We’ve all done it: watched the rest of that movie we have been dying to see that finally came out on Netflix even though we have an early meeting, deadline or test the next morning. We know we will regret it, but we just can’t stop ourselves. The next morning, we’re groggy and cursing ourselves, vowing never to do that again…at least until the next movie or local event comes to town. Why should children be any different? Un/fortunately for them, they have parents telling them what to do, which includes when to go to sleep. Do as I say, not as I do, right?
The importance of sleep
We’ve all heard that sleep is important, but exactly how does it impact us and our children? Sleep helps us function better physically, emotionally, and metabolically. When we don’t get enough sleep, everyone from toddlers to teens to adults has a more difficult time in all aspects of daily life. Early childhood not only marks multiple milestones in motor and verbal development but is also essential for brain development. During this time period, sleep-wake regulation and sleep consolidation form; the habits developed at this time have lasting effects on individual child temperament, neurological/physiological/psychosocial development, and even family dynamics. As a rule of thumb, preschoolers need 10-13 hours per night (naps included) and 6-13-year-old children need 9-11 hours.
Is your child showing signs of poor sleep? Watch out for these tip offs: reduced concentration, increased distraction, impulsivity or hyperactivity. How can we make sure that our children get enough hours?
Create a routine
Yep, that’s right, bedtime routines increase sleep and reinforce positive sleep behaviors (I think Maria was onto something!). One study examined the role of a regular bedtime and found that adherence to a bedtime routine was associated with a greater amount of nightly sleep at 36 and 42 months of age. Just as Maria Montessori proposed, consistency and predictable environments are the key to a child’s success! Researchers found that children had better sleep if the bedtime routine was predictable and consistent even if daytime parenting practices were not, demonstrating that even a little predictability can go a long way. Out of all the parent groups studied, children of parents who utilized consistent parenting practices throughout the day and a high adherence to a bedtime routine slept about 1 hour more per night than all other groups tested. That time really adds up over the course of the school year and beyond!
How can you create a bedtime routine that lasts?
First of all, take a look at our sample routine found on our Regain the Routine post to start your new bedtime routine! Keep in mind that the researchers found that the five most important steps include:
Taking a bath
Putting on pajamas
Going to the bathroom
Reading a story
To get your routine started, pick a bedtime and stick to it to create a successful, predictable environment that primes your child for zzz’s. Keep the bedtime through the weekend, as it can take several days to recover from late nights. Next, stop screen-time well in advance. Blue light found in LED displays on phones, ipads, and even TVs activates parts of the brain that tell children (and adults) to be awake. It has been hypothesized that blue light from electronic devices may negatively affect melatonin secretion, mood, cognitive function, and sleep architecture. Next, in keeping with Dr. Montessori’s philosophy on the prepared environment, create a successful sleeping environment in the bedroom. Your child’s bedroom should be dark, cool, and without distracting/flashing lights from electronics or clocks. If possible, the room should also be free from toys. Your child should be dressed in thin pajamas and covered with thin blankets to avoid overheating. Use the bed only for sleep so your children can create a connection between bed and sleep. If you’re also having trouble getting to sleep, these principles can be carried over to adults to create better sleep hygiene for the whole family!
Refer to this pamphlet on bedtime routines from the Children’s Hospital of Orange County for more information.
*Tips for working parents: A bath before bed has been associated with improved sleep in adults due to its effects on core body temperature. Why not structure your own routine to include a bath at least one time per week to increase mindfulness and reduce stress?
**When to consult the pros: If you have employed all of these techniques and your child is still having trouble falling or staying asleep, start a sleep diary to track their sleep cycles and consult a pediatrician for more information.
The Nighttime Snuggler
What if, even after you’ve created a bedtime routine, your child wakes up in the middle of the night to sleep with you? During that moment of weakness when their big, beautiful eyes meet your tired ones, it can be easy to give in. However, these interactions that commonly include cuddling and carrying the toddler can lead to more nighttime awakenings by creating an environment of positive reinforcement where the child is “rewarded” with attention, cuddling, and sleeping with parents for waking up at night, establishing a hard-to-break pattern leaving everyone tired in the morning. How do you stop this vicious cycle in its tracks?
Who’s bed? Their bed! When your child gets out of bed, calmly walk them back to their own bed as soon as possible. Keep conversations short. You can spend time with them in their rooms, but do not get into bed with them. Instead, sit in a chair next to the bed until they are drowsy, so they can learn to sleep on their own and that they will not be rewarded for waking up at night.
Mom’s mental health is at stake, too!
A predictable and consistent bedtime routine doesn’t just impact your children, it impacts parents as well. Another study found that maternal mood significantly improved when bedtime routines were established and practiced regularly. Many factors were at play here. Children had better daytime behaviors, leading to decreased maternal mental stress. Children with stable routines called out and climbed out of bed less often, creating better sleep for the entire family. Mothers participating in the study reported significant improvements in tension, anger, fatigue and confusion…sign me up!
A bedtime routine isn’t just for kids – the whole family can use sleep hygiene principles to create better sleep for everyone, even parents! Keep in mind that parents control children’s sleep and children’s sleep plays a role in controlling parents’ mood; the cycle starts with you. The most important thing to remember is to create a consistent, predictable routine that is repeated every day, even on weekends… Now let’s count some sheep!