The Barrier to Calm Bedtimes: The Forbidden Sleep Zone! by Ann Caird

The typical bedtime advice is to calm children down after their tea, dim the lighting and engage in relaxing and calm activity – and then snuggle and connect as you read the bedtime stories.

You would think it was easy wouldn’t you? In theory it sounds easy enough! But if you struggle with the typical calm evening you are not alone. Many of the families I work with experience the same problems.

Evening and bedtimes can be quite problematic because the general calming and winding down advice doesn’t consider the flow of daily circadian rhythms and the little talked about forbidden sleep zone! However, when we start to work with our children’s energy rather than against it, bedtimes can improve.

What is the forbidden zone for sleep?

The forbidden sleep zone is the time zone before bedtime when its almost impossible to fall asleep. It happens due to the interaction of 2 biological processes that drive our wake and sleep cycles: the homeostatic sleep drive and circadian alerting system.

Our homeostatic sleep drive starts building as soon as we wake up and throughout the day sleep pressure builds until the pressure is pretty high towards the end of the day. But, you’ll notice that you don’t feel increasingly sleepier as the day goes on. We may feel a dip in energy after lunch, but typically we can be as alert 3-4 hours before our usual bedtime as when we woke at 7am in the morning. But that doesn’t make sense does it? If the homeostatic sleep pressure builds up surely we’d feel increasingly sleepier as the day goes on?

Enter the circadian alerting system – controlled by our biological clocks. The job of our circadian alerting system is to keep us awake as the day wears on to counteract the homeostatic sleep drive. So, as the pressure builds for sleep, the circadian alerting system intensifies to keep us alert and awake. The alerting system peaks and works hardest towards the end of the day – and it’s this peak that is responsible for your child’s high energy at the end of the day. It presents within a child almost like a second wind– and this is the forbidden sleep zone!

There is no way your child will calm and become sleepy during the forbidden sleep zone!

Whats the answer?

First, check the timing of naps – even babies will have a longer wakeful time towards the end of the day before their longest sleep once their circadian clocks have developed. Ensure the wake time between the last nap is optimal. To do this – observe; over several days track your child’s energy and activity levels towards the end of the day. It’s common for babies and young children to trick you by becoming tired just before their tea, and then get ‘second wind’ of the forbidden sleep zone following through after their tea.

Once you have identified the variation in energy and activity – Go with the energy!

Despite the traditional advice, I find that most babies and young children (and parents!) LOVE a rough and tumble, high energy play time before bath time, stories and bed! And its not just play for plays sake; there are many advantages of play before bedtime:

It releases the stress of the day: we all know that energetic play provides us with a feel-good factor!

  • It releases energy: yes – release that energy through rough and tumble play so your child doesn’t feel twitchy with pent up energy as you move her into the bath and bedtime routine.
  • It builds connection: playing together, laughing, enjoying each other’s company builds connection. It fills your child’s love and connection cup before the big separation at bedtime;
  • It builds co-operation: building connection and enjoying play together will communicate to your child that you’re on his side. As a result, you may just find that he’s on your side too as you move into the bedtime routine.
  • It releases big feelings and emotions before bedtime: pent up emotions from the day – frustrations, separations, disappointments can all dissolve through a connection play;
  • It may trigger an emotional cry: and that’s a good thing! When you invite your child to play and laugh with you, you create a context of emotional safety where feelings and emotions freely bubble to the surface. Like us adults, children may cry when they feel safe to cry. Listening to and supporting crying before bedtime will build connection, and support your child’s sleep.
  • Play is fun and relaxing for both parent and children, and brings them together as a connected and happy team, as you then move into your bedtime routine.

You can find more great information on parenting benefits of play, in Lawrence Cohen’s book Playful Parenting.

So, instead of going against the energy, flow with the energy! Use it positively to enhance the connection between you and your child before the big separation at bedtime.

Believe me, many a sleep problem has been resolved through play before bedtime!

Reading and resources:

The Drive to Sleep and our internal Clock (http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/science/how/internal-clock)
Forces that control sleep and wakefulness (http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/interactive/sleep-forces)
Ferber, R. (2006). Solve your child’s sleep problems. Random House.
Pereira, J.C., & Alves, R.C. (2011): The Forbidden Zone for Sleep might be caused by th evening thyrotropin surge, and its biological purpose is to enhance survival: A Hypothesis. On line: http://www.sleepscience.com.br/pdf/articles/vol4/SleepScience_vol4_issue03_art05.pdf

Disclaimer: The purpose of this article is to inform and not for medical diagnoses or treatment. Please contact a health care professional if you have concerns about your child’s health.

Learn more 

Attachment Parenting’s accredited Positive Discipline course, suitable for parents, carers and anyone working with children, includes modules on sleep and a wide range of positive discipline topics in 10 flexible interactive modules.

 Ann Caird

Ann Caird

About the Author

Ann Caird is the founder of Nurturing Sleep, a holistic baby and child sleep consultancy. She has 30 years experience working with families, babies and young children in various roles including early childhood practitioner, postnatal doula, Happiest Baby Educator, and baby and child sleep consultant. She has 2 sleep certifications, as well as a BA (Distinction) in Child and Youth Studies and various childcare qualifications.

The main focus of Ann’s sleep work is the Emotional Wellbeing of babies, children and parents in relation to sleep. Her holistic approach respects the child’s feelings and emotions around sleep, and her goal is for babies and young children feel emotionally safe, happy and reassured in relation to sleep.

Ann has developed the Emotional Wellbeing foundation for baby and child sleep and now teaches and mentors sleep consultants internationally. Ann works with families with babies and young children up to the age of 5 years.