As a parent, your first step in ensuring a good night’s rest is figuring how much sleep your child really needs. As each child is unique, a range of times are suggested (see table on opposite page). Remember, children who get too little sleep do not necessarily seem sleepy during the day. In fact, they may be more hyperactive or inattentive. When you find that your child is happier, calmer and handling daily stressors more easily, you’ve likely achieved the right number of hours.
Once you know how much sleep your child needs, it is now time to figure out how your child can get that amount. Bedtime resistance is common. Setting up a bedtime routine, and sticking with it as much as possible, is key at any age. A predictable routine is calming, and helps to avoid chaos and feeling rushed.
With young children, parents often base bedtimes on the family schedule. For instance, children who must get up early to attend day care should go to bed earlier. If your child wakes up at 6:30 a.m. and needs 10 hours of sleep, lights should go out at 8:30 p.m. or earlier. Start your routine 30 to 60 minutes before you want your child to fall asleep.
Your particular routine may include a bath, teeth brushing, and a story. Keep bedtime activities calming, predictable, and consistent. Repeat the same activities at the same time every night. Your child’s brain will begin to associate those activities with sleep, and slow down automatically.
Think about your child’s bedroom environment. As much as possible, keep the room quiet, cool and dark. Some children are very sensitive to light. Investing in good black-out curtains can really make a difference.
If your child shares a room, try including the other child in the routine. Ask an older sibling who has a different bedtime to be very quiet when entering or leaving. If having your baby in the same room disturbs your preschooler’s sleep, consider moving the crib to your room instead.
Bedtime should not include screens such as TVs, computers or tablets. Flickering lights and sound stimulate the brain rather than soothe it. For this reason, screens do not belong in the bedroom.
What’s happening in the rest of the house as your child tries to sleep? Interesting noises, such as a family conversation, a funny TV show or loud music, can be irresistible. Although the house does not need to be completely silent, try to keep loud noises (the dog barking) or compelling noises (the hockey game!) to a minimum.
Despite your best efforts, your child may still have difficulty sleeping. It is common for children of this age not to want to fall asleep alone. Many of us have tried lying down to soothe and encourage children to sleep. Soon, you are fast asleep while your child remains awake!
It is not necessarily wrong to lie beside your child for a few moments at the end of the bedtime routine. However, children need to develop the ability to fall asleep alone. Try using a nightlight or a special stuffy as a substitute. As your child works on this new skill, you can check in occasionally to say that everything is all right.
Often children get out of bed once the lights are off, or in the middle of the night. While also common, this can be very frustrating for parents. Avoid overreacting. Getting angry or loud only makes matters worse as it has a waking effect on the brain. Promptly and gently put your child back in bed. Provide reassurance that everything is fine, and leave the room. You may need to repeat the same action many times for a few days. Once children realize they will not be allowed to stay up longer or sleep with parents, they get the hang of staying in their own beds.
|Years||Hours of sleep required in 24 hours|
|1 to 2 years||11 to 14 hours (naps included)|
|3 to 5 years||10 to 13 hours (naps included)|
|6 to 12 years||9 to 12 hours|
|13 to 18 years||8 to 10 hours|
|(American Academy of Pediatrics)|
Although the times may shift, school-aged children still need an effective bedtime routine. If you didn’t establish one in early childhood, don’t despair – it is not too late. Use the same strategies recommended for younger children, and review the sleeping environment.
At this age, sports or other stimulating activities in the evening often make it hard for children to fall asleep. Allow enough wind-down time before bed. Too little activity during the day can also result in poor sleep. Make sure your child gets at least one hour of active play or exercise every day.
Even with a great schedule and routine, children can have difficulty falling or staying asleep. They may find themselves staring at the ceiling for an hour or more, or wake in the night unable to get back to sleep. Soft music, soothing sounds like seascapes, stretching, meditation, or reading a book can help calm the busy brain. Again, avoid screens of any kind.
Children in this age group often do not value sleep or make it a priority, which can become a major challenge. As with younger children, extracurricular activities like sports and arts can encroach on sleep time. Heavier loads of homework, studying for exams, part-time jobs, and a growing social life keep teens busy. All of these activities are often scheduled late into the evening or very early in the morning. Your child may not get home until 10 p.m. yet return to school for a 7 a.m. activity. It becomes impossible to get eight let alone 10 hours of sleep.
However, demanding schedules make quality sleep even more important. Possible solutions include naps after school, more rest on weekends, and perhaps limiting evening activities. Make sure your child is not stretched too thin. It helps to avoid pop, energy drinks and other caffeinated drinks as much as possible.
Electronics like laptops, phones, iPads and games make it even more difficult for teens to get to sleep. Many adolescents go to bed with electronics by their side. They use them right up until the moment they finally turn the lights off (and beyond!). Instead of sleeping, they are chatting with friends, checking social media, playing video games or watching shows. These activities are stimulating, and make it even harder to fall asleep once teens finally do decide it is time to turn everything off.
The best strategy is to avoid all screens starting one hour before sleep time. Enforce this habit early with pre-teens, while it is still relatively easy to control their activities. It is much easier than trying to impose this rule once they are 13, 14 or older. Although your child may object, be firm about screen time. Setting expectations and being consistent are just as important at this age as they were when your child was four years old.
Even with your best efforts, your child may not get enough quality sleep. In this case, talk to your family doctor. Certain medical conditions can affect your child’s sleep. For instance, snoring or mouth breathing may signal obstructive sleep apnea, or periodic limb movement disorder could wake your child from sleep. Over-the-counter or prescription medication can affect sleep. Psychological issues, including worry or sadness, can also cause sleep issues.
While getting a good night’s sleep can be challenging, it is worth the effort. Good sleep habits make an enormous difference to your child and your family health.