Helping Your Child Develop Good Sleep Hygiene
Kids need a lot of sleep. Young children need about 10-13 hours of sleep per day, school-aged children need between 9-12 hours, and teenagers need about 8-10. Although their bodies appear to be at rest during this time (except if they’re sleepwalking!), they are actually hard at work. While children are sleeping, everything they learned throughout the day gets consolidated into their long-term memory (tell that to your teenager next time he wants to pull an all-nighter to study for a test!). Their bodies also release hormones that stimulate growth, repair sore muscles, and regulate mood, attention, and appetite.
Sleep hygiene is a term that refers to good sleep habits. Our bodies make associations between our behavior patterns and sleep routines – and those associations can either help or hurt us! Read on for some guidance on how to help your child maximize restfulness to support their development. And bonus… these tips apply to adults as well!
It pays to stick to the same bedtime and wake time every day (this includes on weekends!). Our bodies adapt to consistent sleep schedules and will naturally become sleepy at bedtime and alert at wake time if they happen at the same time every day. While it may be tempting to stay up late or sleep in on the weekends, this can disrupt circadian rhythms and throw off the whole cycle. So do your best to keep bedtime and wake time consistent, at least within an hour!
Use Beds for Sleeping Only
Our brains make connections between what we do in bed and what mental state to be in. While it may be tempting for kids to snuggle up in bed to do their homework, this habit could train the mind to perk up (or worse, feel stressed out!) every time they hit the sheets. If possible, keep kids out of bed unless it’s time to hit the hay.
Depending on the setup of your home, this may be harder for some families than others. If your child needs to use her bed for other purposes (workspace, play space, etc.), you can still help her brain differentiate between sleep and awake mode by having a particular blanket or pillow that covers the bed during the day but comes off at night. This way she will still have a cue at bedtime that it’s time for her body to settle down, even if she’s been spending time on her bed throughout the day.
Cut the Screens
Studies show that the wavelengths emitted by blue light stimulate alertness. While this is great during the day, it can really mess up the nighttime routine. Unfortunately, all the devices we use throughout the day (and even some of the energy-efficient light bulbs that are all the rage these days!) are common sources of blue light. So while your child may be excited to play five more minutes of Minecraft before bed, or your teen may want to scroll through his Instagram feed before lights out, these habits can disrupt sleep. To help their brains settle down, try to cut out screen time within an hour of bedtime.
Routines Are Your Friend
The more your brain is exposed to a bedtime routine, the more it triggers sleepiness when that routine is enacted. If every night goes the same – say, a warm bath followed by reading books followed by a quick snuggle with mom or dad followed by lights out – your child will come to associate that series of events with sleepiness. The key is to keep routines manageable, because if you break the cycle, it may disrupt your child’s body’s cue to get tired. So when it comes to bedtime routines, short and sweet is best. Bonus: building in a nightly bedtime routine helps get kids away from screens right before going to sleep!
Use Daytime Hours Wisely
How your child spends his day will impact how he spends his night. It’s important for kids to get sufficient exercise during the day (but not too close to bedtime, because that will stimulate release of adrenaline, which will keep them up!). It also pays to be mindful of what they’re consuming. Avoid caffeinated beverages, such as soda, in the late afternoon or evening. If your child likes to settle down with a cup of tea, read the packaging to make sure it’s decaffeinated. And while chocolate may seem like a special treat for dessert, it can be loaded with caffeine (especially dark chocolate!), so keep portions small or cut it altogether if your child is having difficulties getting shuteye.
Consider White Noise
If your child is a light sleeper, he may benefit from having a fan on or playing a White Noise tape on a device (with the screen off!). Not only will the white noise block out any unexpected and potentially startling sounds, but the consistent hum can help lull him to sleep.
Keep a Notepad By the Bed
One reason children (and adults!) have trouble sleeping is that their minds may race at bedtime, particularly if they are anxious or identify as a “worrier”. During the day, we are constantly surrounded by distractions, so it is easier to escape from anxious thoughts, but at night, our brain takes center stage.
To help your child break the habit of staying up for hours worrying about what the next day will bring, put a notepad and pen by their bed and encourage them to write down any worry thoughts that come up. They can then schedule a time to “worry” in the morning. While this may sound silly, it can actually be quite effective for children to remind themselves in the moment, “I don’t need to worry about this now.” They’ve written it down, so they won’t forget. They can worry about it tomorrow instead, when they’ll be more able to do something about the worry thought.
Don’t Stare at the Ceiling
Finally, if your child is having a hard time sleeping and spends hours staring at the ceiling and waiting for sleep to come, her brain will start to associate bedtime with the stress of trying to fall asleep. If she spends 20-30 minutes in bed without falling asleep, encourage her to get up, walk around, and engage in a non-stimulating activity (such as reading a book) for ten or fifteen minutes. Then, she can get back in bed and try again. If another 20-30 minutes goes by, she should get out of bed again and do the same thing.
While it may sound counterintuitive to treat sleeplessness with less time in bed, the goal is to train the brain that being in bed corresponds to being asleep (not lying wide-eyed in the darkness!). When her body is tired enough, she will fall asleep. And the more the brain gets used to being asleep while in bed, the less time she’ll spend restlessly tossing back and forth. It’s a process that can take some time, but with practice (and following the other tips listed above), the bed/sleepiness association will become stronger.
Did these tips help? Do you have any of your own tips to give? Please let us know! We love hearing from you.