Tips for better rest

Nothing looks more peaceful than a sleeping child. But even when they’re curled up and tucked into bed, their brains are working hard on developmental activities like memory consolidation (the process of putting experiences in order, learning what’s important and unlearning what’s not).

“[Sleep] is crucial for everyone but especially for kids, who are developing both mentally and physically,” says Dr. Sumit Bhargava, director of Stanford Medicine Children’s Health Sleep Center. “We are learning more and more about the impact of sleep on regulatory hormones. For example, in kids, the most intense period of growth hormone release is shortly after the beginning of deep sleep.”

So, sleep is important, especially for kids. Sadly, just knowing your kids need a good night’s sleep doesn’t mean they’ll get it. Adam Seligman, a physician’s assistant in the Stanford Medicine Children’s Health Sleep Center, offers these helpful suggestions.

Eight suggestions for a better night sleep

1. Make a plan

Write up a bedtime ritual. If you have an infant, it might be as simple as singing a song and turning on the white-noise machine. If you have a toddler or an older child, ask for their input in forming the plan. Let them decide how many books you will read together and when the cuddles will happen (this helps them identify their own settling needs and gives them a sense of control). Next, list the steps in sequence — “Put on pajamas, brush teeth, read books, cuddle, lights out” — so everyone knows exactly what will happen. For kids that can’t read, use a chart with pictures. Review the plan together before you begin. When a plan is communicated and rehearsed, children are more likely to internalize it and less likely to ask for things that are not on the script.

2. Time together

Some kids become unsettled at bedtime because they’re longing for more attention from their caregiver. When parents work full time during the day, evenings are when kids get their parents’ attention. On the other hand, when a caregiver is home all the time, kids become dependent on the caregiver’s presence for comfort. Either way, spending a few minutes asking kids questions about their day (focusing on the positive) or telling them things you’ve noticed about them can be a nice ritual. For babies, spend 5 or 10 minutes cuddling and making eye contact, singing or saying soothing words.

3. Respect the routine

Sticking to a set bedtime helps children feel secure because it offers predictability. Kids of all ages (and grown-ups, too) should ideally go to sleep and wake up at the same times every day, give or take 30 to 60 minutes. Yes, that includes weekends, too. This may mean discouraging teens from sleeping in on Saturday mornings since it can disturb their circadian rhythm and make waking up on school days that much harder. For younger kids, earlier bedtimes (before 9:00 p.m.) mean they get more sleep and are better rested in the morning. Younger kids need between 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night, so if your kids have an early rise time for daycare or school, make sure their bedtime is early enough to ensure they get a full night’s rest.

4. Power down

Electronic screens are a bad idea before bed because their light stimulates the brain. This can make kids feel wired just when they should be resting, and it can also inhibit the production of melatonin and serotonin, the sleepy-time hormones. Ideally, kids should turn off screens at least one to two hours before bed. Limiting screen time can help in other ways, too. Kids who are off their screens will be more active, burning through their natural physical energy, which makes it easier to settle down at bedtime. What happens during the day affects the night.

What about sleep technologies? For younger kids, some parents use a special, colorful lighted sleep/wake clock to help their kids know when it’s nighttime and when it’s wake-up time. Personal wearable devices that track sleep (like a FitBit) can sometimes work as an effective screening tool for sleep issues. But they’re not diagnostic. If your child’s wearable device indicates they’re not getting quality sleep, it’s definitely worth seeing a sleep specialist to figure out why.

5. Keep it positive

Help younger kids who can’t tell time learn when it’s OK to rise by using a special clock that changes color at the appropriate sleep and wake times. Reward kids for waiting until the appointed hour. You can use a sticker chart and reward seven consecutive nights with a special treat or with fun one-on-one time, such as 10 minutes of playing a board game in the morning. But keep it positive. Don’t punish your kids for getting up. It might be frustrating as a parent to keep walking them back to bed, but you don’t want to create negative associations with being in bed.

6. Practice makes perfect

It’s also important to practice good “sleep hygiene.” Use the bed and bedroom for resting. Make sure toys and distractions are cleaned up before bed, or store them in another area of the house, if possible. Creating a strong sleep association with the bed and bedroom makes it easier to fall asleep there. The more your mind practices relaxing and falling asleep in a certain place, the easier it becomes.

7. Restless nights

If your child is having a hard time at night, it’s important to figure out if it’s from night terrors, sleepwalking or nightmares.

Nightmares are bad dreams that occur during REM sleep, and they are common in people of all ages. The distinguishing feature of a nightmare is that the dreamer will remember it. If your child had a nightmare or didn’t sleep well the night before, you can ask them about it in the morning. If they can talk about a bad dream, you can help them come up with some alternative endings or some other images to focus on instead. Explain that nightmares are a product of their imagination, and reassure them that they’re safe.

Sleepwalking and night terrors occur in slow wave sleep. They happen during the first third of the sleep cycle, and the dreamer won’t remember them. If your child is having night terrors or sleepwalking episodes, it’s important to have them evaluated by a sleep specialist.

8. This too shall pass

If you’re still facing a little insomniac after all your best efforts, don’t despair. Try to pull back and consider what might be going on. Sometimes children regress as they face a new developmental milestone. Sometimes they’re struggling to process a significant event. Trust your intuition.

Up until the age of four, parents really do have to teach children to sleep. This means taking them back to bed when they get up at the wrong time and helping to soothe their anxiety after bad dreams. If you need to use bribes at this age, don’t despair. It’s just a phase, and you’ll all make it through soon enough.

And if you’re unsure, talk with your pediatrician or contact a sleep specialist to help you create a plan that you can stick to. You don’t need to have a major issue to see a sleep specialist. Sometimes having an expert weigh in to help determine why the child is waking can help everyone relax and sleep better.