Encouraging healthy sleep habits in children
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John C. Ensslin
A solid bedtime routine and limiting screen time are essential, an expert says.
When I was little, the street light outside my bedroom window went on every night at 9 p.m. My father called it the Darth Vader light. In response to my bedtime battles, he said that when the light went on, it meant Darth Vader had landed to look for children who weren’t sleeping. So by 9 every night, I was either sound asleep or under my covers barely breathing.
Was it traumatic? Slightly. Did it work? Yes, it did.
As I got older, I thought the tactic went slightly overboard, but as a parent, I kind of get it. At the end of our very long days, we just want our kids to get, and stay, in bed. A good night’s sleep is so important to my mood and productivity, and the same goes for my children.
Aside from never wanting to get into bed, my kids wake up in the middle of the night for assorted reasons. Sometimes they need to be escorted to the bathroom, want to recount their bad dreams, need help finding their water or just feel like chatting. Sometimes they see a light, hear a noise, their toe itches or they have a hole in their sock. The reasons for destroying my REM cycles are endless. Occasionally I wake up to a child standing over me, asking if I’m awake. I usually gargle a plea to let Mommy sleep, which does nothing to quell their desire to start a conversation.
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So what can exhausted parents do, short of traumatizing their children with movie villains, to ensure their kids get in bed, stay in bed and sleep restfully throughout the night?
Kristina Amerikaner is the founder and director of SnoozieQ Sleep Consulting, a Maplewood-based business that helps parents nationwide tackle their children’s sleep problems. According to Amerikaner, a few culprits may be to blame when kids have trouble sleeping.
“When a child gets overtired, whether it’s from waking up too early that morning or giving up naps too soon, their body produces a hormone called cortisol, which is used to keep us awake and help us deal with stress,” she said. If a child then goes to bed too late, they’ll go down in an overtired state with an excess amount of cortisol in their bodies.
“When that happens, kids tend to wake up more during the night and wake up earlier in the morning,” she said. “So with children, especially younger ones, the earlier they get to bed, the more restorative their sleep is and the later they’ll tend to sleep in the morning.”
Amerikaner also advises against screen time, including TV and hand-held devices, within 90 minutes of bedtime. “Blue light affects our melatonin levels, which induce sleep, so exposure to blue light close to bedtime may interfere with falling asleep and sleeping restfully during the night,” she said. She noted that kids who keep devices at their bedside may wake up earlier in anticipation of using those devices.
Other common sources of nighttime restlessness include dairy too close to bedtime, especially for children with sensitive stomachs, and light from bedroom windows. “Blackout curtains are really helpful for getting kids to sleep later in the morning and for kids who nap during the day,” she said. “The room should be as dark as possible, so if light peeks in from the side, you can Velcro the curtains down.” She also recommends using a low-frequency white-noise machine for sounder sleep.
If the problem is getting your children into bed in the first place, Amerikaner recommends having a solid bedtime routine. “It doesn’t need to be long but it should be predictable for the child,” she said. “So write up all the steps, let your child decorate it so they feel like they’re part of the solution, and talk to them about it during the daytime, explaining that these are the steps of our bedtime routine and when they’re done, your job is to go to sleep.” This way, she notes, children can’t avoid bedtime by trying to insert other activities.
In addition, she advises having family sleep rules, which everyone in the house follows. “Establish rules about bedtime and boundaries for overnight, letting your kids know that unless it’s an emergency, you expect them to stay in their beds and not call out for you.” Amerikaner said to give children everything they need to help themselves during the night, like water and nightlights, and explain they should not be waking you up for those things. If they do, parents should reinforce the rules by doing the silent return back to bed. “Don’t indulge them by searching for their lost sock or escorting them to the bathroom. Simply send them back to bed,” she said.
Finally, Amerikaner suggests reminding children throughout the early evening exactly what time bedtime is, so there’s no intense argument at lights out.
“After 6 months old, sleep is the best nutrition you can offer your child, above and beyond any super food you can give them,” she said, noting that without sleep their bodies can’t develop and grow the way they need to. For parents, sleep is just as important. “When you don’t get the sleep you need, it’s hard to be the kind of parent you want to be,” she said. “You just don’t have the patience and clarity of mind that you have when you’re well rested,”
Armed with Amerikaner’s advice, I’m prepared to lay down some nighttime rules in my own house. But by now, I’ve come to terms with my lack of sleep, knowing that at least here in the suburbs, I’m in good company. And at the end of the day, I love my kids so much that no amount of sleep deprivation could make me stay mad at them. After all, my children are the reason I wake up in the morning.
Unfortunately, they’re also the reason I wake up all through the night.
Contact Jackie Goldschneider at email@example.com
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