When kids are tucked into bed, their brains are working hard on developmental activities. Sadly, just knowing kids need a good night’s sleep doesn’t mean they’ll get it. Check out these suggestions:
1. Make a plan
Write up a bedtime ritual. For infants, it might be as simple as singing a song and turning on the white-noise machine. For toddlers or older children, ask for their input. Let them decide how many books to read together and when the cuddles will happen (this helps them identify their own settling needs and gives them a sense of control). Next, list the steps in sequence so everyone knows exactly what will happen. For kids that can’t read, use a chart with pictures.
2. Time together
Some kids become unsettled at bedtime because they’re longing for more attention from their caregiver. Spending a few minutes asking kids questions about their day (focusing on the positive) can be a nice ritual. For babies, spend 5 or 10 minutes cuddling and making eye contact, singing or saying soothing words.
3. Respect the routine
Sticking to a set bedtime helps children feel secure because it offers predictability. Kids of all ages should ideally go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, give or take 30 to 60 minutes. This may mean discouraging teens from sleeping in on Saturday mornings. Younger kids need between 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night, so make sure their bedtime is early enough to ensure they get a full night’s rest.
4. Power down
Electronic screens are a bad idea before bed because their light stimulates the brain. Ideally, kids should turn off screens at least one to two hours before bed. What about sleep technologies? For younger kids, some parents use a special, colorful lighted sleep/wake clock. Personal wearable devices that track sleep (like a FitBit) can sometimes work as an effective screening tool for sleep issues. If a child’s wearable device indicates they’re not getting quality sleep, see a sleep specialist to figure out why.
5. Keep it positive
Help younger kids who can’t tell time to learn when it’s OK to rise by using a special clock that changes color at the appropriate sleep and wake times. Reward kids for waiting until the appointed hour, using a sticker chart and rewarding seven consecutive nights with a special treat or with fun one-on-one time. Keep it positive. Don’t punish kids for getting up or risk creating negative associations with being in bed.
6. Practice makes perfect
Use the bed and bedroom for resting. Make sure toys and distractions are cleaned up before bed, or store them in another area of the house, if possible. Creating a strong sleep association with the bed and bedroom makes it easier to fall asleep there.
7. Restless nights
Nightmares are bad dreams that occur during REM sleep. The distinguishing feature of a nightmare is that the dreamer will remember it. Sleepwalking and night terrors occur in slow-wave sleep, meaning the dreamer won’t remember them.
8. This too shall pass
If sleep still doesn’t come easy after all your best efforts, don’t despair. Up until the age of four, parents really do have to teach children to sleep. Another option: ask a sleep specialist before sleep problems become major issues. Sometimes having an expert weigh-in can help everyone relax and sleep better.
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