Earlier Bedtimes: The Key to Managing Sleep Regressions


During a particularly rough sleep regression that involved awful naps, my husband and I wondered if an earlier bedtime might be our saving grace.

How do earlier bedtimes help sleep regressions? Earlier bedtimes are key in sleep regression (disturbance) management. Earlier bedtimes help “reset” a child’s sleep clock, settle sleep debt, and help children get adequate sleep.

In other words, earlier bedtimes are the key to helping cranky babies get adequate sleep. Want help figuring it all out? Let’s talk it through.

Why An Earlier Bedtime Is Key During Sleep Regressions

Because of the way our brains are wired, a good night’s sleep is comprised of a string of 60-120 minute sleep cycles. After each sleep cycle, it’s totally normal for us to wake up enough to make sure that you’re safe and secure before you go back to sleep.

As adults, we’ve gotten so used to this pattern that it doesn’t even phase us anymore. But with babies? This is still very new – and some infants need extra help to get back to sleep – especially if they’ve woken up somewhere that they didn’t fall asleep. I mean, how would you feel if you went to sleep in your bed and woke up anywhere else? I’d be terrified!

So for most babies who experience sleep regression, it’s right in line with these normal wake times. There will still be an underlying cause like a time change, a vacation, or learning a new developmental task.

But going back to the way our brains are wired, once we get woken up? We are far more likely to keep waking up. And that leaves us exhausted, overtired, and super cranky. This exhaustion is also called sleep debt.

Now, as much as I’d like to imagine that I’m erasing sleep debt by sleeping in on a Saturday morning, that’s just not the case.

In fact, the only way for our brains to really recover from sleep debt (sleep deprivation) is to go to bed earlier.

Earlier Bedtimes Mean Better Sleep

By going to bed earlier, our bodies are able to enter a longer sleep cycle (think REM and deep sleep) that will help us recover our cognitive function after being sleep deprived. It doesn’t erase the sleep debt, but it does help us get past it.

Then, we can use that to help us set a better, more sustainable schedule so that we do not have to worry about accruing sleep debt anymore.

Well, it’s the exact same scenario for our babies. Or, as it’s said so often in the sleep training books, “sleep begets sleep.” So if you want your baby to get over sleep regression, an earlier bedtime is the key.

What Time Should This Earlier Bedtime Be?

Well, in order to have an early bedtime, first we need to know what time the regular bedtime should be. So, let’s look at this handy table that I compiled after extensive sleep-related research.

Table: Average Sleep Requirements By Age

AgeNumber of NapsAverage Nap LengthWake Time Between NapsBedtimeNighttime Sleep RequirementsSleep Required Each 24 Hours
Birth to 6 weeks4-815 minutes to 4 hours45 minutes to an hourBetween 9-11 PM8-14 hours14-18 hours
6 weeks to 3 months3-430 minutes to 2 hours1 to 2 hoursBetween 8-11 PM8-13 hours11-15 hours
3-6 months31-2 hoursabout 2 hours8-10 PM9-12 hours12-16 hours
6-9 months31-2 hours2-3 hours8-10 PM9-12 hours12-14 hours
12-18 months1-21-2 hours3 hours7-8 PM10-12 hours12-14 hours
18 months to 3 years11-2 hoursN/A7-8 PM10-12 hours11-14 hours
Preschoolers0N/AN/A7-8 PM10-13 hours10-13 hours
Grade schoolers0N/AN/A7-8 PM9-12 hours9-12 hours
Teenagers0N/AN/A8-10 hours8-10 hours

Please keep in mind that these are averages. That means that there will be those who don’t quite fit within the mold, and that’s still okay. You’ll know it’s okay because your child will still be getting enough sleep to learn, grow, and develop without being total cranky pants.

Example: Our oldest son stopped napping at 15 months old. In order to help him get the sleep he needed, his bedtime was moved to between 6-6:30 PM (and as early as 5:30 some days!) to compensate for lost naps. Even with the earlier bedtimes, his wake up time stayed the same (between 6:30-7 AM).

So if you need to adjust, do it. But knowing these averages gives us an idea of what earlier is: it’s anything before the averages listed above.

Some children will do better with an earlier bedtime of only 15 minutes. Others will need a bedtime that’s 45-60 minutes earlier.

In general, the average time children need for an earlier and more restorative bedtime is by 30 minutes.

So if your child normally goes to bed at 7 PM, during sleep regressions that bedtime would become a temporary 6:30 PM. Once your child has recovered from their sleep debt, the bedtime would move back to 7 PM.

Here’s how to move the bedtime earlier without it becoming an issue.

How to Move Bedtimes Earlier (and Later!)

Now, in my experience (and it’s backed by all extensive research), jumping a bedtime by 30 minutes in either direction will not immediately help. Instead, use these steps to move your bedtime earlier.

  1. Use the chart above to look up the average bedtime and total sleep needed for your child’s age group.
  2. From your current bedtime, move bedtime up in increments of only 15 minutes.
  3. Monitor what time your baby wakes up (both from naps and in the morning) and watch for signs of being overtired.
  4. Use natural daylight and exercise to help baby get into the swing of normal daytime routines. Even just taking your baby for a walk can help with this.
  5. Evaluate your bedtime routine – is it relaxing or overstimulating? Make changes as needed.
  6. Keep adjusting and going until both the bedtime and morning wake time are at a sustainable and reasonable time.

Once the sleep debt and sleep regression have been addressed, you can use these same exact steps to move the bedtime back to where it belongs.

Putting Baby to Bed Earlier Affects How Long They Sleep

So does putting the baby to bed earlier help them sleep longer? As long as the earlier bedtime is a temporary measure, it definitely does help them sleep longer.

That being said, how it affects what time your baby wakes up will depend.

  • Some children that are waking up too early as part of the sleep regression will end up sleeping longer.
  • Children that seem to have a set wake-up time (no matter their sleep regression or sleep debt status) probably won’t see a change in what time they wake up.
  • Some children that used to sleep in later may end up waking up at a more normal time.

In any case, an earlier bedtime seems to push bedtimes towards a more reasonable and sustainable wake-up time – usually sometime between 6-7:30 AM.

Next let’s chat about what to do if it’s earlier than that – or if 6 AM is “too early” in your book, too.

What To Do When Earlier Bedtimes (and Sleep Regressions) Turn Into Too-Early Mornings

Wake-up times are guided by our circadian rhythms. Thankfully, there is some wiggle room in adjusting your child’s wake-up time, whether they’re mid-sleep regression or not.

A quick note: if your child naturally wakes up at 7, you’re probably not going to be able to train them to sleep until 9 or 10 AM. And if your child naturally wakes at 9 AM, it may take a while to help them learn to wake up in time for school.

For us, we decided between 6:30-7 AM was going to be our wake-up time. Then, we used these guidelines to help us get there.

TriggerRationaleWhat To Do About It
Negative Sleep Associations (sleep props)Look for any props or negative sleep associations that could be keeping your baby from staying asleep.Slowly remove negative sleep associations by use of gradual, behavioral sleep training.
Late BedtimeBedtimes that are too late can cause baby to be overtired, which can cause baby to wake up easier.Sleep begets sleep: move bedtime up (in 15-minute increments) to help your baby get better, more restful sleep.
Early BedtimeEarly bedtimes are a great short-term way to help get more sleep. Used too long, though, your baby’s natural sleep-wake cycle can adjust to be a too-early riser.Slowly move bedtime back in 15-minute increments until the morning wake time resolves.
Naps Aren’t ReliableWhen babies don’t get adequate sleep, they’re more apt to wake up both during the night and earlier in the morning.Use gradual, behavioral sleep training to help your baby take more restorative naps. If your child won’t nap, consider moving the bedtime to compensate.
Early Morning PlaytimeBabies love playtime. So if they’re getting a great response from parents each morning, they’re going to want to keep waking up early.Until it’s the official wake-up time, keep things boring, dark, and calm.
Baby Is HungryA growing, hungry baby can’t sleep well – if at all. They may wake up earlier for a while, especially during a growth spurt.Feed the baby. Keep things dark, boring, and calm to help them drift back off to sleep.
Bright BedroomsSome bedrooms stay light longer in the evenings, while others get light earlier in the mornings. This natural light can be waking up your precious baby.Consider installing blackout curtains to help your baby fall (and stay) asleep easier and longer. Be sure to open the curtains each day to let in the natural light.
Sleep RegressionYour baby may have learned a new skill, begun teething, or something else that’s waking them up too frequently or early.Try to isolate the cause so you can address it. Then, use behavioral sleep training to reemphasize good sleep hygiene.

Now, a quick note about the wake-up times… while I’ve found that the average wake-up time is between 6-7:30 AM, that’s just the average. Some kids sleep later – and go to bed later. That’s totally fine. Find what works for you. Then, adjust as needed – especially as school comes into the picture!

What To Do About Sleep Regressions, Naps, And An Earlier Bedtime

Finally, let’s address what to do about naps as they relate to earlier bedtimes and sleep regressions.

For many people, naps are a huge part of the issue – because a child with sleep debt (sleep-deprivation) may or may not be able to nap well. Odds are your child will suddenly nap very well (in an attempt to recover from the sleep debt) or they’ll suddenly have awful naps.

In either case, the earlier bedtime is still the key.

Should I Wake Baby From a Late Nap? This is the one time where it’s okay to wake a sleeping baby – especially from a late nap. You want to make sure that the earlier bedtime happens. So expect to wake your baby up from the late nap at least 30-60 minutes before the earlier bedtime.

Should I Let My Baby Nap Before Bedtime? This will depend on your baby: can they handle the extra nap? Mine never could. In fact, they ended up waking up even crankier than before the nap. In our case, we ended up moving the bedtime even earlier for several days – and that fixed the problem.

In other words, keep your focus on the earlier bedtime. It will take a few days (or even weeks) to get the sleep debt or regression under control, but then the naps will naturally improve, too.

Hang in there. It’s rough but it does get better.

Related Questions

Is 5:30 PM Too Early For Bedtime? Generally, 5:30 PM is considered too early for children to go to bed. However, it may be appropriate in some short-term cases where a child isn’t getting adequate sleep.

Is 8 PM Too Late For Bedtime? It depends on the age and sleep requirement of the person. Between 7-8 PM is considered a pretty normal bedtime for most children. For newborns (up to 3 months old), 8 PM might be too early.

What Is Purple Crying? Purple Crying is persistent colic or crying that is both common and frustrating in newborns. Each episode may last for several hours. Purple crying self-resolves between 3-5 months of age.

Kimberly C. Starr, RN BSN

I’m a ginger-haired nurse (RN, BSN) who loves getting enough sleep to be a functional parent to my four wonderful kids - who are even more wonderful when they’ve gotten enough sleep, too. To read more about me, click here.

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