Sleep trouble isn’t just an adult problem; kids have trouble getting to sleep, too. And they usually keep their parents up with them! Bedtime can become a battle when little bodies don’t abide by the clock. Here are 10 tips to learn how to win the fight.
School-age children need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep each night, but there’s a lot of variability in sleep needs and patterns. Most kids have patterns that don’t change much, no matter what you do. An early riser will still get up early even if you put them to bed later, and a night owl won’t usually fall asleep until their body is ready. Know how much sleep your child needs to wake up refreshed and set an appropriate bedtime.
If you know how much sleep your child needs and what time they go to bed, it’s simple math to set a daily wake-up time. Allowing your child to sleep a little later on weekends and holidays is generous, but it can set you up for a long, sleepless night. Those extra hours of sleep will affect your child like jet-lag, making it hard for their body to feel tired at bedtime. Keep bedtime and wake-up time the same, within and hour or so, every day.
Routines are especially important for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Doing specific things before bed, such as a bath or story time, signal to your child what’s coming next. Knowing what comes next is comforting and relaxing, setting the perfect bedtime atmosphere. Before long, your child’s body may automatically start to become sleepy at the beginning of their routine.
Research has shown that the light from a television screen, phone, or computer monitor can interfere with the production of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is an important piece of sleep-wake cycles. When melatonin levels are at their highest, most people are sleepy and ready for bed. Just a half an hour of TV or other screen time before bed can disrupt that enough to keep your child up an extra two hours. Make the bedroom a screen-free zone or at least make sure all screens are completely dark from bedtime on. Phones are better left out of the bedroom at night.
Another hormone that plays a role in sleep is cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” When cortisol levels are high, your child’s body won’t be able to shut down and go to sleep. Keep before bedtime activities calm, the lights dim, and the environment quiet. This can help avoid excess amounts of cortisol in your child’s system.
While a stuffed animal can make it easier for your child to sleep, too many toys can make it harder. Soft sheets, room-darkening shades, and relative quiet can help your child differentiate between day and night, making it easier to fall asleep.
Your child’s sleep cycle isn’t just dependent on light (or the lack thereof). It’s also sensitive to temperature. Melatonin levels help to regulate the drop of internal body temperature needed to sleep, but you can help regulate the external temperature. Don’t bundle your child up too much or set the heat too high; typical room temperature or a little cooler is better to promote deep sleep.
Instead of dismissing bedtime fears, address them. If simple reassurance doesn’t work, you can try buying a special toy to stand guard at night or spray the room with “monster spray” before bed. (A can of air freshener with a creative new label works well.)
Just like adults, kids can have trouble shutting their brains off for the night. Instead of increasing that anxiety by insisting it’s time to sleep, consider focusing more on the idea of relaxation and calming your child’s body down.
If, despite your best efforts, your child continues to have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or persistent nightmares or night terrors, they might have a genuine sleep disorder. Talk to their pediatrician about your concerns.