By Elizabeth Richards, MS, Early Care and Education
How do I get my child to sleep? It’s a question often asked by exhausted parents who would like nothing more than to fall into bed and have eight (or even six) hours of uninterrupted slumber.
Despite obvious signs of exhaustion, some children are determined to fight sleep. Maybe your toddler gets out of bed repeatedly, looking for your attention. Or your older child begs to stay up just a little longer to watch TV, read, or play one more game.
But your children need an appropriate amount of sleep, not only to allow parents some much deserved down time, but for concrete health reasons. Consistent lack of sustained, quality sleep has been shown to lead to big health problems, both physical and emotional.
Interestingly, when children are not getting enough sleep, rather than become lethargic and inactive they may ramp up. In fact, research has shown that chronically sleep-deprived children may exhibit symptoms that look a lot like ADHD – and can even be misdiagnosed as such.
Long term lack of quality sleep can lead to poor focus, hyperactivity and other behavioral challenges, emotional distress including an increased risk of depression, lower academic achievement in school age children, and increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and injuries.
That’s a lot of good reasons to make sure your children are getting the sleep they need! Sleep recommendations vary, so it can be tough to determine just how much your child needs. Every child is different, but at least nine hours of sleep for young children is a good target. One of the best ways to know if your child needs more is to pay attention to any symptoms they exhibit: are they having more tantrums than usual? Is it very difficult to wake them in the morning? Do you see new behavior challenges emerging?
Knowing how much sleep your child needs is a great place to start – but how do you help them get it, especially if they’re fighting bedtime? Setting regular limits and expectations around bedtime can help smooth the process and ensure your child gets the rest they need to thrive. Below are some tips to get your started:
• Be an attentive caregiver. Some parents worry that they’ll spoil their child if they respond to their cries every time. But crying is communication, and all your child learns if you ignore it repeatedly is that they can’t rely on you. Feeling insecure and uncertain can make building self-control skills harder! Comfort your child when they need it and assure them you’ll be there to help until they have the skills to calm independently.
• Redirect and offer alternatives. Instead of simply hearing “no” all the time, young children need to be told – and shown – what to do instead. Helping them get their needs met in another way teaches them that they can find better alternatives. For instance, if your 10-month-old hits you to get your attention, show them how to tap you gently, instead. Or if your child screams when hungry, teach some simple signs like “eat” or “milk” to help them communicate. Remember, you’ll need to do this consistently and repeatedly before they have the skills to use the strategies on their own, so having patience is important. Remind yourself that they aren’t behaving that way to drive you crazy (despite how it might feel after the twentieth time you stop them from climbing to the top of the couch), but because they are communicating.
Limit sugar in the evening
Since sugar stimulates the brain, consumption can impact sleep quality. Limit treats late in the day – especially chocolate, which also contains caffeine.
Set – and stick to – bedtime limits. Young children are masters of stalling, and it can be tricky getting them to stay in bed – but maintaining calm, consistent limits will help. Communicating these ahead of time is key. For instance, you might say, “You can have two stories, then I will turn out the lights.” While it can be tempting to give in to “just one more story,” (because who doesn’t love to snuggle with a sleepy child) keeping limits consistent will teach your child that you mean what you say.
Create a soothing bedtime routine
Specific routines help children know what to expect, and can ease them into the transition to bed without the arguments. Allow ample time for these routines, including a snack, a bath, brushing teeth, story time, and a final drink of water. Anticipating needs that may arise and incorporating them into the routine can help avoid your child calling out or getting up repeatedly.
Keep electronics out of the bedroom
If you allow screen time, the bedroom is not the place to store devices. Older children can be tempted to play games or watch shows on tablets, computers, and other screens while they should be sleeping. And even if these devices aren’t being actively used, the light from screens can impact the environment, making it harder to fall or stay asleep.
Don’t engage too much if they wake in the night
If your child cries out in the night, wait a moment before going to them. Often, they aren’t truly awake, and will settle quickly back into sleep. If they don’t, try rubbing their back or tucking their blankets back into place, but don’t pick them up or talk to them, which may make them more alert and create difficulty getting back to sleep. If older children wake during the night and have trouble falling back to sleep, have a plan for what they can do – but make sure the options are quiet, soothing, and non-electronic!
Elizabeth Richards has been an early childhood professional for nearly 30 years. She is a preschool teacher, freelance writer, and early childhood trainer. She has led parent workshops and developed courses for ECE professionals, particularly around managing challenging behaviors, art, and play. She has two teenage sons.