Most kids run the other way when you mention it. They pretend not to hear you or use whatever excuse they can to avoid it. Even if your toddler is rubbing her eyes and yawning, bedtime is never a welcome word. For parents who have children that follow a strict bedtime routine with little fuss, maybe this article isn’t for you. But for the rest of us, the parents that deal with a nightly temper tantrums and fussing over going to bed, this article may help.
Better sleep hygiene
Sleep, as we all know, is important at every age. Children, however, do require more than their parents. The reason? Children are growing both mentally and physically at a rapid pace. Their bodies need and crave rest in order to keep their development in check. Many parents do not know when their children are tired since kids, as opposed to adults, may not act tired just before bedtime. Many times, that is when they are the most hyper, but adults should take heed: This behavior is almost always a sign of being “overtired.”
Dr. George Harris, a pediatric ENT with Summerville Pediatric Specialists, recommends creating a routine that promotes better “sleep hygiene.” He says, “Children are testing our limits. Parents need to find a framework that is free of frustration so they can build better sleep hygiene.”
And this goes for babies all the way up through the teen years. “I think something that is so important is modeling good sleep habits ourselves, as the parents,” Dr. Harris says. “Children will model what we do, especially teenagers.”
For children, feeling tired on a regular basis can cause health issues. Dr. Harris says that many times, children who are seeing him for sleep disturbance issues have some underlying problems with mental health, like being anxious or depressed that may improve if the sleep problems are addressed.
Studies by the National Sleep Foundation have shown that children who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often suffer from sleep loss. Sleep apnea, once thought to be a disorder only found in adults, has also been found in children as well. Sleep apnea will wake a person up every hour for a short period of time while they struggle to breathe. Many people do not know they have this disorder until they are tested for it.
“Sleep deprivation is very challenging,” says Dr. Harris. “It messes with our mental function, hand-eye coordination, hearing and vision. One night of lost sleep is probably OK, but when children experience this for several nights in a row, it can really take a toll.”
Again, routine can make all the difference. “Just going to bed at around the same time every night can help with consistency,” Dr. Harris advises. “If you miss a night of good sleep and you think you can catch up by going to bed super early the night after, you are mistaken. There is no such thing as ‘catching up on sleep.’”
Creating a sleep schedule
Anne Toole, mom to Kathleen Marie, 3, and William, 1, feels as though she has seen major changes, for the better, when it comes to sleep over the past year.
“It’s interesting,” she admits. “As soon as you get used to one phase, it changes again. I have learned to connect the dots with their sleeping habits, but it hasn’t come easy.”
While Kathleen Marie, no longer naps, Toole says she does put her in her room for an hour a day for “quiet time.” She says that this routine has actually worked better than fighting with her over taking a nap. “She now sees it as her special time in her room,” Toole says.
Although both her children do sleep through the night now, they didn’t as infants, so she understands how hard it can be as a new parent. “Neither of my children slept through the night for about the first year,” she says.
Dr. Harris says establishing a routine is important. “Experiment with a warm bath,” he advises. “Routine is important for infants to let them know that it is time for sleep.”
He recommends melatonin for toddlers. “It’s all natural and comes in gummies or liquid drops,” he says. “It helps establish a framework to let the body settle down and sleep.” (Though it should be noted that the National Institutes of Health warns that questions remain about its long-term safety and effectiveness of melatonin for kids.)
Toole advises new moms to try and put their babies to sleep before they are actually in a deep sleep. “That will help them to learn to soothe themselves,” she says. “I made that mistake with Kathleen Marie. I always held her until she fell asleep and all that did was make it harder to put her down later on.”
As for older children, Dr. Harris says that a later school day could also help. “There is a movement to start school later for teens, and I am all for it,” he says. “The frontal lobes in their brains are still connecting. Teens do better if they can sleep in a little bit longer.”
Dr. Harris reminds us that teens are driving on our roads,“it is in all of our best interest that they get enough sleep so that they aren’t tired drivers.
What you can do?
Aside from changing your own habits to model better behavior, there are some things you can do to help your children get a better night’s sleep. Dr. Harris suggests that parents make sure their children aren’t drinking caffeine after dinnertime. He also suggests that parents monitor eating and drinking in general so that kids and teens avoid eating anything two hours before bedtime.
He also notes that studies have been done on the effects of screen time and children. “Research is ongoing, but hand-held devices have been shown to increase endorphins,” he says. “It is best to put the devices away at least an hour before bedtime. It is almost like the technology is candy for the brain and that is not good for winding down.”
He suggests, “Say prayers, meditate, read a book, use that part of the day to improve mental function and reflect.”
Lastly, Dr. Harris says that families who suspect their child is having a problem with sleep, seek medical attention. “Testing can be done and we can get some useful data. We have diagnosed restless leg syndrome, limb weakness, iron deficiencies in blood and many others as reasons for not being able to sleep well,” Dr. Harris says.
“I actually tell families to take a video of their child sleeping,” he says. “This can be invaluable to us because we might be able to spot the position they are in as being a sign of a sleep disturbance or we may notice their breathing is off.”
He concludes, “Getting a good night’s sleep has been linked to happiness and overall quality of life. It is so much more important than we give it credit for.”