Setting healthy sleep habits when your child is young is key for their wellbeing. Here, Stephanie Silberman, Ph.D, clinical psychologist, sleep specialist and author of The Insomnia Workbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Getting the Sleep You Need, shares her insight on helping kids get a good night’s rest.
Sleep Problems in Children
“There are many sleep problems that are typical in children,” Dr. Silberman said, such as sleep talking or walking; confusional arousal (child is confused and disoriented); and sleep terrors (characterized by a blood-curdling scream and terrifying images).
The most important actions you can take are to “keep the bedroom very safe and free of sharp or harmful objects [and to] lock the windows and doors to the outside.” Also helpful is playing soft music or putting in a night-light, because this makes your child more aware of his or her surroundings. Sleep deprivation increases the risk for these problems, so make sure your child is getting enough sleep each night. This helps to decrease or prevent such problems.
To help with sleep terrors, in addition to ensuring your child isn’t sleep-deprived, “calmly bring them into their room.”
Signs Your Child Is Sleep-Deprived
Parents have to be very conscious of the cues that kids are giving them,” Silberman said, since they’re unable to verbalize that they’re sleepy.
Interestingly, the signs that kids are sleep-deprived are completely different from adults. Adults get sleepy, but kids “tend to be more hyper, inattentive, irritated and annoyed.” In fact, Silberman said that a lot has been written about sleep deprivation being mistaken for ADHD.
Also, pay attention to changes in your child. Are your kids participating in school and other activities as usual? Are they dragging?
If your child is showing these symptoms, consider what’s possibly causing it. For instance, “Does it happen on the weekend when they stay up late with you watching a movie?” Silberman said. Also, if these symptoms occur in combination with sleep apnea, see a specialist. The same goes for snoring, since kids shouldn’t snore.
Sleep-Promoting Suggestions for Children
1. Create a bedtime routine.
As with adults, setting up a bedtime routine helps get kids into sleep mode, Silberman said. This includes eliminating arousing activities from the routine and adopting relaxing ones. Make sure kids don’t participate in physical activities too close to bedtime or eat sugary foods. Calming activities include reading, taking a bath, drinking milk and giving hugs and kisses. “Our bodies need those types of signals [when] winding down time.” If your child is old enough, ask them what sleep-promoting activities they prefer.
As much as possible, try to keep the same activities as part of your routine every night, since again, this lets your little one know that it’s time for bed. Going to dinner or on vacation? Silberman emphasized that there’s no need for parents to stress about this. If you can, try to work around outings. For instance, if you’re at someone’s house for dinner, bring your child’s pjs with you and put them on there. Once they get home, they know it’s close to bedtime.
2. Keep a consistent sleep schedule.
For good sleep hygiene, a consistent sleep and wake cycle is important. As parents know, kids thrive on routines. (Adults do, too.) For instance, going to see a movie together? If you have the option, see an earlier showing.
3. Stick with it.
Kids tend to stall before bedtime. They want you to read them just one more book, give them one more hug and kiss and get them another glass of water, Silberman said. They’ll try to press to get their way.
For working parents, it can be especially hard to enforce bedtime. “They haven’t seen their kids during the day and just have a few hours at night [with them].” Many can feel a bit of guilt. But you “shouldn’t feel guilty about emphasizing good sleep habits in kids.” Children “who sleep better do better in school and have a better mood.”
So don’t allow stall tactics to become their own routine. Set limits with your kids in a “kind and calming way.”
4. Get everyone involved in the routine.
Have everyone in the house get ready for bed together, especially if you have young children, she said. You can dim the lights, get into your pjs and brush your teeth together. One of the reasons why kids like to stay up is because they “feel like they’re going to miss something.” “Show them it’s dark outside, there’s nothing to do now” and everyone is sleeping.
5. Don’t use sleep as a punishment.
Parents never want to create an association between a child’s bad behavior and bedtime (e.g., “If you don’t do this, you’re going to bed”). Instead, sleep should be viewed as a positive priority.
For instance, Silberman suggested saying: “Everybody needs sleep; it’s how we grow big and strong; you’ll have a fun day tomorrow because you’ll feel rested; sleep is important for your brain to work.”
6. Don’t get in bed with your child.
Some parents have a tendency to lie down in bed with their kids to help them fall asleep. But this is “teaching your child that they need you [and] can’t fall asleep without you.” She added, “What happens when you’re not there?”
7. Teach your kids to self-soothe.
It’s important for kids to learn to fall asleep on their own. For instance, parents should put a child to bed when they’re calm and seem “sleepy and happy, instead of waiting until they fall asleep on you. You can sing to them while they’re in their crib, and then gradually leave the room.”
8. Give them a transitional object.
What also helps kids self-soothe is to have a transitional object, such as a stuffed animal or blanket. This can be any object that’s comforting to your child. This way, again, parents don’t have to be there in order for their kids to fall asleep.
To learn more about sleep specialist and clinical psychologist Stephanie Silberman, Ph.D, and her work, please visit her website.