Getting a good night’s sleep is essential to good health, especially for growing children. If your child is struggling to get to sleep – or keeps having a restless night – there are some steps you can take to improve their sleep quality. Here we share 10 top tips for helping your child get a better sleep.
1. Ensure your child has plenty of time outside in broad spectrum daylight
Ensuring your child gets lots of time outside helps to regulate the circadian rhythms. These rhythms make up a 24-hour cycle, which forms part of the body’s internal clockwork. They run in the background to carry out essential functions and processes.
One of the most important and well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle. Different systems of the body follow circadian rhythms that are synchronised with a master clock in the brain. This master clock is directly influenced by environmental cues, especially light, which is why circadian rhythms are tied to the cycle of day and night.
2. Reduce the light in the early evening
Melatonin is a natural hormone that is produced by the pineal gland, located in your brain. It helps control your sleep cycle. The body produces melatonin just after it gets dark, peaking in the early hours of the morning and reducing during daylight hours. The onset of melatonin secretion under dim light conditions is the single most accurate marker for assessing the circadian rhythm.
3. Regulate temperature
Throughout the day, the circadian rhythm influences and is influenced by body temperature. Extremes of temperature can trigger waking and disrupt sleep. Melatonin triggers a lowering of the core body temperature, which seems to trigger sleep. However, the reverse does not seem to be true – so lowering body temperature does not seem to modify melatonin release.
To facilitate an easier transition to sleep in the evening, avoid hot baths and dress your child in 100% cotton layers, which allow sweat to wick away to increase comfort. Socks can also be a useful addition to prevent children waking when their core temperature drops in the early hours of the morning.
4. No blue light 1-2 hours before bedtime.
Blue light inhibits melatonin production, and screens are usually very stimulating and so they should be avoided to enable your child to calm down and achieve a more rapid DLMO (dim light melatonin onset).
Screens and TV’s are associated with recreation, not rest and therefore if they are in the sleeping space, the room can have a confused purpose as well as your kiddo being more tempted to use screens, phones, tablets and computers before sleeping. For teens, it can help to set a time limit on when a phone or games console needs to be put away.
5. Have a set bedtime
One of the most important anchors of the body clock is the wake-up time and bedtime. These two need to be as consistent as possible.
6. Opportunity to calm down before bed
Introduce some ‘silly time’ or high energy play at the end of the day to allow children a chance to expend the last of their pent-up energy or stresses. After this excitement and a chance to connect with a parent, children are often readier to begin calming down.
You could also suggest incorporating a ‘wind-down’ time which is distinct from the bedtime routine. This should include a period of reduced stimulation. The lights could be dimmed, noisy toys cleared away, TVs and screens turned off, and quieter voices used. This will change the pace of the day and enable the parent to start the bedtime routine with a calmer child.
7. Have a predictable bedtime routine
This should consist of the same elements (where practical) every single day, though of course, you can be flexible about how long you spend on each part, and make it age appropriate. About 3-4 elements is a good idea for most children over the age of about 4-6 months.
These should take place in the same order if possible. About 30-45 minutes is about right, from the start of the routine, to the moment your child is in bed, with the lights out. The point of the bedtime routine is to provide a predictable and soothing end to the day that is positive, reassuring and familiar.
8. Use pink noise (over 6 months)
This has been shown to induce slow wave (deep) sleep. In studies where subjects were deprived of sleep but exposed to pink noise, they reported better quality sleep than the subjects who could sleep if they wanted to but in the absence of pink noise.
This was backed up by objective data recorded from sleep actigraphy worn by the subjects – this device measures the depth and length of sleep. So pink noise can be a useful tool in older babies, provided there are no concerns about the baby falling into a deeper sleep. For this reason, it is only recommended for babies over the age of 6 months.
9. Have positive, relaxing associations with their bedroom
Children should never be sent to their room as a punishment. This can cause the child to associate their room with stress and sadness, which can be counter-productive to sleep. Rather than the environment leading to a feeling of sleepiness and calm, the child can experience anxiety and unpleasant memories.
Just as it is unhelpful for the bedroom to be associated with stress and punishment, it is also unhelpful for it to be associated with excitement and playtime!
I suggest having a large toy hamper where the toys can be stowed at the end of the day, or better still, keeping toys in a basket in the living area, so that the bedroom is only associated with sleep and rest. Once sleep has improved, then these strict limits can be lifted somewhat! Children (especially older children) need to know that the bedtime routine has boundaries.
Returning to the living area which is associated with play, fun and wakefulness is likely to be counter-productive to sleep and gives children the wrong message about bedtime.
10. Make sure your child’s love tank is full!
Children who have unmet needs in the day often wake in the night to ‘fill their tank’. Think of ways you can creatively show your child they are loved, unconditionally and wholly. This is probably the single biggest thing you can do to build connection, reduce tension and improve your child’s self-esteem.