Sleep Hygiene For Kids: Pediatrician’s 3 Tips

sleep hygiene tips for your kids

Sleep Hygiene For Kids

Maintaining good sleep hygiene for your children can be challenging to say the least. Now add in a time change with “spring ahead” or “fall back” and it can be exhausting, to say the least! Adjusting to Daylight Savings Time (DST) time change should take no more than a few days or a week at most. Having good sleep hygiene for your kids all year long can make that transition easier. 

The term sleep hygiene encompasses 3 components: bedtime routine, bedroom environment, and things to do in the daytime that help your body get ready for a restful night. Let’s talk first about what parents can do to create better sleep hygiene for kids. Then we can tackle transitioning to the DST time change. 

Sleep Hygiene (Part 1) – Bedtime Routine 

We often hear that human beings are creatures of habit. Once we are in the habit of certain activities, our bodies begin to anticipate what’s coming next. It goes without saying, a consistent bedtime routine is key to helping our bodies get ready for sleep. 

Plan for the same bedtime & wake-up time every day

This routine can greatly help your child’s body know when to wind down and when to get going for the day. Even if they end up having an occasional late night on a weekend or holiday, wake your child up at the usual time the next morning to keep their body’s rhythm from getting off cycle. 

Start a predictable series of activities 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime to help your child wind down

The hour before bedtime for kids should be occupied with activities that are calming and lead them to feel drowsy in their bed. Most of my patients probably have my mantra memorized, “In the hour before bedtime, turn off all technology. Take a bath, change into your pajamas, brush your teeth, crawl into bed, and read a book.” Some families use this time for nightly prayers and bedtime songs. This is also a good time for parents to have a quiet one-on-one chat with their children to make sure they feel positive about the day that’s just passed before they go to bed at night. Older children might benefit from light stretching, relaxation breathing, or positive visualization to help focus their minds on winding down. This shouldn’t be a time for invigorating activities like rough-housing, singing loudly, or running around. 

Turn off all technology

This means all screens: telephones, tablets, televisions, computers, and video games. This also includes electronic readers like the Kindle. Blue light emitted from the screens of technology actually inhibits the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone in our brains. This can cause children to be more alert going into bedtime and make it more difficult to fall asleep. Not to mention, the excitement & energy of games or social media might just keep them from wanting to shut their eyes in the first place!

sleep hygiene for kids

Sleep Hygiene (Part 2) – Bedroom Environment

Our internal circadian rhythm regulates our natural sleep patterns. It is responsive to day and night telling our bodies to wake up when it’s bright and go to sleep when it’s dark. Though it can be frustrating for new parents, a baby’s circadian rhythm doesn’t begin to develop until 6 weeks of age. It then takes a few months to start working consistently. That’s why newborns usually have their nights & days mixed up and infants won’t start sleeping through the night until 5-6 months of age. Once past this stage of infancy, however, we all sleep best when we keep our primitive built-in cycles on track. 

Keep the bedroom dark at night

Our bodies release the sleep hormone melatonin when it’s dark outside and in a couple of hours prior to our bedtime. There is nothing wrong if your child wants a small night light or a few glow in the dark stars on their ceiling at night. There will be a problem with their sleep, however, if they leave a bright light on in or around their room. This means parents should avoid hallway lights, closet lights or bathroom lights shining brightly into their child’s bedroom at night. If your child’s bedroom has a window that allows bright light from the street to shine inside or pours in the early morning sunshine, you might consider blackout curtains or drapes to help keep the environment dark at bedtime. Remember, our circadian rhythm tells our bodies to sleep when it’s dark and we can use this to our advantage in managing sleep hygiene for kids.

No technology in the bedroom

It’s no surprise that the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend having televisions, computers, or video games in the bedroom. The bedroom needs to be a place associated with sleeping, not with the technological pastime. Not only can technology keep the room bright at night, as we discussed above, but the blue light emitted from these screens also prevents the release of melatonin.

Keep the environment quiet at night

Loud noises or background music might keep your child from sleeping comfortably at night. Though you might play some soft classical or relaxation music to help your kids wind down or get relaxed before bedtime, you should plan to turn it off once they fall asleep. Sometimes it helps to run a fan or a white noise machine to keep the sound consistent in the bedroom at night. Otherwise, sudden sounds like a car driving by outside or parents watching tv in the living room might trigger a child to wake up.

Set the thermostats to a cooler temperature

Too warm of a temperature can keep us uncomfortable at night. A cooler temperature mimics the days for our circadian rhythm when our ancestors would sleep in the outdoors under the stars and it would be cooler at night. 

Associate the bed with sleep

The bed should be a place where your child sleeps. It should not be the place where they sit to do homework, talk on the phone with their friends, play video games or get a timeout. Since we are creatures of habit, if the only thing kids do when lying in bed is sleep, their bodies will get used to feeling sleepy when getting into bed at night. 

Children playing tug of war at the park

Sleep Hygiene (Part 3) – Things To Do In The Daytime To Get Good Sleep At Night

As parents, we often think, “How can we tire our children out so they will go to sleep easily at night?” Exercise in a normal routine does promote good sleep at night. There is no need, however, to over-exhaust your children, especially in the hours before bedtime. There’s also no need to deprive them of sleep in an effort to get them to fall asleep more easily. Over-exhaustion & sleep deprivation can actually cause kids to be irritable. Once they’re irritable or worked up, they may have a tough time getting comfortable enough to fall asleep at night. 

Encourage physical activity during the day

Children need to play during the day. Physical activity allows our brains to release positive endorphins which keeps us happy and healthy. It also boosts our immune system. Interspersing periods of play with periods of rest helps the body feel balanced. Additionally, spending time outdoors in the sunlight tells our circadian rhythm where we’re at in the day and night cycle, making it easier for us to sleep at night. 

Eat a balanced diet

Vitamins and minerals from healthy food sources are necessary for children’s optimal growth & development. Eating a lot of processed foods & refined sugars can give their metabolism unnecessary ups & downs. Eating a late dinner or sugary foods prior to bedtime can prevent their bodies from feeling sleepy. If their body is focused on digesting a large dinner or looking for ways to burn through the sugar rush, it won’t be able to wind down for a good night’s sleep. Try to have kids eat dinner at least a couple of hours before bedtime and offer a light, high protein snack if they get hungry before going to sleep. Additionally, try to limit processed pantry type snacks to no more than one in a day and preferably, earlier in the day. 

Limit caffeinated beverages and sugary drinks

Caffeine and sugar can lead to ups and downs in energy and cause children not to feel sleepy at bedtime. Pediatricians like myself recommend avoiding sugary and caffeinated beverages altogether. This includes Gatorade, juices, and sports drinks. If your child must have a sugary or caffeinated drink, it should be earlier in the day, at least 6 hours before bedtime, not with or after dinner. 

Fall Time Change

How Can You Help Your Kids Transition In & Out Of Daylight Savings Time

It is easiest to help children transition to the “spring ahead” or “fall back” 1-hour time change when they are already following good sleep hygiene practices. It can be confusing for our children and their bodies if we try to change things when there’s already chaos at bedtime. A routine that’s already anticipated by our children can tolerate mild modifications more easily. 

Remember the light and dark responsive circadian rhythm.

Right now, in the fall, we gain an hour as DST ends. This means that while our teenagers are enjoying an extra hour of sleep in the morning, our little ones are waking up as soon as it’s bright outside. Teenagers’ bodies actually have a shift in their circadian rhythm. Their bodies release melatonin later at night. If given a chance, they would sleep in late every day. So the fall time change is heaven for them. Infants and toddlers, however, are a different story. If we push them in one night to stay up 1 hour later than they’re used to in the hopes they’ll wake up 1 hour later, it may backfire. They may get cranky, irritable, and over-exhausted at night, refusing to sleep. In the morning, their internal pre-set clock might wake them up with the sunshine an hour earlier than we want them to even if we were able to push them to fall asleep later. Don’t force them to stay awake any longer than they’re able to. Use blackout curtains along with a quiet, cool room environment to keep them sleeping a little longer in the morning. 

Plan for a gradual transition over a few days

In the fall, start putting babies to sleep 15 minutes later and waking them up 15 minutes later in the morning a few days prior to the time change. Increase by 15 minutes every day or every couple of days until you have adjusted by an hour. A gradual transition tends to work a little bit easier in the adjustment for children. Keep everything else in their routine the same. In the spring, you would start putting them to sleep 15 minutes earlier and waking them up 15 minutes earlier a few days prior to the time change. You would keep going 15 minutes earlier every day or two until you have advanced by an hour. Now, when the time “springs ahead,” your child is already there. Use your blackout curtains if you need to help them fall asleep earlier at night. Turn on the lights when you’re getting ready to wake them up in the morning. If you haven’t been able to adjust before the time change, the total process will take no more than a week. As always in parenthood, patience is a virtue… now is no different.

Have your kids get enough sleep prior to the time change

If your children are already well-rested in the few days prior to the time change, it should not exhaust them too much as they make the transition. If they have been having a lot of activity going into the weekend of the time change, like sleepovers, tournaments, or staying up late to play with friends, they may be a little grumpy and irritable come the Monday after the time change. Again, this too will pass in a few short days. 

In Conclusion

Establishing sleep hygiene for kids can be difficult. It takes patience and perseverance on the part of parents to work through the needs & requirements of children of different ages. Ultimately, though, good sleep hygiene usually leads to consistently good sleep at night, which is very important for our kids. Our children need a good night’s sleep for their growth & development, to be happy & healthy, to build immunity & avoid illness, to be able to focus at school during the day, and to not be moody or excessively hyperactive. There may be situations in which children still aren’t sleeping well despite parents’ efforts at good sleep hygiene & routine. In those situations, it is important to seek guidance from a pediatrician to talk about other things that might be affecting your child.

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