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Fixing sleep issues with 'bedtime fading'

Father reading bedtime story to son
Credit: iStock.com/SeventyFour

If bedtime is a battleground in your home, ‘bedtime fading’ may provide the answer.

If you put your child to bed at a time when they aren’t particularly tired, then chances are you will have a problem on your hands.  But sleep experts believe ‘bedtime fading’ is a simple intervention that can be easily implemented by parents, resulting in improvements in sleep and bedtime tantrums.

Put simply, bedtime fading means starting bedtime at the time your child is sleepy and then gradually making their bedtime earlier.

A trial of bedtime fading by Flinders University Child and Adolescent Sleep Clinic experimented with 21 children between 18 months and four years of age, who were known to have difficulty initiating sleep, night waking, or a combination of both.

Mothers took part in two group sessions that included basic sleep education and bedtime fading instruction.

The study found great improvements in the sleep patterns of the children, with a reduction in the time taken to get to sleep, a reduction in the time children woke up in the night and also a significant reduction of tantrums associated with bedtime.

Once you put in the child’s mind that bed is a place for sleep and not for mucking around, you can keep bringing the time forward by 15 minutes and then stop at the point where you are happy with the time they are going to sleep.
Dr Carmel Harrington

Decide the waking time and reset bedtime

Dr Carmel Harrington, Managing Director of Sleep for Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Children's Hospital Westmead, says the basic idea behind bedtime fading is changing the way we sleep by changing the waking time.

“It’s very important, for all of us, if we have a problem getting to sleep at night, that we try to decide what time you want to wake up. If you want to wake up at 6am, then set the alarm for 6am because that’s when we set our biological clock. So, when we get up and are exposed to light, we stop production of melatonin and we set up the routine for the next 24 hours,” Dr Harrington says.

“So the idea with bedtime fading is you decide what time you want your child to wake up. For example, if you need your child to wake up at 7am, then get your child up at 7am and then gradually reset the night time. 

“What happens is the child will want to go to sleep a bit earlier that night.  So, you bring it forward a little bit every two or three nights. Then, once the time taken to get to sleep is less than fifteen minutes you can bring it forward a bit more.”

Bedtime fading can help with a variety of sleep issues, from night-time waking to difficulty falling asleep. Dr Harrington says bedtime fading is a good option for parents that don’t like the idea of ‘graduated extinction’ or the ‘cry-it-out’ method. 

“Graduated extinction is where you delay your response time to your child’s night waking, in a bid to get them to sleep through the night. It’s seen as a less severe method than the ‘cry-it-out’ method, where children are left to cry for extended periods of time.

“So, for many parents, bedtime fading is a much less distressing method to try.  If your child is waking regularly at 9am and you want them to wake up at 7am, you bring the wake up forward bit by bit – not straight away.  Make sure you keep a sleep diary and see when your child tends to go to sleep and stay asleep.

“If you want your child to go to bed at 7pm but they don’t fall asleep until 8.30pm, then bring the bedtime forward by 15 minutes and, if the child goes to sleep within 15 minutes then leave it for a couple of days. Then, bring the time forward by another 15 minutes, and so on, until you’re satisfied with the time.

“So, if you started at 9pm, bring it to 8.45pm, then to 8.30, then to 8.15.  And you do this gradually so that you’re changing the ‘circadian rhythm’ of the child a bit more.  At the same time, you’re waking them up 15 minutes earlier.”

Minimising stress through bedtime fading

Dr Harrington says bedtime fading is seen as being the most effective method because it is simple to implement and minimises the stress over sleep issues that might be felt by the parent or the child.

But how does bedtime fading compare to the ‘cry-it-out’ and ‘graduated extinction’ methods?

“The graduated extinction method is where you put your child down to sleep, awake.  And when the child starts to cry, you wait for two minutes, then you go in and settle, then you go out again. And then the second wake of the night you wait for four minutes, and then six minutes.  Then on the next night, you wait a minute longer each time so it’s three minutes, then five, then seven and onwards, until you’re satisfied,” Dr Harrington says.

“When it comes to letting your child ‘cry-it-out’, some parents have concerns that the child’s psychological health might be affected or that the parents found letting a child cry for long periods of time was too stressful. So, with that in mind, bedtime fading is seen as less stressful, as well as being very effective.”

Dr Harrington says the idea behind bedtime fading is similar to the cognitive therapy methods used for adults with insomnia. 

“You need to restrict the time you stay in bed. For example, if you don’t feel tired until 10pm, there’s no point going to bed at 8pm. We use the same method with children, but slightly different. Once you put in the child’s mind that bed is a place for sleep and not for mucking around, you can keep bringing the time forward by 15 minutes and then stop at the point where you are happy with the time they are going to sleep.

“It is super simple because all you’re doing is moving their bedtime and reducing the time it takes for them to fall asleep, rather than letting the child cry and the parent having to go in and out of the room every few minutes.”

According to Dr Harrington, the main advantage of bedtime fading is that parents don’t feel anxious about having to listen to their child cry, which means both parent and child are less stressed.

 “Most importantly, when it comes to changing your child’s sleeping habits, don’t make huge changes because that will just disrupt the process.”

Bedtime Fading steps:

  1. Record the times when your child went to bed, what time they fell asleep and, if they woke up during the night, at what time. Record this information across five days.
  2. Decide on a waking time for your child and make sure they wake at the same time every day so you reset their body clock.
  3. On day one of trying bedtime fading, push back their bedtime routine of bath and reading by half an hour. This way, your child goes to bed half an hour later than they usually do.
  4. If you notice your child is taking 20-30 minutes to fall asleep, you’ll need to push their bedtime back again the next night, by another half hour.
  5. When you settle on a time that means your child is falling asleep quickly, make sure you follow that routine for at least three days.
  6.   When they’re falling asleep quickly, you can bring their bedtime earlier again, just 15 minutes each day until you’re satisfied with the time.