There are 610 results for books for sleep + parenting on Amazon.
And 223 million results on Google.
I have 4 books on the subject, all of which I have read and refer to regularly. I’ve even hired a sleep consultant. I try to do everything I am supposed to be doing, and yet… AND YET… my kids continue to give me trouble at bedtime.
This is a popular subject. Us rookie parents don’t have a clue/patience/heart/sanity to get our ever growing ever changing kids to sleep when we want them to. They don’t teach this stuff in school. We don’t practice it at work. We just make things up as we go along.
Or we Google it which, at times, just makes everything more confusing.
One thing’s for certain – children need their sleep and it’s up to us parents to make it a priority.
Let’s get started.
Note: I am not going to discuss infant and baby sleep. For that, I recommend TroublesomeTots – it’s wonderfully written and expertly researched and covers just about everything you need to tackle baby sleep.
Why do Kids Need Sleep?
Think of the brain like your smartphone. You can snap as many photos and download as many apps as you want, but if you don’t have a good process for storing, organizing and even deleting your stuff, you will run out of storage pretty quickly. (Side note: I hope you’re all vigilantly organizing your photos and videos. Yes? Anyone?)
Now think of kids who, because they are growing so quickly, are taking twice as many photos and videos. They need more time to process all of this new content to free up storage for the next day. In other words, they need more sleep and even 30 minutes makes a noticeable difference when it comes to behavior, ability to focus and pay attention, and emotional well being.
That’s the simple version of what happens when we sleep.
And this is the simple guide on how to give your children some good, hearty sleep.
1. Start with a general assessment. Write down how long it takes for your child to fall asleep and how many hours he gets, noting the mornings he wakes up on his own vs. not, and other events worth taking into account. Do this for one week. A chart like the one below, or the Sleep Cycle App (for the older kids, in airplane mode) are great tools to help identify sleeping patterns, and how they affect behavior and mood.
2. Schedule the adjustment phase. Like any new habit, getting comfortable with a new routine takes time. Begin your “sleep training” when you can commit to being at home and consistent for 10-14 days.
3. Keep them active. Wear them out – it will make bedtime easier. There are benefits beyond getting good sleep for giving your kids lots of sunshine and time to run, climb, play and be active including the development of motor skills, cognitive and social development, creativity and confidence.
4. Feed them real food. I know, kids and food is an entirely different subject. So i’ll just say this: avoid processed food and anything with high fructose corn syrup in it, especially before bedtime, which means no sugary drinks at dinner or sweet treats in the evenings (fruit is ok).
5. Create the right sleeping environment:
- Get rid of electronics. And turn them off 60-90 minutes before bed.
- Keep the room cool. Cooler body temperatures lead to more deep sleep.
- Keep the room dark, but not pitch black. Instead of flashy and colorful lights, try a salt lamp or low blue nightlight.
- Use a white noise machine. It will help drown out noise and create a familiar sleeping environment. This one has a noise activated feature which restarts with detection.
- Give your child a lovie or special blanket. It makes them feel safe and comfortable and is a powerful self soothing tool.
- Decorate the room with neutral, soothing colors.
- Keep the room clutter free. Cluttered room = cluttered mind.
6. Create a routine and stick to it. Establishing a clear and consistent routine is one of the most important thing we can do to encourage healthy sleep habits, and kids love the predictability. So do adults.
“When you break the body’s natural rhythm, you’re no longer performing optimally – your state has been disrupted. To be healthy, you must respect and maintain that ideal, rhythmic state… One of the biggest components of stress for our bodies is not our finances, our marriages, or the kids – it’s regularity of schedule.” – David B. Angus, “The End of Illness”
7. Make it special. Involve your child with her bedtime routine. Make it an exciting and special part of the day. Talk with them about the importance of sleep (evidence suggests that sleep education promotes more sleep) and consider some pre-bed ideas:
- A warm bath with epsom salts or magnesium flakes for a calming effect
- 15-20 minutes of reading
- Brush teeth & go to the bathroom
- A massage with lavender oil
- Positive thoughts, prayers, things we’re grateful for and highlights of the day, so that the day ends on a positive and happy note
Older kids and teenagers should follow some sort of routine as well, starting with the removal of devices, some time to wind down and a consistent lights out time.
8. Is the timing right? Pay attention to the clock. Your child might be going to bed too early (if he’s taking a long time to fall asleep) or too late (if he’s wired and cranky). You will have to make some gradual adjustments to bedtime, and possibly wakeup and nap-time too.
9. Set the rules. Parents must set boundaries around bedtimes, schedules, diet and electronic use – and enforce them. It’s hard, especially after a long and stressful day, but it’s a must.
- Specify a lights out time. Here’s a Pavlovian-esque tip for you: set an alarm on your smartphone for “lights out” time (choose a soothing sound like “crickets”). When it goes off, let your child know that you are leaving the room and that it’s time to go to sleep. With time, they will associate that sound with sleep.
- Specify a wake up time. Try something like an Ok to Wake Alarm Clock, where you can set a time for the clock to “turn green”, at which point your child will know that it’s okay to get out of bed and come to you.
- No talking, calling for mom or getting out of bed. See the “tough love” section below.
- No devices in the bedroom. Make it a household policy that after a certain time, all devices are to be left in the common area. If necessary, turn the wireless connection off completely. And if this requires us parents to set a good example, just power down and pour yourself a cocktail.
- No caffeine or sweets after 2pm.
10. Prepare for uncooperative kids. They will protest bedtime. They’ll cry for attention and complain of a tummy ache, tell you they’re afraid of the dark or saw a monster. They’ll ask for a glass of water and ask to go potty. And you’ll be ready to outsmart them at every turn right?
Here are the more popular options:
The chair method: This technique is the most time intensive, but minimizes the crying. Place a chair or cushion next to your child’s bed. When your child cries or fusses, gently pat and comfort her, but avoid picking her up or making eye contact. Do this until she falls asleep. Every few days, move the chair father away from the bed, until you’re at the door or slightly outside the door.
The cry it out method: Because sometimes you’re at your wits end and nothing else is working, and you’re ready to bring on the crying.
- After bedtime routine, kiss your child goodnight and leave the room.
- Wait for the crying to commence.
- Wait for 5 or 10 minutes (depending on your tolerance for the crying)
- Enter the room, comfort and reassure your child without picking him up.
- After a minute, leave the room again, wait, and repeat.
Your child will likely cry for 45 minutes or more the first few nights, but with some consistency, the crying will lessen and he will learn to self soothe. However, if your child wakes up in the middle of the night, do what you normally do to put him back to sleep – rocking, singing, whatever. With bedtime sleep training, he will eventually learn to self soothe and put himself back to sleep.
Tough love: For older kids who are able to communicate, you’ll have to employ a little tough love. This might include unplugging all lamps in the room, removing toys or other sources of fun, or setting up a gate to prevent escaping. Then, for every “offense”, such as getting out of bed, opening the door, turning on the light etc., you proceed to take away something they love.
- Strike 1: Shut the door
- Strike 2: Take away a favorite toy for 24 hours
- Strike 3: No TV for 24 hours
Enforcing it is the hard part (but the most important one too) because it’s far worse for the parent to have a “favorite toy/activity-less” day. The good news is, the little ones learn their lesson fairly quickly.
Now I know there’s a lot I didn’t cover. Siblings. Room sharing. Crib to bed transitioning. Potty training. All of this will require adjustments in your routine and environment, and time to get it right.
But the one thing that remains, regardless of the child or the situation is this:
Stay consistent, stay attentive, stay strong, and you win.
You can do it.