Woohoo, bedtime! Once the kids are down, you can watch your favorite TV shows and eat ice cream straight from the carton.
But before that happens, there are hurdles to jump. Your child suddenly remembers the homework he or she forgot to do or the school papers you need to sign right now. Or maybe your recently healthy son or daughter suddenly feels sick. Is there a way to get kids to simply go to bed?
Creatures of habit
Creating a consistent routine is one of the most important things you can do to help your child get a healthy night’s sleep, said Adam Rappoport, MD, a pediatric neurologist and sleep specialist with Wolfson Children’s Hospital and Nemours Children's Health, Jacksonville. If your child is having trouble at bedtime, try looking for hidden routines you may have unknowingly reinforced.
For example, a child might be used having his or her back rubbed at bedtime. A pacifier, bottle or blankie may have become a nighttime necessity. A little one might stay up for hours, but once a parent lays with them, be asleep in 10 minutes.
“A parent can say, ‘It's time for bed,’ but the child may be saying, ‘I need that comfort, that thing that helps me fall asleep.’ That thing could be you,” Dr. Rappoport said.
These routines can also be the reason why children come into their parents’ room over and over again. Everyone wakes up during the night, Dr. Rappoport said, but they usually fall right back asleep. Children might not.
“If your child needs you to lay down with them in order to fall asleep, they’ll often need you to do it again to go back to sleep,” he said.
Does my child need to see a doctor?
There aren’t hard and fast rules about when to see a sleep doctor, but according to Dr. Rappoport, parents may seek a specialist if their child:
- Has trouble falling asleep at night or staying awake during the day
- Snores or stops breathing at night
- Experiences night terrors or sleepwalks
- Is hyperactive during the day
If you have worries, it’s OK to ask for help or seek the guidance of a professional, Dr. Rappoport said.
Healthy sleep through the years
Sleep needs vary by age and understanding the differences can help you support healthy habits for your child. Here are Dr. Rappoport’s main tips:
- Birth to 6 months: Infants haven’t developed sleep patterns yet. They nap during the day and often have interrupted sleep at night. Allow your baby to sleep irregularly.
- Six to 18 months: Babies and toddlers are beginning to follow a sleep schedule. If you typically rock your baby or supply a soothing bottle before bed, try putting him or her down as soon as he or she starts to get sleepy so your little one learns to fall asleep without aids.
- Young children: This is a time when it’s important for children to develop good sleep patterns. Create a routine that signals when bedtime is coming: after dinner comes bath time, then PJs, then a bedtime story. Soft music or white noise can help soothe children to sleep. Try to turn off TVs and computer screens at least an hour before bedtime; blue light from computer screens can suppress the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel drowsy.
- Older children and teens: Kids often go to sleep on their own, but may not always get enough sleep. They may be busy connecting with friends on social media, working hard to meet rigorous school demands or engaged with after-school activities. Help kids and teens manage their busy lives so they can get the sleep they need.
If you have questions about your child’s sleep health, speak to your pediatrician, who can help guide you on next steps. If you’re interested in learning more about the Sleep Center at Wolfson Children’s Stys Neuroscience Institute and services provided by the pediatric neurologists and sleep specialists with Nemours Children’s Health, Jacksonville, call 904.697.3600.