We all know that parents are exhausted, but actually, many of our kids are too! Kids have grueling schedules with many of them attending daycare for the same hours that we are working or going to school and extra-curricular. The pace of life has affected children’s schedules just as much as adults, and alongside this children’s bodies and brains are growing much more rapidly than adults so it’s absolutely vital that they get the sleep that they need! Here we look at how you can put together a healthy bedtime routine to help maximize sleep for the whole family.
Set your expectations
First and foremost, have realistic expectations! One of the most commonly reported problems regarding young children is sleep “issues” so surely this should give us a clue! Children who wake in the night, struggle to fall asleep, wake too early or struggle to get out of bed are the rule, not the exception to it. In fact, most adults don’t fall asleep instant, or “sleep through the night” in a solid 12-hour block, so it’s unreasonable for us to expect children to.
From an evolutionary perspective young children are wired to need their parents at night; our ancestors slept communally and shared “watch” duties at night time in order to keep everyone safe (Worthman and Melby 2002) so children aren’t typically being deliberately naughty or difficult when they don’t want us to leave their room, instead their bodies just remember the caveman days when it would have been totally weird for a small child to be put to sleep away from the rest of tribe!
In terms of ‘bedtime protest,’ there is a school of thought that suggests that this is a uniquely western problem since in many other cultures children are not “put to bed” at say 7 pm, but go to bed when their parents do, and often, with their parents.
With all this in mind, we can approach our children’s sleep and bedtime routine with more realistic expectations. That is not to say that we shouldn’t seek to improve bedtimes, because it is important that parents and children do need to sleep, it’s just that our expectations may need to be adjusted.
Work with the biological clock
Circadian rhythms or the ‘biological clock’ is designed to regulate the timings of sleepiness and wakefulness as we go through 24-hour periods. If we work with the effects of daylight we can help children (and grown-ups!) to sleep better during the nighttime.
Daylight is what helps to set our and sleep-wake schedule. So, exposure to natural light in the daytime can help to improve children’s sleep. Blue light signals to the body that it’s time to wake up and disrupts the hormones needed for sleep. Frustratingly, blue light is the kind of light found in many of our homes, and on electronic devices try switching off devices for a couple of hours before bedtime, or, if you must use them, use them with blue-light filters.
Daytime sensory input
We often worry about overstimulating children and with the hectic lifestyles many of us lead, this is certainly a possibility. However, something that is also worth considering is that babies, toddlers and young children need adequate rich, sensory input during the day in order for them to sleep well at night. Indeed, many parents report that their little ones sleep especially well after a busy day at a nursery where they have had this kind of rich, sensory input.
Ensuring that we are spending adequate time outdoors is good for children and adults; along with exposure to natural sunlight, spending time outdoors can help to burn off excess physical energy which increases sleep pressure. Fresh air also affects the types of hormones that our body produces, which in turn can lead to better sleep.
Some children fight bedtime or wake in the night for connection. This can be especially true when there is a new sibling in the house, you have recently weaned from a bottle, pacifier or breastfeeding, or there have been big changes like starting school or moving class. It’s not usually a very effective technique because tired parents tend to get frustrated rather than want to spend time with their child! but if your little one is struggling with bedtime or waking frequently at night it might be that they need more connection during the day. Playing together before bed or cuddling up and reading stories is a great way to make sure that a child’s need for connection is being met.
Where to sleep?
Where your child sleeps can impact what their sleep looks like. The western world makes a big deal about children having their own bed, or their own room, but again this is something that goes against children’s natural instincts. In the past, it would have been natural for whole families to sleep together, and we see this in children’s desire to sleep with their parents. Safe co-sleeping might be one way for everyone to get the sleep they need, conversely, some children do sleep better in their own space, so this might be something to experiment with.
Bedtime sensory input
There are plenty of ways to use the senses to help children to fall asleep and get back to sleep if they wake. We’ve looked at ways to use light to help children fall asleep, sound can be comforting too; many parents have great success using white noise with babies and younger toddlers but even playing lullabies or audiobooks can help signal that it’s time to sleep. Older children can still use sound-based sleep aids too, many adults do! Essential oils can be useful for some children; perhaps try massaging your baby, giving your toddler a foot rub, or using an essential oil pillow spray with older kids. Relaxing essential oils like lavender or chamomile can help to relax and calm children, ready for bed. When it comes to touch, perhaps consider the materials that your child is sleeping in; their pajamas and bedsheets can make a big difference and so can the temperature and humidity in their room. Again, different things will suit different children so you will need experiment and find what works.
Try to keep bedtimes simple and consistent. By all means, try and improve sleep, but its important to let the pursuit of the perfect bedtime routine consume your family life. As with most things in parenting, this too shall pass, and usually far too quickly and then you just might find that you miss the hour-long snuggles by the time your child is a teenager.