The Opportunity of Bedtime, Part One
“One of my happy thoughts was having peace and quiet in the house today to work,” I said.
“Oh yeah. Mom, could you give me peace and quiet while I am going to sleep? I always hear you doing the dishes in the kitchen and it keeps me up,” said E in earnest. “I’ll try,” I responded.
Two hours after I whispered “Good night.” I walked down the hallway and heard “Momma, I can’t sleep.” Who knows why? It could be thinking too much about worrisome thoughts, not getting enough fresh air or exercise during the day or an intent desire to stay up. Children’s bedtime can present significant challenges to parents. “Why do I have to go to bed?” may be a whine you hear often when it’s time to say goodnight. And perhaps at times you are too tired to fight the bedtime battle. With homework, sports practice and dinner after school, there is not much time for play and relaxation. However research confirms we are not doing ourselves or our children any favors by allowing a later bedtime. A lack of sleep can contribute to poor grades and more challenging behaviors. But how much sleep do children need and what are the consequences if they are not getting enough?
The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 15 million American children do not get enough sleep each night. Children at 5 years of age typically require 11.1 hours and 13 year olds require 9. Adolescents may need more sleep requiring 10 hours between the ages of 14-18 years.1 Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. writes for WebMD,
It is not widely recognized and appreciated just how pervasive and critical quality sleep is for brain development and how it directly influences daytime functioning, performance, mood, and behavior.2
A lack of sleep prevents a child from performing well at school. It requires a commitment from your family but getting children to bed on time can be a significant contribution to their ability to learn. One study showed that those students with average to failing grades got about 25 fewer minutes of sleep and went to bed an average of 40 minutes later than above average to high achieving students. Research findings have discovered relationships between a lack of sleep and youth irritability, hyperactivity, depression and lower levels of social skills. If this is the case, then how can you successfully get your child to bed on time each night? The following are some ideas for creating a consistent routine and a conducive environment for sleep.
Developing a consistent bedtime routine as a family can prevent arguments and negotiations. Not only will it allow for all of the benefits of getting enough sleep, but it also promotes comfort and safety at the end of the day because of its predictability. When tired, children don’t have to consider what has to be done but will know. Here are some suggestions for designing a routine with your family.
1. Discuss the bedtime routine on a weekend afternoon or another time free of pressure when you are not preparing for bed.
2. Design the routine cooperatively. Ask, what tasks do we need to take care of during our bedtime routine? And what are a few ways to make the bedtime routine enjoyable?
3. Formalize the routine by writing it down. Have your child create a bedtime routine poster. Have poster board and crayons or markers ready. Write each step of the routine as briefly as possible but discuss how those steps will take place. Post in a place that can be viewed and referred to during bedtime.
4. Consider current and past challenges. Often children go slowly and bedtime can drag out into a long process. Address this by saying, “How can we get our business taken care of quickly so that we can get to the good stuff (stories or cuddles or other ways of connecting)?” Bring up those challenges while designing your routine and ask, “How can we make it easier to put on pajamas quickly?”
5. Read together. Days are busy and bedtime may be the only time each day that you get a chance to read a book together. Give the child the freedom to pick her book of choice each night. Or for two siblings, perhaps they each get to choose one to read as a family. Reading not only promotes their own abilities and interest in books but also, it connects parents to their children. It opens up the opportunity for dialogue about character’s choices and ways of being. If conflict occurred during the day, all is forgotten while engaging in the power of story together.
6. Reflect on grateful thoughts. In our house, we call these our “happy thoughts.” We share our highlights from the day that we appreciated. We also reflect on ways we appreciate one another. This helps children remember what occurred that day as they process through what made them happy. It promotes a sense of well-being that can allow them a good night’s rest.
7. Remain consistent. Stick with your routine time and plan as much and as often as possible. Even when E has a late night because of an event, he gets upset if we try to skip anything. Some children may just fall asleep on a late night. But for those of us with children who will not sleep until they are put to bed, the routine offers a calming down process that children rely upon in order to go to sleep. Adults have those calming down routines as well – reading, dimming the lights or other preparations. Children just need help in keeping to those routines.
8. Reinforce and remind. Notice when children are moving through the routine efficiently to promote more of the same. “I notice you put your pajamas on quickly tonight. That helps us get to story time faster.” If there are portions of the routine where you know your children are challenged, remind them just before that portion of the evening. “Remember you can set the timer to show you how long to brush your teeth.”
There are conditions that make the environment more conducive to sleep. Consider some of the following if your child has difficulty.
1. Dim the lights while you are preparing for bed. It prepares the mind and body for sleep.
2. Keep noises to a minimum. If the volume goes up with your children at bedtime, then make this a part of your routine discussion. Maybe you decide to have fun with only whispers at bedtime? Make a game out of it and see if you can maintain quiet.
3. Use calming scents like lavender essential oil in lotion or warm baths. They can have a lulling effect.
4. Turn off all screens. Research has shown that any electronic device in a bedroom can disrupt sleep and keep individuals awake. Turn off devices or ideally, keep them out of bedrooms. Also if children do watch television in the evening, consider what they are watching and how it may affect their sleep. Monitor to ensure that they are watching programming that will not lead to nightmares later.
5. Choose calming stories. Books with rhymes or rhythmic language can be particularly helpful at bedtime. Though we allow E his choice of books at nighttime, we save scary or high adventure books for the daytime hours when the excitement can be fully experienced.
6. Facilitate calming imagery. Here are two specific ideas:
Guide a relaxation process – If my son has a strong case of the wiggles before bedtime, I have used this exercise to help calm him down. Lie down side by side on the floor or on the child’s bed, backs to the floor. Close your eyes and ask your child to close his as well. Using a gentle voice, ask your child to pretend there is a tennis ball at the base of his feet. Ask him to try and grab the ball with his whole foot including his toes with all his might. Ask him to hold it for a few seconds. Then, let the ball go. Now ask him to pretend the ball is between his ankles. Squeeze the imaginary ball as hard as possible for a few seconds and then, let it go. Try this all the way up the body including at his knees, on his tummy, between his arms and his side, in his hands, at his neck and at the back of his head where it touches the floor. Each time squeeze for a few seconds and then release. This will guide a child to notice each part of his body, focus on that part and send relaxation to that part of the body letting the tension go.
Lead a visualization – When I was small, my Dad used to take me on fantastical journeys to outer space in a spaceship that we created together through his guided visualization. He would tell me to “Buckle your seat belt and get ready for the countdown.” At bedtime now, I guide my son through a visualization of packing his suitcase and teddy bear, boarding his favorite train and riding to the beach to play in the sand and the water. As you guide your child to visualize a scene in his mind’s eye, be sure and describe how the air smells, how the ground feels, what sounds are heard and sensations are felt.
Because bedtime is such an important part of the day for families but also can present parents with a number of challenges, today’s article was part one of a two part series. Next week, I’ll be talking with parents about their specific bedtime challenges and offering suggestions to address them. Combining the strategies of consistency, routines, involving children in contributing to and owning the process and creating an environment that is conducive to sleep can help the end of the day go smoothly for all family members. Try out some of these with your children and notice the significant difference you are making in getting tasks accomplished. You may even find yourself looking forward to the opportunity of genuine connection each bedtime.
Smaldone, A., Honig, J.C. & Byrne, M.W. (2007). Sleepless in America: Inadequate Sleep and Relationships to Health and Well-being of Our Nation’s Children. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics: 119, S29-S37. Retrieved on 1/31/14 at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/Supplement_1/S29.abstract.
Breus, M. (August 6, 2013). Regular bedtimes for children aid development. WebMD Blog. Retrieved on 1-15-14 at http://blogs.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/2013/08/regular-bedtimes-for-children-aid-development.html.