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Parenting: Dealing With the Bedtime Struggle

Do your kids resist going to bed? Put the nightly pushback to rest.
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WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

My 6-year-old twins do not like bedtime.

Every night, it's the same story. I announce it's time to go to sleep, and the complaints and excuses start. "Oh, but I didn't get to watch TV." "Please, I just want to finish this game, Mom." "Can't we stay up a little bit longer?" Then, when we go upstairs, "I'm not even tired -- why do I have to sleep?"

Does this sound like your nighttime scenario, too? As a pediatrician, I hear it from both ends -- at home and from concerned parents who ask, "My child is going to bed late -- does he need more sleep?"

Why Sleep Is Important for Kids

The answer couldn't be clearer when it comes to kids' health, despite their protests to the contrary. Sleep is one of the most valuable gifts you can give your children. Sleep provides the brain with much-needed time to recharge, store information, and even solve problems. It helps boost the body's immune system as well. Lack of sleep can cause crankiness and anxiety, and has been linked to obesity and higher body mass index (BMI) in children.

One study followed hundreds of children from ages 3 to 7. The researchers found that each additional hour of sleep reduced the likelihood of a child being overweight at age 7 by 61%. Another study of more than 15,000 teens showed that teens with later bedtimes and fewer hours of sleep were more likely to become depressed and have thoughts of suicide. Lack of sleep also affects kids' performance at school -- plenty of research backs that up, too.

So how do you fight the nightly pushback? Most important, set a routine. Try to have the same events occur at the same place, same time each night. Second, no matter what your kids' ages, from preschool through high school, turn off all TVs, video game consoles, and digital devices at least an hour before bedtime. For young children, give them a bath, have them brush their teeth, and then read them a bedtime story.

Be patient. Change may not happen right away. After a few days of these new rules, my kids looked forward to bedtime and the storybooks that came with it. And guess what? At 8:15, with the twins tucked in bed, I kicked back and got some "me" time -- perfect for unwinding before my own bedtime.

How to Help Your Child Sleep

Need help encouraging your children to get a good night's sleep? Consider these tips.

  • Know how much sleep your child needs daily. It varies by age. Three- to 5-year-olds need 11 to 13 hours daily. Kids ages 5 to 12 require 10 to 11 hours each day. Teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 need at least 8.5 hours.
  • Help your child unwind. Talk about her day and anything she may be worried about. Stress can interfere with sleep.
  • See that your child is active. Aim for 60 minutes of daily activity, but if that sounds overwhelming, start small -- maybe 15 minutes. Outside playtime during the day is ideal.
  • Prepare well-balanced dinners. If hunger strikes near bedtime, offer a small snack with carbohydrates and a little bit of protein, such as a few crackers with peanut butter and a small glass of milk.
Reviewed on April 10, 2012

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