Sleep Right, Sleep Tight
Jay M. Greenfeld, Ph.D., C.Psych.
As the temperature decreases so does the amount of daylight hours we were so privy to throughout the summer. It is clear that it often feels as though nighttime happens much faster during the winter months, and that we can think it's time to go to bed at 4:30 when it gets dark. However, the reality is most children adjust quickly to the change in daylight hours and resume their bedtime routine quickly without being phased by the decreased number of daylight hours. One thing that remains the same regardless of how quickly it becomes darker outside, is the importance of consistent sleep and steady sleeping habits in preparing for bedtime. Many children may attempt to convince their parents that they can function on 6 hours of sleep. So, if your child says that they can go to bed at midnight, wake up at 6:00am and function adequately throughout the week, you might want to see if they are auditioning for the role of Pinocchio as their nose extends with each fabrication. The truth of the matter is, regardless of age, children need a certain number of hours of sleep each night (e.g., at least 10) to not just have the energy to function, but to maximize their ability to focus.
With less sleep, the following day will be a struggle for both you and your children. Children are much more likely to become irritable faster, have less attentional control, increased emotional deregulation, and their mood will fluctuate quickly throughout the day. The aforementioned results due to lack of sleep are often the ones that the children do not recognize, but parents feel it and see it. Establishing healthy sleeping habits starts right from the beginning; infancy and toddlerhood. One of the most important components is routine. Establish that routine with them immediately and modify as they grow. If it starts with bath time, milk/snack, reading, and then bedtime, as they age that may change as homework increases. The key is to help your children see how necessary it is to have some type of down time before bed to gain a restful sleep.
In starting to gain restful sleep, eliminate any use of excessive screen time prior to going to sleep. Parents are often just as guilty as they tend to "just check one more message"; "just send one last email"; "just check one last Instagram post." Those short last second checks can keep you up longer before falling asleep if those messages take more than 10 minutes. There is a difference between a quick text and a 45 minute TV show right before bed. So, with your children, do not expect them to fall asleep immediately if they are being stimulated by their screens. Bedtime is for sleeping, not screens. Once the parameters are set, work in collaboration with your children to establish a routine.
Create a sleep friendly environment with a clean room; a relaxing atmosphere with dimly lit lights, soft music or wave sounds (if needed), guided meditation, and some form of relaxing reading. If possible see that what they are reading comes from a book, not a screen. The more often your children become accustomed to this type of routine, the more likely their minds and bodies prepare themselves for sleep. Even if the setting/location changes, adhere to the same routine. Although each night may be different because of after school activities and increased homework as they age, it is imperative that you aim for consistency. Moreover, ensure that all caregivers are consistent with this approach (e.g., relatives, babysitters, parents in different homes etc.). If your child is consistently re-establishing their sleep friendly environment and routine each week, they are not learning the value of consistency and the importance placed on sleep, even if getting to sleep can be harder for your child.
Some of the challenges that emerge when preparing for sleep is the struggle children have with dreading the nighttime because of how loud their fears can become at night. Often times, after the activities are over, the school day is finished, homework is done, and everyone else in the house is quiet, our thoughts can become louder, keeping us awake at night (regardless of how dark it might be outside). If your child expresses concerns about their fears at bedtime, ensure that they are not using that to procrastinate or avoid having to go to sleep. Then ask your child what their biggest concerns are and then reassure them that you will talk about it with the next day. In the day following, address their concerns a few hours before they go to bed. Discuss their concerns before or after supper so enough time is given to them and even more time is given to process, reframe their concerns, help them learn to relax their thoughts, and then establish a stepwise process with them if the worries emerge at night. For example: engage in mediation, reframe the worry you have, provide evidence that you are safe, and think of ways in which you can control the worry, rather than letting it control you.
In younger children, use pretend play with them when preparing for bed. Use images at home so they see what bedtime involves. Engage in imaginary play with your younger children so they act out sleeping patterns and habits (i.e., empowering them to lead the way). If they do verbalize fears, give names to some of their fears. Helping your young child see more of the comedic value to some of the characters they may be fearful of at night. Finally, ensure that sleep is surrounded by positivity rather than using it as some type of threat throughout the day. The more restful their sleep, the more likely yours will be too during a time of year when you are going to need the most energy as there is a lot of free time when on holidays.
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