead and wake up at an ungodly early hour. So we went from a rigid 6:30 bedtime to an 8:30 bedtime (with this increment method) and thought “oh my god what will be do with a child that is up this late?!” and I have to tell you – it’s awesome. It does cut into our adult downtime a little bit, but all of a sudden I can actually run an errand in the evening! And we spend more time playing games after dinner, taking longer baths and splashing around, basically we get to see our kid a lot more (he’s in preschool during the day). And he sleeps just a little bit later in the morning (than he actually ever has before), and has settled back down into his nap. SO. All this to say – shifting a toddler’s bedtime a bit later was such a good idea for us, and seemed to solve some of the sleep issues that were cropping up for us. Good luck!

  • Claire

    October 28, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    FWIW our nearly 4yo goes to bed 6.30 ish and wakes 12hrs later. The 2yr old does too but she has a 2hr nap.

    Both have cycled through random early wakings for no damn reason other than screw you sleep!

  • Karen

    October 28, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    I feel like 2.5-3 is when rigid stops working. Consistent, yes. But rigid no. 

  • Amy Renee

    October 28, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    FYI, even if he wasn’t waking up super early, you might want to start shifting bedtimes anyway. Please check my logic, but the time change is coming up this weekend in the US – so if he wakes up at 6 am in Sunday, the clocks will actually say 5 am. So you definitely want to shift him back, otherwise he will be up at 5 am and ready for bed at 5:30 pm. Assuming, of course, I dont have the time change backwards – I’m really bad at calculating that.

    Maybe this would also be a good time to introduce one of those color changing clocks? So if the face is “nighttime” he needs to stay in bed and quiet, and not be up until the “daytime” color. If he wakes at 6 am and is yelling for you – you can point to the clock and tell him to be quiet.

  • Ros

    October 28, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    YMMV and all the rest of it!

    My kid isn’t at that age yet, but my siblings are significantly younger than me (9 and 11 years younger than me, respectively), and I pretty much raised them, so… take it as you will. 

    The original post basically outlines a super clear strategy and timeline that was basically how we handled things for my brother (and how I’m handling things with my 18-month-old to get her to sleep a bit later in the mornings!) So, seconding most of it. 

    In terms of ‘how to’, though, putting the younger child to bed at the agreed-upon hour (say, 6:30), and keeping 6:30-7-whatever as ‘alone with parents’ time can be super great – it’s a time to read and hang out and generally get full parental attention because Big Boy Privileges. (And working the ‘You are a Big Boy and can stay up late and as a Big Boy you can do Special Things like use the potty and help daddy cook dinner and tidy and help mama clean off the car and teach Smaller Child about things’ can be a HUGE incentive for the kid to want to live up to being A Big Boy, because you’ve made it into something fun and interesting and SPECIAL. Worked SUPER WELL with my brother when he was about that age!)

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