Finally, Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Kids to Sleep at Night
You’re ready to hit the hay; your child is anything but. What to do? Experts share advice on how to get your kids to sleep at night.
Dealing With Your Child’s Sleep Issues
He won’t go to bed. He won’t sleep alone. He won’t nap a wink. Any of these scenarios sound familiar? You have company. According to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly two-thirds of parents report some kind of sleep-related challenge at least a few times a week. Since adequate rest is essential for the entire family’s peaceable kingdom—not to mention your child’s well-being—Real Simple rounded up solutions for coping with the fiercest sleep culprits. Good night and good luck!
If Your Child Is a Rooster
Is he up and crowing at dawn’s early light? “Like adults, some kids are just morning people,” says Dennis Rosen, M.D., the associate medical director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital and the author of Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids ($6, barnesandnoble.com). Also, says Rosen, your child “may very well have gotten enough rest.” If tuck-in is, for instance, at 7 p.m., he’ll clock 11 hours of Z’s by 6 a.m.—and for many kids ages 5 and up, that’s plenty. (For an age-by-age guide, see Sleeping Like a Baby.) If he’s alert during the day, try shifting his bedtime to later in the evening. If he’s cranky by 10 a.m., he may have gotten a rude awakening from outside racket (drown out traffic with a white-noise machine), a wet diaper (nix pre-bedtime drinks), sunlight (try blackout shades), or possibly hunger (serve a small carbohydrate-rich snack, like fruit or whole-grain crackers, 30 minutes before bed). If that doesn’t do it, says Rosen, “it’s OK to say, ‘You don’t have to sleep, but you do have to stay in bed.’ ” Place safe toys nearby, and try out the OK to Wake! Alarm Clock and Night-Light ($30, target.com), which glows green when he’s allowed to fly the coop.
If Your Child Is a Nap Protester
All the red flags are there: the piercing whine, the blank stare, the ornery ’tude. She clearly needs a nap. Why won’t she take it? Many toddlers start to refuse the midday siesta because they’re afraid that they’ll miss out on the fun or they want to be like the big kids. And when a kid gets overtired, there’s no reasoning with her. “Sometimes a child feels the drowsiness and doesn’t know what to do, so she struggles against it—which makes it even more difficult for her to settle down,” says Rosen. There is some good news: You may have more control over naps than over nighttime sleep. New research published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that while genetics can dictate how much sleep toddlers get at night, environment plays a large role in their napping habits. So you need a naptime routine as sacred as your bedtime routine. Build physical activity, like jungle-gym sessions, into your morning schedule, then ease into low-key play, like coloring, to wind down. When she’s calm, head her to bed and employ the same lullaby tactics that you use at night. If she’s still resisting, arguing won’t work. But tell her that she needs quiet time in her room. Eventually she may nap, despite her valiant efforts to the contrary. If several weeks go by and your child still isn’t nodding off, she may be over it. “Kids usually phase out naps between the ages of 3 and 6,” says Rosen.
If Your Child Is a Socialite
Some kids sleep just fine…as long as you’re glued to their side. “The dark is the vast unknown,” says Elizabeth Pantley, the author of The No Cry Sleep Solution ($11, amazon.com). “It’s a normal part of childhood to want the people you love with you, to feel safe and secure.” Kids do grow out of this—though maybe not as quickly as you would like. “I’ve seen 10-year-olds who still want Mom or Dad to hang out until they’re asleep,” says Jean Kunhardt, a coauthor of A Mother’s Circle ($18, bn.com) and a cofounder of Soho Parenting, a parents’ counseling service in New York City. Not only is the situation exhausting for you but it can also zap your kid’s self-esteem. “Your child might feel bad if she knows how frustrated you are or that other kids sleep on their own,” says Kunhardt. To get her ready to go solo, make sure she’s truly tuckered out (avoiding TV or boisterous activity after dinner helps), and initiate bedtime about 30 minutes earlier than usual. It’s soothing for her if you follow a predictable pattern: Dim the lights, turn on mellow tunes, make her as snug as a bug. Then start the declinging process. “Once your child is tucked in, say, ‘I’ll be right back,’ to introduce the idea of separating as gently as possible,” says Pantley. Be sure to follow through, but each night make your vanishing act slightly longer. If she’s afraid to be alone, even with a night-light, ease any bogeyman anxieties by spritzing dark corners with “monster repellent.” (Don’t let on that the secret formula is water in a spray bottle.) After a week or so, says Pantley, if all goes well, you’ll come back to find that your child has drifted off on her own. However, if she crawls into bed with you at midnight, stay strong, no matter how tempted you are to cuddle. Give her a hug and a kiss, then escort her to her room to repeat the ritual.
If Your Child Is a Prowler
If things go bump in the night but your good silverware and heirloom jewelry are untouched, you may have a sleepwalker. Sleepwalking affects less than 15 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Kids under the age of 10 are especially susceptible but tend to outgrow it by adolescence. The classic sleepwalker rises soon after bedtime. Her eyes may be open yet glassy, and she may mumble. Don’t panic: Sleepwalking is harmless as long as the surroundings are safe. Lock windows and doors, gate the stairs, and put a bell on her door to alert you to shepherd her gently back to bed. There’s usually no need to wake a sleepwalker—that may make her disoriented, says Rosen, “although she probably won’t remember anything in the morning.”
While night terrors (which happen when your child bolts up, still asleep, but panicked, crying, or even screaming) are not directly related to sleepwalking, the two disorders are also more common in children than they are in adults; both are exacerbated by lack of sleep or stress. Stay calm and comfort your child. He should hit the pillow again soon, although this can take as long as 30 minutes.
If Your Child Is a Night Owl
Here come the up-all-night years. More than 90 percent of teens aren’t getting their needed nine hours most nights of the week, said one study published in the Journal of School Health. “Once kids hit adolescence, their hours shift,” says Kunhardt. This is partly biology: A teenager’s circadian rhythms change and delay the time he starts to feel sleepy, often until 11 p.m. or later. If your teen can’t seem to drift off at a reasonable hour, first “make sure there’s no anxiety, depression, or other condition that could result in insomnia,” says Kunhardt. If he has too many after-school activities on his plate, see if he can drop one. Then encourage him to focus on homework earlier in the evening so he can chill out later. And is it a surprise that playing Call of Duty isn’t relaxing? Research has consistently shown that when kids watch TV, play video games, or use the computer just before their bedtime, it’s harder for them to fall asleep. So set a “tech time-out” alarm an hour before lights-out. He can make up an extra hour on the weekends, but don’t let him hibernate. “If your kid stays up past 2 a.m. and sleeps till 11 a.m. on Sunday, he has altered his clock by five hours,” says Rosen. “When his alarm goes off at 6 a.m. on Monday, it will be like trying to wake up in Boston on London time.” It’s also smart to skip soda and candy in the evening.
Sleepy Side Effects
When they’re babies, they get fussy. As they grow, the repercussions of sleep deprivation get more serious. “Older children can push themselves to run on fumes, like adults do,” says Kunhardt. “And then the problems start.”
Growth and hormone disturbances: Research shows that lack of sleep can lower leptin, the hormone that signals that you are full, and elevate ghrelin, which stimulates appetite. And those hormonal shifts can lead kids to overeat: Even one lost hour of sleep every night increases the obesity risk in adolescents by 80 percent, according to research published in the American Journal of Human Biology.
Lack of focus: You already know that a tired kid is a distracted kid. Research has long linked daytime sleepiness to difficulty with paying attention and hyperactivity. A 2006 study in the journal Pediatrics revealed that when children who had sleep apnea received surgical treatment and began getting better sleep, symptoms such as hyperactive behavior and inability to focus were dramatically reduced or almost disappeared.
Learning problems: Your brain doesn’t function well when you’ve tossed and turned all night, and the same is true for kids. A 2010 study of 8-year-olds published in the journal Sleep Medicine showed that sleepy participants scored significantly lower in some cognitive tests than did their well-rested peers.
Trouble reading emotional cues: A 2010 study showed that young adults who didn’t sleep for 30 hours straight had trouble identifying whether a person’s expressions were happy or angry. “That’s a symptom of children on the autism spectrum, who tend to have sleep issues,” says Dennis Rosen, M.D. “It raises the question of whether getting them to sleep better can improve daytime functioning.”
Sleeping Like a Baby
“Sleep is one of the basic nutrients of life, along with food,” says Kunhardt. “We would never let our kids go hungry. We have to think the same way about getting enough rest.” So just how much do they need? The National Sleep Foundation gives some guidance.
Newborns (up to 2 months): Infants have the widest range—anywhere from 10½ to 18 hours a day is normal.
Babies (up to about 1 year:) Sleep patterns should fall into predictable napping and bedtime patterns. Babies need one to four naps a day (fewer as they approach the end of their first year). Nine to 12 hours at night is typical.
Toddlers (ages 1 to 3): Naps consolidate into one midday siesta, adding up to 12 to 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period.
Preschoolers (ages 3 to 5): The nap dwindles, disappearing by about age 5. Most preschoolers need 11 to 13 hours a night.
Grade-schoolers (ages 5 to 12): Right up until they hit puberty, most kids do best with a solid 10 to 11 hours.
Teens (age 13 and up): Most young adults need 9 to 9½ hours.