Sleep! oh yes that lovely word that we all learn all too soon, will become a distant memory when we have children. But it doesn’t have to be, as help is at hand to create and maintain good sleep habits with you so you can help remove the stress out of bedtime, but also help you to make it a special time for you and your child.
With bedtime leading to weekly tantrums from one in five (20%) children aged between three and six, most children’s sleep struggles can often be addressed with a simple yet practical solution.
Recent research from Dream Lites*, the cuddly bedtime toys, reveals that the average three to six year old child awakes three times in the night, with almost half (46%) of mums regularly awaking to soothe their infant back to sleep.
Sleep expert and founder of Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic, Mandy Gurney, has created a simple guide for parents to help their young children to sleep better. If you are unsure why your child has difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, take a look over this handy checklist – implementing small changes could make all the difference for your family come bedtime:
1. Set a regular bedtime and wake up time
Encourage a regular sleep-wake schedule for your child with no more than one hour’s deviation from day to day, including weekends. This will help regulate your child’s internal body clock and ensure they are getting the right amount of sleep. Your child’s wake up time is just as important as their bedtime since our body clocks are reset every day by the time we get up in the morning.
2. Avoid stimulating activities in the hour before bedtime
Have a quiet wind down period about an hour before your child goes to bed. Turn off the TV and any computers; bright lights from screens can interfere with production of the sleep hormone melatonin that is responsible for making us drowsy. Instead use this time for reading, doing puzzles, listening to a story tape and chatting about the day with your child.
3. Stick to a set bedtime routine
It is never too late to establish a bedtime routine. Aim to carry out the same series of steps each night, around 30 minutes before your child goes to bed. This routine may include a short warm bath and a quiet story, before lights out with a purposeful “goodnight”. Make it low-key and relaxing – it is repetitive for you, and may even get boring, but it is worth it for the long-term benefits to your child’s sleep pattern.
4. Enforce clear boundaries for bedtime behaviour
This applies to you as well as your child! If you have said you will give your child one cup of milk in bed, do not be talked into fetching a second. Once boundaries start to become stretched, most children will push further. Most requests for a drink or another trip to the toilet are excuses to string out bedtime and should be resisted so that they do not become a habit.
5. A healthy sleep environment
The bedroom should ideally be a comfortable temperature of 18 degrees. Warm temperatures can disturb sleep, and research shows a hot room leads to more wake time and a lighter sleep at night.
Our biological clocks are regulated by light. Make sure your child has time playing outside every day so they are exposed to natural light. Ensure their bedroom is dimly lit; darkness triggers the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. If your child wakes early in the morning consider black out blinds to block out morning light.
6. Teach your child a settling routine that does not rely on props that require your presence
Children who rely on props at bedtime, such as your presence, are more vulnerable to waking later in the night. As your child comes into light sleep phases, which we all do throughout the night, they are likely to look for you to help them to get back to sleep.
7. Leave your child awake when you say goodnight
This will teach your child to get to sleep by themselves, which is beneficial for both of you.
8. Ensure your child is asleep within 15 to 20 minutes of leaving them
This is the maximum amount of time it should take your child to fall asleep. If a child is awake for long periods at bedtime some can become anxious that they cannot sleep – even as bedtime approaches they start to worry, leading to an anxious and stressful time for everyone. Check that your bedtime routine is quiet, focused and relaxing and that your child is not dozing or napping in the day, if not appropriate for their age.
Avoid allowing your child caffeine four to six hours before bedtime, since tea, coffee and fizzy drinks can profoundly disrupt night-time sleep.
Sugary sweets at bedtime will not only give your child a boost of energy hindering them from falling asleep, but research has also shown them to be a cause of nightmares. Instead, encourage your child to have a bedtime snack of foods that contain the amino acid, tryptophan. These foods are thought to make some people drowsy, and include bananas, warm milk, oat biscuits, wholegrain low-sugar cereals, eggs and chicken.
10. Keep bedtime stress-free
Do not use bedtimes to discuss any difficulties or anxieties relating to today or tomorrow. This can unearth difficulties from your child’s day, which may interfere with sleep. Try to get these types of discussions out of the way by teatime.
“However hard and boring a bedtime routine for kids may seem after a long day, it is vital to enable everyone in the family to have a good night’s sleep. Just setting aside 30 minutes at the end of the day with a simple, quiet, relaxing bath, a calm story and kiss goodnight is well worth the effort.”
Mandy Gurney, sleep expert and founder of Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic
If, despite your best efforts, your child continues to have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep during the night or has nightmares or night terrors, they may have a genuine sleep problem. Talk to your GP or health visitor about your concerns.