Although I’m past the days of coaxing a newborn to sleep through the night, sleep challenges didn’t disappear when my little ones graduated to the big kid bed. I asked Psychologist and Certified Child and Family Sleep Coach Sasha Carr, Ph.D. (www. offtodreamland.com) for some tips to help my kids get the slumber they need. Here’s what I learned:
1) Make getting a good night’s sleep a priority by sticking to a reasonable bedtime. With so much to do after school, it may seem reasonable to keep kids up later, but the latest sleep research tells us this this isn’t a wise or productive solution. Kids are more likely to wake earlier if they’ve gone to bed later, since overtired kids don’t sleep as well. They often have a hard time staying asleep throughout the night or wake super early and not be able to go back to sleep, explains Carr. It’s important to stick to a reasonable bedtime so kids can load up on what Carr calls the “Power Hours” of sleep, those early night hours of non-REM sleep when we all sleep more soundly, so that they're able to sail through normal, brief awakenings in the second half of the night. To get there, carefully consider which after-school activities are best for your child and your family, and when possible, scale back or move some of them to the weekends.
2) Create a bedtime ritual that works for your kids and for you. Bedtime routines can become like death marches for parents, especially if they’re too long and complex, or if they drag too late into the evening. “While it’s tempting to cut your exhausted self some slack and skip the ritual, keep at it,” says Carr. These routines are reassuring even to older children, giving them consistency and calm and as a result, helping them fall sleep. If you already have a routine; work on shortening or simplifying it, so it’s easier for you to stick with it. Thirty minutes is the ideal amount of time to be fully engaged with your child at the end of their day. If you have more than one child to put to bed, save your sanity by adjusting your routine so that it includes everyone and accommodates age differences; alternate reading a chapter and picture books aloud, or have an older child read to his younger sibling, for example.
3) Be aware of changing sleep habits as kids grow and change. Your baby may be sleeping through the night, but it’s unlikely that you’re out of the woods. For instance, it’s not unusual for preschoolers to sometimes have difficulty falling asleep at night, especially during a period of change, such as starting school; and some children experience night terrors – similar to nightmares, though much more disruptive to the rest of the family than to the child having them - typically between the ages of 3 and 12. Also, interestingly, Carr points out that many children progress to an 8:00 pm bedtime as they get older, but our bodies’ circadian rhythms give us a boost of a hormone called cortisol right around this time, which makes us more alert and therefore, less able to fall asleep. Outsmart it when the time comes, either by putting kids in bed before 8:00 pm (if they’ll stand for it), or establishing an 8:00 pm quiet time in which they can read or lie around before lights out, with the aim of having them drift off to sleep by 8:30 pm.
You can help your kids get the sleep they need—11-12 hours of sleep per night for preschoolers and at least 10 hours for school-age kids—by establishing healthy, consistent sleep habits, and quickly addressing challenges if and when they develop. The pay-off for your hard work and commitment is a good night’s sleep for all. Now if I could only keep my toddler from climbing out of his crib!