No matter your age, research clearly shows that creating a healthy bedtime routine is a fundamental step in having a nourishing and restful night’s sleep. Of course, children need more sleep than adults (between 10 and 12 hours per day for children between the ages of 3-12 years old versus 7-9 hours for most adults). This is due primarily to the fact that children are still growing and developing, both physically and emotionally, and need rest to fuel this growth. However, it’s not just about the quantity of sleep. Children also need good quality sleep to thrive. Now that kids are heading back to school, it’s a good moment to transition your child from the carefree hours of summer to a regimented sleep schedule for the school year. Not only will it be beneficial to them now, it will help to set them up with good sleep habits for life.
Let’s take a look at 6 things you can do with your kids to establish a good sleep routine and make the bedtime switch gradual and pain-free!
Create Powerful Positive Sleep Associations
When it comes to creating a sleep routine that works, one of a parent’s most powerful tools is healthy sleep associations. A sleep association is anything that a child connects with going to sleep. In fact, children start making sleep associations very young, with anything from being rocked to an object like a pacifier or blanket. Once your child is a little older, sleep associations include actions like changing into pajamas, brushing teeth, reading a bedtime story, saying goodnight, turning the lights low, singing songs, and so on. Together, these form a reliable set of steps to follow every night before bed that will cue your child’s brain and body that it’s time to go to sleep. In the same way, some sleep associations can be negative. For example, try to avoid creating a sleep association like falling asleep in your bed or drinking a cup of milk.
Set Up a Consistent Sleep Schedule
Not only should you create a set routine of actions and habits leading up to sleepy time, it’s also important to set and maintain a consistent bedtime and wake-up time every day. This is true regardless of whether it’s a school day or not. The same goes for your child’s nap schedule, which should also follow a consistent pattern from day to day. (Be sure and check out our post on how many hours of sleep we need.)
Don’t Allow Screen Time One Hour Before Bed
As part of your child’s bedtime routine, it’s important to plan at least one full hour of quiet, screen-free time before they go to sleep. That means no TV, video games, computers, phones, etc. Instead, let your child enjoy a bedtime story or listen to some soft, soothing music. (Learn more about how to create your own personal family media use plan from the American Academy of Pediatrics.) This is also good practice for parents, especially if you’re struggling with your own sleep health!
Bedtime routines are some of the best times for you to spend quality time with your child! Take advantage of these moments by doing things together like telling bedtime stories, sharing things about your day, answering questions (it’s amazing how philosophical kids can become just before bedtime!), or just cuddling. This is also a great opportunity to read to and with your child, even as they get older. Reading together builds a love of language and stories into their makeup from an early age, which cultivates creativity as well as a lifelong love of reading. It promotes increased concentration, as well as improved language skills. It also helps to develop a special bond between the two of you. Hearing the soft sound of your voice telling a story just before they go to sleep will have a soothing effect on your child, leading to better quality sleep and more pleasant dreams.
Avoid Sugar and Caffeine Before Bed
Ideally, it’s best to avoid caffeine and sugar from the late afternoon through the evening. Children are sensitive and react strongly to these stimulants, which adversely affect their ability to get a good night’s rest. If your child needs a light snack before bed, consider a glass of milk, crackers or low-sugar cereal. If possible, avoid eating altogether 1-2 hours before bed.
Children love to play and move their bodies, and all that wonderful energy needs a healthy outlet. Not only does physical activity improve strength and coordination, but it also fosters emotional well-being and is a life-long healthy habit. The AAP recommends at least 1 hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Another benefit is that it will help your child to sleep better too!
Create a Soothing Bedroom Environment
Just as your bedroom is a sanctuary, your child’s room should be their haven too. This is the place where she, he, or they should feel safe and calm. There are a few external factors you can control to help create this environment. At night, keep their bedroom as quiet and dark as possible, and control the temperature so it’s not too warm or too cool (68-72 degrees is ideal). Your child’s bed should feel soft, clean and comfortable, so that means having quality bedding, including soft sheets, the right pillow, and a supportive mattress.
Lead by example
Your child isn’t the only one who needs a healthy sleep routine! Keeping a regular sleep schedule can help maintain your body’s internal clock and will make your own sleep much more rejuvenating. Empower your child’s sleep habits by being a good example with your own nightly routine. That way, everyone will wake up rested, refreshed and ready to meet the beautiful day ahead!