Sleep is an important part of maintaining good health, but issues with falling asleep aren’t just problems that come with adulthood. Kids can have trouble getting enough rest, and when they can’t sleep… you can’t sleep.
Bedtime can become a battle zone when little ones won’t settle in and fall asleep. But there are ways to even the odds of victory. Try using these 10 tips to learn how to fight the battle… and win!
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1. Set an individualized bedtime
School-age children need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep each night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. 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.
Early risers will still rise early even if you put them to bed later, and night owls won’t fall asleep until their bodies are ready.
That’s why it’s important for parents to work with their children in setting a responsible bedtime that allows them to get plenty of sleep and awake on time, says Ashanti Woods, MD, a pediatrician in Baltimore, Maryland.
2. Set a wake-up time
Set a wake-up time based on how much sleep your child needs and what time they go to bed. Woods recommends creating a wake-up routine as early as the preschool years to help prevent stress for parents down the road.
And remember to be consistent with the schedule. Allowing your child to sleep later on weekends is generous, but could backfire in the long run.
Those extra hours of sleep will make it hard for their body to feel tired at bedtime. But if you can try to make bedtime and wake-up time the same, within an hour or so every day, you’ll be making everyone’s lives sooooo much easier.
3. Create a consistent bedtime routine
Routines are especially important for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Woods recommends that after dinner the remainder of the evening should include light playtime, bath, brushing teeth, a bedtime story, and then bed.
Aim for a routine that is comforting and relaxing, setting the ideal bedtime atmosphere. Before long, your child’s body may automatically start to become sleepy at the beginning of the routine.
4. Turn off the screens at least 2 hours before bedtime
Melatonin is an important piece of sleep-wake cycles. When melatonin levels are at their highest, most people are sleepy and ready for bed.
Watching TV, playing video games, or scrolling web pages on a phone or computer right before bed keep your child up an extra 30 to 60 minutes, according to this 2017 study.
Make the bedroom a screen-free zone or at least make sure all screens are dark at bedtime. And keep your phone on silent when you’re in your child’s room — or don’t carry it in there at all.
Instead of screen time, Abhinav Singh, MD, director of the Indiana Sleep Center, recommends reading to your child in the evening to allow their brain to rest.
5. Reduce stress before bedtime
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 pre-bedtime activities calm. This can help avoid excess amounts of cortisol in your child’s system. “You need to reduce stress to make it easier to fall asleep,” says Dr. Sarah Mitchell, chiropractor and sleep consultant.
6. Create a sleep-inducing environment
Soft sheets, room darkening shades, and relative quiet can help your child differentiate between day and night, making it easier to fall asleep.
“Creating a sleep-inducing environment is important because it sets the stage for sleep by reducing distractions,” says Mitchell. “When you’re calm you are not distracted, and can fall asleep more quickly and with less help.”
7. Keep it cool
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.
However, you can help regulate the external temperature. Don’t bundle your child up too much or set the heat too high.
Whitney Roban, PhD, clinical psychologist and sleep specialist, recommends dressing your child in breathable cotton pajamas and keeping the bedroom temperature around 65 to 70°F (18.3 to 21.1°C) at night.
8. Help alleviate fears
Ghosts and other scary creatures may not actually roam around at night, but instead of dismissing bedtime fears, address them with your child.
If simple reassurance doesn’t work, try using a special toy to stand guard at night or spray the room with “monster spray” before bed.
Roban recommends scheduling time during the day to address any fears and avoiding using bedtime for these type of conversations.
“Children are very smart and will quickly learn that they can stall bedtime if they use the time to express their bedtime fears,” she says.
9. Reduce the focus on sleep
Kids can have trouble shutting their brains off for the night. So, instead of increasing that anxiety by insisting that it’s time to go to bed (“now!”), consider focusing more on relaxation and keeping your child calm.
Tryteaching your child a deep breathing technique to calm their body. “Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, exhale through your mouth for 6 seconds,” says Roban.
Younger children can just practice taking long, deep breaths in and out, she says.
10. Be on the lookout for sleep disorders
Sometimes, your best-laid plans just don’t yield the results that you want. (Hello, welcome to parenthood!)
If your child has trouble falling asleep, has persistent nightmares, snores, or breathes through their mouth, they might have a sleep disorder, says Mitchell.
Always talk to your pediatrician if you have any concerns about your child’s sleeping habits. They may recommend a sleep consultant or have other suggestions for you to try so the entire family can get a good night’s sleep!
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