7 Tips to Improve Your Child's Sleep
Sleep is crucial for our day-to-day functioning. But this isn't only true for adults, it's true for children as well. If a child is sleep deprived, they can have difficulties in school and with managing their emotions, which can lead to social difficulties and other challenges. Unfortunately, getting your child to fall asleep (and stay asleep) can be hard. Some kids seem to have too much energy at bedtime, while others have fears that keep them awake. No matter what specific challenges you may face when trying to help your child fall asleep, these tips should help.
1. Have a Consistent Bedtime
First and foremost is to help make sure your child has a consistent bedtime. Our bodies are tuned to our daily routines through circadian rhythms. The more consistent our daily routines, the more our bodies will line up with those routines. As a result, your child's body and mind can start to feel tired automatically as their consistent bedtime approaches (e.g., through the release of melatonin).
Having consistent routines is also helpful for children because they often enjoy having predictability. Even though it can seem like having a child causes your routine to be unpredictable, and they can often resist following a schedule, children often adjust to routines quickly once they are consistently reinforced. Not only that, but it can help to reduce any anxiety they may have because they'll be able to anticipate what is coming up.
Bonus: Sticker Chart
Sometimes kids need a little extra incentive to follow a routine. To help with that, it may be worth creating a sticker chart to help reinforce their bedtime. The rewards don't need to be material (e.g., unhealthy snacks, expensive toys). Instead, the stickers themselves can be enough, or the praise they get from you as a parent can help reinforce going to bed on time. It's a tool worth considering, and something that can help with some of the below tips as well (though try not to target more than 3 behaviors at a time with a sticker chart, otherwise it can become overwhelming and counterproductive).
2. Have a Bedtime Routine
Just as having a consistent bedtime can help your child's body automatically become tired at the right time, a bedtime routine can also help in a few ways. First, your child's mind will automatically start to associate the routine with bedtime, so going through the routine will increase their tiredness. Second, it helps to create a nice transition from being active to going to sleep. Trying to stop your child from playing a game and going straight to bed because of what time it is will generally not work well.
The bedtime routine doesn't have to be something complicated. In fact, it can be some of the things your child probably already does to get ready for bed (e.g., getting into pajamas, brushing teeth). The idea is to make them into a consistent routine that is done in the same order every night (within reason; there will probably be some nights that things don't go quite as planned, of course). Just by making the actions consistent, you'll help their brain associate the actions with sleep.
Bonus: Visual Schedule
For some kids, especially younger children, it can be hard to remain consistent with a routine from day-to-day just based on their memory or your verbal prompts. To help out, a "visual schedule" can be great. Either write or print on a piece of paper the steps involved in the routine, in the order they should be completed, and have a picture for each step (either a drawing, clip art, or a photo). That way when your child goes to start their routine, they can follow the list in order more easily.
You can also make it fun and engaging for them. For example, if it's on a white board then they can check off each step as it's completed, and you can give them praise for each box they check (e.g., "great job brushing your teeth on your own!").
3. Limit Food/Drink Before Bed
Some kids enjoy having a nighttime snack, or a drink of water right before going to bed. But these things can sometimes make it difficult for them to fall asleep. By limiting how much they eat/drink before bed you can help them both fall asleep and stay asleep. That being said, you don't need to completely eliminate food and drink before bed. Just try to make sure it's not excessive. By keeping it limited, you further help their body learn to associate that time with sleep (rather than eating/drinking), and you can reduce their chances of needing to get up in the night to use the restroom (or their chances of wetting the bed).
4. Limit Screen Time Before Bed
Yes, this is a big one you've probably heard before. Too much screen time (particularly involving white/blue light) can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. The light mimics sunlight enough that it limits how much our brains produce melatonin, which is the chemical that makes us feel sleepy (that's why you can buy melatonin over the counter as a sleep aid). Many kids love to watch videos on computers/tablets/smartphones, and that can influence their ability to fall asleep. As best you can, try to limit the amount of screen time before bed, and instead replace the screen time with something else.
If completely taking away the screen is unrealistic, at least at first, then consider trying some form of night mode that tints the screen red (reducing the amount of blue light). F.lux is an option, and many operating systems are starting to have built-in night mode options. It's not ideal, but it's a decent compromise.
5. Read to Your Child
For adults, reading before bed (especially fiction) can be a nice way to help prevent anxious thoughts and to "ease" the brain into dreaming. The same can be true for children. Depending on their age and reading abilities, it may be difficult for them to read on their own, though. If that's the case, you can read to them instead. By thinking about the story they'll be able to reduce some of their own anxious thoughts (if they're having any). It can also be a good bonding time for you and your child.
6. White Noise
This one isn't for everyone, but some are comforted by having white noise when falling asleep. For those who may be unfamiliar with this, white noise is background noise of some kind (e.g., the sound of a fan, the sound of waves from a sound machine). Similar to reading, it can be just enough to help prevent the mind from wandering and thus reduce anxious/busy thoughts. If your child dislikes silence, it may be worth looking at getting something that can produce white noise. Having a TV or something similar on isn't ideal, but you could also try to find calming music without lyrics that could serve the same purpose.
7. Avoid Night Lights (Unless Necessary)
Once your child falls asleep, you want their sleep quality to be good. Even if they stay asleep throughout the night, various sounds and lights can prevent them from getting good restorative sleep. While night lights are relatively common, they can disrupt your child's quality of sleep. If they're able to sleep fine without one, that's likely going to be better. Or if there's a way to limit the brightness of the light, that can help as well (just don't directly cover the light bulb if it gets hot).
However, the caveat to this is if your child needs the light in order to fall asleep. Sleep with a night light is better than no sleep at all, so err on the side of using the night light in those cases. But if your child no longer needs the night light as they grow up, then try to phase it out once you're able.
These are just a few quick tips to help improve your child's sleep. Ultimately it comes down to consistency and setting things up for good sleep. And many of these tips also apply to adults, so try them for yourself!
Have additional suggestions to offer? Have questions about any of the tips I provided above? Let us know in the comments!