Sleep is vital for a child's mental and physical development. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, by age 2, children have spent more time sleeping than awake. Throughout childhood, children will spend about 40% of their time asleep.
Of course getting children to bed -- and getting them to stay there -- can be difficult. And when children don't get enough sleep, they may have a harder time controlling their emotions, and can be irritable or hyper. Children who are frequently sleep-deprived are more likely to have difficulty behaving, paying attention, and learning.
Regular schedules and bedtime rituals greatly affect a child's ability to get sound sleep and function fully. Establishing and maintaining good sleep habits helps your child fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up rested. Good sleep habits can also help take the stress out of bedtime.
There is no “one size fits all” rule for bedtime. Every child is different based on their temperament. What's important is to develop a routine that works for your family -- and to stick with it. Here are some suggestions for a good place to start!
1. Make sleep a family priority. Set regular go-to-bed and wake-up times for the entire family and be sure to follow them -- even on weekends. You can tell if children are getting enough sleep if they fall asleep within 15 to 30 minutes of going to bed, wake up easily in the morning, and don't fall asleep during the day.
2. Look out for sleep difficulties. Signs of sleep struggles include difficulty falling asleep, nighttime awakenings, snoring, stalling and resisting going to bed, having trouble breathing during sleep, and loud or heavy breathing while sleeping. Sleep difficulties can be seen in daytime behavior as well. If your child tends to be overtired, sleepy, or cranky during the day, tell your child’s doctor. Causes of sleep difficulties may be as simple as large tonsils and adenoids.
3. Work as a team. It's important to discuss and agree on a sleep strategy for your child with your partner. Work together to carry it out consistently, otherwise you can't expect your child to learn or change behavior. If you are starting a new sleep routine for your child, make them part of the team! Explain the new plan to your child. Try using a picture chart as a visual aid. Allow your child to have some control in things regarding bedtime, such as what story to listen to or what pajamas to wear to bed.
4. Stick to the plan. The structure of bedtime routines links the bedroom with positive feelings by providing a sense of security and control. A nightly bedtime routine helps your child’s body learn to become sleepy. There is no one right routine for everyone, but in general, your routine should include all the things that your child needs to do before going to sleep, including having a snack or drink of water, washing up, putting on pajamas, and brushing teeth. Your child may want to be read to, talk about the day, or be told a story. Whatever you choose to do, keep the routine short (20 minutes or less, not including a bath) and be firm about ending it when it's time to sleep.
5. Bedtime snacks. Many parenting resources say to allow children a bedtime snack. A small snack before bedtime can help their bodies stay fueled through the night, however it is important to choose a healthy option that will promote sleepiness. Healthy options include whole-grain cereal with milk, graham crackers, or a piece of fruit. Snacks with complex carbohydrates or milk naturally will activate hormones to help your child be ready to sleep.
6. Limit screen time before bed. Children often like to watch videos or play games on a device before bed. However, to encourage smart sleep habits be sure to have children turn devices off an hour before bedtime. This will give their brains enough time to relax and prepare for bed. Visual stimulation too close to sleeping can harm their quality of sleep.
7. Sleep environment. Make sure your child’s bedroom promotes sleep. Dark, quiet, and cool rooms are best. If your child likes to sleep with a personal object, like a doll, teddy bear, blanket, or other comfort item, make sure they have it with them. Security objects can provide a sense of comfort and control that reassures your child before falling asleep.
8. Active during the day, sleep during the night. Making sure your child is active during the day, moving and playing, is important to ensuring your child is sleepy come nighttime. However, it is important not to schedule too many things close to bedtime. Use the day to get all the energy out, then after dinner try to encourage activities that are calming for the body and brain. By having a low-key evening, your child is more likely to ease into their nighttime routine.
9. One last thing. Children will always ask for that one last thing – kisses, hugs, a drink of water, using the bathroom, or just one more book. Do your best to anticipate by incorporating these small rituals into the bedtime routine. That way you can get it all done before putting your child to bed. Let your child know that once in bed, they have to stay in bed. If they get up, don't react – simply take them by the hand and walk them back to bed. If you argue or give in to requests, you are giving your child the extra attention – and delayed bedtime – they are seeking. And don't give into the “just this one time” pitfall. If you read one more story or let them stay up longer “just this time,” you risk losing the bedtime routine you’ve built.