Even though little kids can’t tell time, their bodies can. Going to bed at the same time every night helps them physically and mentally get into a sleep routine. Although it can be tempting to change the schedule on weekends and during the summer, try to keep bedtime consistent. Later bedtimes can make it hard for kids to adjust back to a normal schedule.
Don’t use TV to help kids relax before bed. Shows that have any exciting content — like violence, suspense, drama, or conflict — may be too stimulating for children at bedtime. Exciting programming can cause stress-like symptoms, which can result in problems falling asleep and staying asleep. Scary shows can cause nightmares. Studies have found that even TV news can be frightening and make it hard for kids to sleep. Even calm content can interfere with sleep. Facing a light source close to bedtime can trick the body into thinking that it’s still daytime.
Having a bedtime routine with three or four activities helps a child wind down and get ready to sleep. A typical routine might be taking a bath, putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, and reading a book. For teens, you may want to sit and have a chat about the day. “Keep things very basic and simple,” says pediatrician Hannah Chow, MD, of the Loyola University Chicago School of Medicine. “It’s better to have a quiet routine.”
Parents often don’t realize that an earlier bedtime results in an easier bedtime, says Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, of the Sleep Center of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night. “Once children get overtired, they have a harder time settling down and a harder time falling asleep,” she says. Mindell recommends kids have a bedtime between 7:30 and 8:30 through elementary school.
For preschoolers, it may be helpful to make a bedtime chart so they can see all the steps they’re going to take before going to bed. Draw a picture of a bath, pajamas, and the exact number of books you read each night, for example. “That way, if you read two books and your child asks for three, you can point to the chart and show him that there are just two books on the chart,” says Mindell.
When your child is working through his bedtime routine, make sure that all the activity moves in one direction — toward his bedroom. Don’t start upstairs for a bath, then go down to the kitchen for a snack, then go back to his room to get into pajamas, then head to your room to read a book. It’s important that all the action keeps going in the direction of his room.
If your child calls after he’s in bed and requests something else — like a drink or hug — give him one. If he asks again, try a firm “no,” or simply ignore the request and silently put the child back in bed. “Being consistent, following through, and setting limits will end the repeated requests,” says children’s sleep expert Mindell. “It may get worse before it gets better, but once a child knows that her parents mean it, that will be the end.”
Make your child’s bedroom a comfortable place for sleep. Keep the temperature cool enough in summer and warm enough in winter. To control light, get room-darkening shades or blinds. A soft night light can be fine if it makes her feel better. A good pillow will help her feel comfortable. And make sure her bed isn’t overrun with dozens of stuffed animals or toys.
Surprisingly, 43% of kids ages 4 to 6 have a TV in their bedroom. Having a computer, TV, phone, or video games in your child’s room can make sleeping hard because they have a hard time turning them off, says Mindell. “They want to get to the next level, watch the next show, answer the next text message. It’s highly engaging and addictive.” Plus, the up-close bright lights delay the production of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone.
Caffeine can make your child so jumpy that it might be hard for his body to slow down for sleep. A 12-oz regular cola has 25 milligrams of caffeine, but a 12-oz orange soda or a 16-oz flavored iced tea can have around 40 milligrams. Caffeine can stay in your body for six hours or longer, so avoid giving caffeinated products to your child after midday.
Make sure your child gets enough activity during the day so that she’s not full of energy at night. In addition to making kids’ bodies and minds healthier, exercise helps kids sleep better. Just make sure they’re not active right before bedtime. Try to make sure they’re finished biking, running around, and dancing at least a couple of hours before they hit the sack.
It’s normal for toddlers to nap until they’re at least 3 years old. Naps help them get the 12 to 14 hours of sleep toddlers need every 24 hours. Toddlers older than 18 months generally nap just once a day for one to three hours. Try avoiding late afternoon naps because it can make it harder for them to fall asleep at night. By the time kids are 5 years old, they should no longer need naps.
It can be tough on a parent when kids are begging for one more book or pleading to stay up late. But, remember, sleep is what your child really needs. “Parents will often feel guilty about making their child go to bed, but a good night’s sleep can make such a difference in their outlook, their mood, and their health,” says pediatrician Chow. “Protect your child’s sleep. It’s one of the best things you can do.”