Nutrition and exercise are often prioritized when it comes to health, but sleep can have just as profound an impact on overall wellness. It helps our body restore and recover from the stresses of the day, and even helps children grow and develop. These days, between juggling multiple schedules, our endless list of to-do’s, and a barrage of social obligations, it’s safe to say that Americans are not prioritizing sleep, and that includes even the youngest members of our society.
As a pediatrician, too often, I see kids suffering from sleep deprivation. Children need somewhere between 9-12 hours of sleep a night and it’s important for parents to create good bedtime habits that will last a lifetime. To treat symptoms of sleep deprivation, I take a two-step approach. The first step is to identify the source of the sleep issue. Most commonly, I see the following inhibitors:
Studies show that simulation from a bright screen can make it difficult to transition to sleep. While most parents think of smart phones when they hear “screen time”, televisions, computers, and tablets should also be considered. In fact, kids are often on a screen right up until bedtime. Shut off all screens about an hour before bedtime to facilitate a good night’s rest.
Missed sleep cues
We’ve all seen the effects of a missed nap. Especially during a time of transition, parents may not recognize when a baby or child is sleepy versus hungry. If a sleep cue is missed, you may have an overtired child who has trouble falling asleep. Common sleep cues are eye rubbing, wanting to nurse, and grunting or growling sounds. Try to pinpoint sleep cues when they happen to avoid an overtired child.
Too much stress
Like adults, children are under stress too. Homework, spoken and unspoken expectations, anxiety, and family trouble can all contribute to sleep issues. Adding relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or visualization, to nightmare activities can calm a child’s stress allowing for better sleep.
Once we’ve identified the inhibitors to sleep, the second step in my approach is to equip parents and children for sleep success. For my patients, I generally recommend the steps below for optimal results:
Establishing a sleep goal
Are you looking for an earlier bedtime for your child? Or maybe just a child that stays in his or her own bed all night?
Defining a sleep goal is an important first step to working with a physician to improve your child’s sleep quality with measurable results. Parents must be willing to repeatedly reinforce recommended techniques and understand that change could take weeks, not hours.
Finding a routine
Adults and children alike strive for consistency and order. That’s why inconsistency in a bedtime routine can cause chaos, unpleasant evening, and make sleep harder to achieve. Starting a routine as early as four months of age is imperative to laying a good sleep foundation for life.
A dark or semi-dark bedroom can help the body find its sleep rhythm. If your child is afraid of the dark, a dim nightlight can help him or her feel comfortable in a darkened room.
Stalling techniques like “one more story” and “another drink of water” can quickly become a habit that is hard to break. Instead, be steadfast in your bedtime routine and you will see sleep changes happen over time.
Additionally, horseplay can keep children awake. Set a rule to slow down at least an hour before bed.
By working closely with your pediatric physician and by incorporating a few simple changes into your daily routine, you can help your children, and even yourself, get a good night’s sleep.