If you’re a parent, you know the nightly challenge: to get your kids to go to bed -- and stay there. It’s not easy, but it’s one of the most important things you can do for them.
When children don't get enough sleep, they have a harder time controlling their emotions. They may be irritable or hyper, which is no fun for anyone. Kids who are always sleep-deprived are more likely to have behavior problems, have trouble paying attention and learning, and be overweight. So although it's not easy, it's important to do all you can to help your child get the sleep they need.
Regular schedules and bedtime rituals play a big role in helping kids get sound sleep and function at their best. When you set and maintain good sleep habits, it helps your child fall asleep, stay asleep, and awake rested and refreshed. They can help take the stress out of bedtime, too.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for bedtime, and every child is different. What's important is to build a routine that works for your family -- and to stick with it. Here are nine ways to get started.
1. Make sleep a family priority.
Set regular go-to-bed and wake-up times for the entire family and be sure to follow them -- even on weekends. You can tell that children are getting enough sleep when they fall asleep within 15 to 30 minutes of going to bed, wake up easily in the morning, and don't nod off during the day.
2. Deal with sleep troubles.
Signs of sleep struggles include trouble falling asleep, waking up at night, snoring, stalling and resisting going to bed, having trouble breathing during sleep, and loud or heavy breathing while sleeping. You might notice problems in daytime behavior, as well. If your child seems overtired, sleepy, or cranky during the day, tell their doctor.
3. Work as a team.
It's important to discuss and agree on a sleep strategy for your child with your spouse or partner beforehand and work together as a team to carry it out consistently. Otherwise, you can't expect your child to learn or change their behavior.
If you are starting a new sleep routine for your child, make them part of the team by explaining the new plan to them if they are old enough to understand. For a young child, try using a picture chart to help your child learn the new routine, showing actions like changing clothes, brushing teeth, and reading a book.
4. Routine, routine, routine.
Kids love it, they thrive on it, and it works. One study found that a consistent nighttime routine improved sleep in children who had mild to moderate sleep problems. It helps your child learn to be sleepy, just like reading in bed often puts adults to sleep. It can also make bedtime a special time. That will help your child associate the bedroom with good feelings and give them a sense of security and control. There is no single routine that's right for everyone, but in general, yours should include all the things that your child needs to do before going to sleep, including brushing teeth, washing up, putting on PJs, and having a snack or drink of water. Your child may want to read a book with you, talk about the day, or hear a story. Whatever you choose to do, keep the routine short (30 minutes or less, not including a bath) and be firm about ending it when it's time to sleep.
5. Bedtime snacks.
Children may need more than three meals a day to keep them going, so a small snack before bedtime can help their bodies stay fueled through the night. Healthy options include whole-grain cereal with milk, graham crackers, or a piece of fruit. Avoid large snacks too close to bed, especially with older kids, because a full stomach can interfere with sleep.
6. Dress and room temperature.
Everyone sleeps better in a room that is cool but not cold. A rule of thumb is to dress your child basically as you dress yourself, keeping in mind that very young children often kick off the covers at night and can’t cover themselves.
7. Sleep environment.
Make sure the bedroom is dark and quiet and the noise level in the house is low. If your child does not like a totally dark room, turn on a small night light, or leave the hall light on and the door to the bedroom open.
8. Security object.
Bedtime means separation, and that can be easier for kids with a personal object, like a doll, teddy bear, or blanket. It can provide a sense of security and control that comforts and reassures your child before they fall asleep.
9. One last thing.
Kids will always ask for that one last thing -- hugs, a drink of water, a trip to the bathroom, just one more book. Do your best to head off these requests by making them part of the bedtime routine. And let your child know that once they are in bed, they have to stay in bed.
If they get up, don't react -- simply take them by the hand and walk them back to bed. If you argue or give in to requests, you’re giving them the extra attention -- and delayed bedtime -- they want. And don't give into the "just this one time" pitfall. If you read one more story or let them stay up longer "just this once," the bedtime routine you’ve built could come undone.