Make Bedtime a Dream

If the kids are awake, Mom and Dad probably are, too. Get into a good bedtime groove, and know how to identify bigger problems, so everyone can get a good night’s sleep.

By KD Reep

How to create a good bedtime routine

The adage, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” most likely came about because her child wouldn’t sleep at night.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, a baby’s sleep-wake cycle begins to develop at about 6 weeks, and by 3 to 6 months most infants have a regular sleep-wake cycle. By the age of 2, most children have spent more time asleep than awake. But, when your child doesn’t sleep, it can feel like your dream child has become a nightmare.

To help both you and your little one get some sound shut-eye, the first step is to understand how much sleep is enough sleep.

“In youth over the age of 2, the easiest way to determine bedtime is to utilize a week-long vacation in which they go to bed at the same time every night, and you allow them to sleep in as long as they need,” said Wendy L. Ward, Ph.D., associate director of the section of pediatric psychology at UAMS College of Medicine and Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “Kids may sleep a long time the first few days to ‘catch up’ on missed sleep, but by the end of the week, they should have a fairly consistent wake-up time. Once you have the number of hours they typically need, you can determine the bedtime by working back from when they must arise for school. It’s important to also note that in times of stress or illness, they’ll need more sleep.”

According to Dr. Ward, there are several ways you can help your little ones get to sleep. First, develop a routine before bed that will cue the body for bedtime. This can be a shower, brushing teeth, getting in their pajamas, reading for 10 minutes, then lights out.

“Routines can be different for different children,” she said. “Some children only need 30 minutes, but others may need 60 or 90 minutes to facilitate sleep onset. Any electronic screens like TV, video games, computers and smart phones will excite the brain, so be sure to avoid their use one to two hours before bed.”

If you have set up a routine but continue to have problems with your child sleeping fitfully, you can use lower-wattage light bulbs to help. Something to keep in mind is to limit (or avoid altogether) caffeine as it can stay in a child’s system up to 10 hours. Once children are asleep, they will experience—on average—five sleep cycles each evening just like adults. This will have them wake up, roll over and fall back to sleep. Returning to sleep within a few seconds to minutes is normal. However, children who wake up for prolonged periods should be taught self-soothing techniques to assist in getting back to sleep by themselves. Discourage them from turning on lights, walking around and playing as this will wake them up—and keep them up—even more. Work with them to feel secure with the lights off, learn to breathe deeply and think of happy and fun things.

“If your child is having nightmares or night terrors, go to them, ask them to explain the dream and reassure them that you will protect them,” Dr. Ward said. “There are other tips for dealing with sleep problems at the Center for Effective Parenting that can help.”

Dr. Ward also explains that allowing children to sleep with you in your bed seems like a fast and easy solution, but it can cause more problems.

“Co-sleeping can build the expectation with children that there will be someone in the bed with them while they go to sleep, and this can be a significant problem if they transition to sleeping alone as they get older,” she said. “It also can create more awakenings and disrupted sleep.”

Following these guidelines should help soothe your child, give him independence and help you get some much-needed and deserved rest. However, if you continue to have problems, get some help for your family.

“If your child isn’t asleep within 10 minutes to a half hour after going to bed, consult a sleep psychology specialist and/or sleep physician,” Dr. Ward said. “An interprofessional team like the one at Arkansas Children’s Hospital can help as we treat more than 14 sleep disorders and conditions for infants, toddlers, young children and adolescents.”