He's up AGAIN? Nothing's better than spending time with your child, but when he hops out of bed at 11:00 PM, cries and fusses to stay up or begs for just one more book, you may start to wonder, "What on earth am I doing wrong? Everyone else's child goes right to sleep."
Actually, no, they don't. According to The National Sleep Foundation, all sorts of sleep issues, from separation anxiety to nightmares to (yes) manipulation to the racing thoughts of a developing mind can all keep your child (and you) from a peaceful, restful night.
If you're experiencing problems getting your youngster into her bed (and keeping her there), first and foremost on your agenda should be establishing a nigh routine if you haven't yet done so. Actually, this is the same piece of advice given to adults with insomnia or other sleep disorders: create a routine!
The reason? Our bodies and our minds begin to respond in advance to what they're expecting. Both grown-ups and kids will start to wind down and will actually feel sleepier if the body knows what's coming due to repetition and a solid routine with steps you follow each night.
But because children need more sleep than adults and because they have not yet developed the capacity to consistently decide to choose what's good for them rather than what's fun, exciting, or just anxiety-relieving, it's up to the parents to create and maintain habits for them. And that's where a sleep routine comes in.
Here are the steps to your BEST sleep routine, so you and your child can have a positive, loving and relaxing night - without fights or tears.
Eating too late at night is one issue that can keep a child awake. So can giving your child stimulating foods for this last bite of the day.
Choose healthy treats for a "bedtime" snack. We don't recommend sugar, but that's your choice. Something with fiber and a small amount of protein, but not too heavy so she'll be tossing and turning, is perfect. Apple slices with a little nut butter (or celery with nut butter), a SMALL serving of honey-sweetened steel cut oats in warmed almond or cow's milk, or a serving of yogurt with fresh fruit pieces are perfect.
But here's an even more important bedtime snack tip: make it early. Some children experience a spurt of energy with snacks (that's the purpose of a snack, after all) and for many, eating subconsciously signals that it's time to "get up and go." So try to make the "bedtime" snack be a bit earlier. If she goes to bed at 8PM, have her "bedtime" snack at 6:45 or 7:00, for example.
Organic sheets, pillows and mattresses are best for the ultimate comfortable sleeping experience. Make your child's bed welcoming. Make sure her pillow is supportive but made of organic, breathable materials. The same goes for her sheets and blankets.
If the room is dry, consider investing in a humidifier. Keep it CLEAN - and we mean that (vinegar works wonders for this). Mildew can build up easily in a neglected humidifier. However, when it is well-maintained, a humidifier can help children ease into sleep better as sniffling and dry throat may be reduced.
Also make sure the room is not too hot. Cooler (with more blankets if necessary) is better than too warm for a child's room and for her ease of falling, and staying, asleep.
Have your child clear books, electronics, and toys off the bed at a set point during her routine (we like to do this first, but that's up to you) so that when she's ready to hop into bed, it's cozy, uncluttered and ready for her. Have her ONE special "lovey"/toy ready on her pillow so you're not hunting around for it in a panic as the clock strikes 8.
Electronics are stimulating. They affect the brain, how the child is thinking, and how mentally "on" she is, even if she is just lying back reading her tablet. So next in your child's night routine: dim the lights. Switch on a soft table lamp for dressing and reading (see below) and if your child needs light at night, have a soft nightlight ready.
Take ALL electronics except absolutely necessary ones (for example, an alarm clock and night light) out of the room. If you can't physically move them, shut them down completely. If your child is old enough to have her own phone, take it out of the room; temptation could be too great otherwise.
Electronics artificially make us believe it is daytime, and daytime is the time for action and activity. Artificial lighting has been shown to have a host of negative effects, including knocking our circadian rhythms out of their normal sequence and delaying the release of melanin, the "sleepy chemical," from the brain. Electronics can be stimulating even when they're turned off, as they emit hums and alerts. So if you can, take it out of the room; if you can't, shut it down COMPLETELY.
Let your child pick her own sleeping clothes within reason, but do have organic material, breathable, cool pajamas ready for her. Even on cold nights, a child under a heavy blanket (or more than one blanket) can sweat, feel uncomfortable and wind up out of her bed and wandering in the night.
Have her dress (or help her dress), fix her hair out of the way, and have her brush her teeth and wash her face at this point.
We do NOT recommend a tablet or the computer for your child's bedtime "book." Instead, go analog and read an actual paper book. Once again, electronics have an impact on the brain and tend to be stimulating. Lie down with your child or have her sit in your lap and take turns reading.
Reading is rhythmic and soothing. That's why it has been the traditional "fall-asleep" material for both children and adults for centuries. It lulls and quiets a restless mind, even if the subject matter is interesting.
Make sure you limit the reading to ONE book. If not, this phase of your bedroom routine could go on...and on...and on. (Ask us how we know this.)
Yes...there IS sleep in this routine somewhere! And now's the time. Your child has gotten every physical issue out of the way and taken care of, she is in a state of relaxation from the reading and from the nature of having a routine, and at last she's ready to get some Zs.
However you tuck your child in, have it be the same every night. Perhaps you say an affirmation or prayer, have a saying ("Don't let the bed bugs bite!") or little (soft) song, or kiss a certain amount of times (one on each cheek, one on the nose is ours). Whatever you do, have it be yet another signal to your child's mind and body that now is the time to sleep.
It may take some time for your your child's bedtime routine to result in quick sleep, and some kids will always take longer than others to wind down, no matter what routine is in place.
DO NOT change things around (assuming your routine is basic and reasonable). Constantly changing the routine to "tweak" it will have the opposite effect you want; your child will begin to anticipate change at bedtime, and such anticipation keeps a child alert.
Stick with it. Eventually the repetition will sink in. And then you'll all rest easy.