What’s the key to getting a good night’s rest, mama? Making sure you’re not exhausted trying to get the kids to bed first! We enlisted the help of expert Sassy Mama contributor Dr. Dogan to lay out a simple sleep routine for kids…
Sleep is a necessary part of our daily routine and can impact our ability to attend and concentrate as well as learn novel information. For children, having a healthy sleep routine is essential for development and behavioural adjustment. Here are some easy steps that can help alleviate current behavioral sleep issues or develop a good sleep routine for you and your family:
1. Do set limits.
Having clear limits with children shouldn’t end after school or at dinner time. Most children have challenges managing their own behaviors and having a structured, consistent routine will help them develop these self-control skills. Pick a bedtime and stick to it. Give your kids a warning with a timer, approximately 30 minutes prior, that the bedtime routine will begin soon. You then mustn’t forget to follow through when the timer rings!
2. Do establish a bedtime routine.
Parents should agree beforehand on what the bedtime routine will “look like”. Explain the new routine to your children and do your best to ignore any negative comments about the adjustment. It is likely they won’t be delighted about the changes, especially if they are used to staying up late and getting their way! The bedtime routine should start with calm, preferred activities (not video games or rough and tumble play). A warm bath or low intensity activity (floor play with soft toys or drawing) are a nice way to end a long day. Follow these calming activities with teeth brushing, changing into pjs, bedtime stories and cuddles. Then at the prearranged time it’s lights out! Use the timer and follow through with a quick kiss or hug and then leave the room. Having a visual schedule for younger children can also help them adapt to the new routine. He/she can participate, while developing skills associated with independence and responsibility, by helping to tick off each part of the routine as he/she goes along.
3. Do set up the room to encourage sleep.
Removing distractions from the bedroom will help your little ones fall asleep faster. Rooms should be dark or have a night light. All screens, such as T.V.s, phones, handheld games and electronic reading devices, should be removed. Noise from outside the room should also be minimised. If your children hear you talking, watching T.V. or even working, it will be harder for them to relax and become drowsy. To them anything is more fun than sleep, right?
4. Do prepare for the crying, pleading, bargaining, and sneak outs.
Kids are going to test. Why not, it may work out in their favor, right? Try your best to ignore the minor crying or whimpering, especially if it is brief. If the behaviours are not something that can be ignored then it is OK to check on them. Checking will reassure both you and your child that everything is fine. However, check-ins should be brief (1 minute) and very dull. Avoid lengthy conversations and cuddles. Just remind your child it is bedtime and that they are safe. Then leave the room and repeat, if needed, using the same brief phrase (i.e. “We are in the other room but it is your bedtime now. Do your best to fall asleep and we will see each other in the morning”). If you have a sneaky kiddo who leaves their room and comes to find you, don’t scold or lecture him/her. Simply but firmly, walk or carry him/her back to the bedroom, giving him/her as little attention as possible. Some parents may have to repeat this process several times for the first few nights.
5. Do be consistent.
Initially parents will need to be very consistent with the new changes to the routine. This means even keeping a regular routine on weekends (with variation by an hour or two) and holidays. The more stable the schedule, the more stable your child’s behaviour patterns will be. Consistency is especially important during the first few weeks until the routine is automatic.
1. Don’t get discouraged by a lack of enthusiasm!
Change is hard for anyone, especially if the child thinks the current routine is working well for them. Expect there to be protests. Expect there to be whining and complaining. Ignore the complaints or bargaining and avoid having lengthy discussions about why the routine is important. Long explanations simply stall and delay the routine (which is what kids want!). Speak in a clear, firm tone and assist your child in complying with the routine (e.g., turning off the T.V. if they are unwilling to do so, helping them put on their pjs if they refuse to do it by themselves).
2. Don’t use punitive methods.
Yelling, spanking and threatening punishment don’t teach healthy sleep habits. It may actually exacerbate the problem at home. If you find your child is not responding to these simple “Do’s” tips, contact a professional who can help teach you other effective ways to motivate your child to adjust to the change in routine.
3. Don’t forget to reward improvements.
Praise and rewards are an excellent way to show your child what you want to see more of! Again, change is hard (and ever harder for some who have had poor habits for a longer period of time). Special breakfast treats and specific praise (i.e., “Great job, staying in bed all night. What a big boy!” vs “You had a good night”) are a great way to teach your child they are doing well with the adjustment.
4. Don’t set unrealistic expectations.
Your overall goal for your child’s bedtime may differ from your short-term goal. For instance, if your child normally goes to bed unwillingly, with a lot of struggle, at 10pm, do not expect to change the bedtime routine to 8pm. This is not likely to happen immediately but you can work toward it over time. Perhaps start with changing the bedtime to 9:30pm. Once your child is able to follow this routine without challenging behaviours and it becomes a pattern, then move the bedtime to 9:15 or 9pm and so forth. Take your time and don’t rush it. Wait until your child has been successful with the temporary bedtime for a few days or a week before altering it.
5. Don’t give up!
If these simple strategies don’t work it doesn’t mean your family must be stuck in your current routine. Some children and families require more support and structured strategies. This does not have to be a long-term or overwhelming task. With the right support you should see change within a few weeks.
For those parents whose children experience additional sleep related issues such as frequent nightmares / terrors, daily problems with compliance, bed wetting or excessive meltdowns (e.g., screaming, refusal to stay in their room, destructive behaviors), please contact a professional (physician, pediatric psychologist), as a more intensive approach may be warranted. However, even in extreme cases, there are evidence-based treatments that can help get you and your family back on track to a healthy, stress-free night.