bedtime, parenting, routines, young children

4 Steps to Better Sleep

Daylight Savings Time isn’t Ruining Your Child’s Sleep, But You Might Be

by: Lisa Nelson Armosky

With Daylight Saving Time ending this weekend, I thought it was the perfect time to talk about bedtimes. In theory this is aimed at children, but you’ll discover its good advice for all of us.

There are plenty of articles talking about how much sleep a body needs, and we all know children need more sleep than adults. The body does some of its best work lying down, sleep is when it grows and repairs the damages of the day. Because of that, it’s easy to see why children need so much more.  Without enough sleep, children and adults can be irritable and experience increased anxiety. People have difficulty concentrating, remembering, and learning new things. It saps your motivation and can lead to depression. I can’t think of a single parenting issue that isn’t tied to one of these side effects.

But My Child Won’t Go to Sleep!

I hear this all the time. Between extra glasses of water and not staying in bed all night, it seems there is no end to the list of ways children will avoid going to sleep. Humans are the only species who actively resist sleep. But we don’t start out like that. When the girls were a few months old I tried to get them on a more human sleep schedule. I was working on pushing back that afternoon nap a little bit and set up a stimulating play area in the living room. They crashed- hard. No matter what I did, they were going to sleep. They weren’t resisting the basic mechanisms of their bodies sleep system.

Why Do Kids Start Resisting Sleep?

It’s simple, we let them. I know it stings, but the truth is no one wants to leave the party early. When the rest of the family is still up it’s hard to be the one going to bed. Kids start negotiating, they ask for a glass of water one night, then an extra story, then they need an extra hug. Every time we say yes, bedtime gets pushed back and the routine for shutting down the body gets disrupted. Do this enough, and the body no longer knows when it’s suppose to go to sleep. Or even worse, it starts to think bedtime is much later than it is and wont start shutting down until exhaustion forces the issue.

But What if They Aren’t Tired?

Yes, they are. That manic child running in circles isn’t full of energy. They are actively resisting going to sleep. You’re probably tired too, but that’s what morning coffee is for. Adults develop coping mechanisms for exhaustion. That doesn’t make it healthy. Children have coping mechanisms too, like talking non-stop, jumping on the furniture, and other attention seeking behavior. That doesn’t mean they aren’t tired. America is exhausted. We all need a nap.

But I Just Got Home/I’m Working Late

That is not your child’s problem. I get it, when we have to work late, we miss our children. But why should your child be exhausted just because you want something. Letting them stay up late to spend time with you or wait for you to get home is hurting them. It is robbing their bodies of valuable growth and repair time and setting them up for a grumpier tomorrow. Work/Life balance is a constant struggle. Sometimes we can make adjustments, sometimes we can’t. Thankfully, technology offers ways to connect even when we aren’t home. Schedule a break before bedtime to facetime with your child. Bring their favorite book to work and read it to them. Kids really aren’t tallying up the minutes you are with them, but they are keenly aware of when you are present in the moment. Give them your best and don’t worry about the occasional late nights away.

But It’s a Special Occasion….

See above. Ok, yes, for a well-rested child the occasional late night is ok, but it’s a slippery slope. They stay up late the 1st night company is in town. The next night they stay up later still because everyone is going out to dinner. By night 3 everyone is having so much fun it’s a shame to have the kids miss out. Bedtime is out the window and when the guests leave your child thinks the party is still going. It can take days to get them back on schedule, weeks if they didn’t really have one to begin with. Put the kids to bed on time, hire a babysitter, and everyone will have more fun. I promise.

The 4 Steps Essential for Good Sleep

Step 1: The Hormone Connection

The body’s internal clock is amazing and produces the best sleep aid, melatonin, at just the right time. This sleep hormone naturally builds up in the body and is at its highest levels between midnight and 8:00am. In young children, melatonin production starts around 7:30. This is the bodies way of getting us ready to sleep. But modern humans are really good at destroying that melatonin and keeping ourselves awake. The key culprit is light. Especially blue light from televisions and other electronic devices. Melatonin developed without artificial light. For early humans, when the sun began to wain in the sky, melatonin levels rose, and when it got dark, we fell asleep. Even with blue light filters, a bright house with lots of activity tricks the brain into thinking it should be up. Melatonin is broken down in the body and production of new melatonin is delayed. The result is we stay up later than we should

The TV should be turned off at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Ipads and other electronic devices shouldn’t even be in your child’s room. It’s a good idea to lower the overall light levels in your house. Turn off overhead lights and just use lamps. Dimmers are a great option too. If your child’s bedtime is much later than 7:45, consider moving it back to better match their bodies natural hormone production.

Step 2: Routine

In addition to light levels, the body loves a good routine. If we know what’s coming next, our body goes into autopilot. Our energy levels drop, we relax, and stimulating hormones start to fall. A warm bath, brush teeth, glass of water, story time, and off to bed. Repeat. The routine also mentally prepares us for bed. It’s classic conditioning, but it works. If parents are consistent with bedtime routine, children will push back less and less over time. When they ask for that extra story, offer to read it in the morning. When they want a glass of water, remind them they just had some. Be firm and be consistent. I like using a song or phrase that signals the end of the bedtime routine. When a child hears that, it’s time for sleep.

Step 3: Environment

Cool and cozy are the keys to a good night sleep for all of us. The ideal sleeping temperature is between 60 and 67 degrees. For a southern girl that sounds like a high AC bill, but it works. Really anything higher than 72 makes it hard to fall asleep. Our body temperature naturally drops at night. A cooler room helps that process along. Lower body temps mean slowing heart rate and stress reduction. A cooler room also means more blankets on the bed. The weight of extra blankets on us helps increase serotonin, another hormone that helps sleep. It also switches off our sympathetic nervous system and switches on our parasympathetic system. In essence, we go from flight or fight to rest and digest. If your child is having a really hard time falling asleep, try a specially weighted blanket.

Step 4: Disengage

This is by far the hardest. Our children know exactly what buttons to push. They can be master manipulators. Don’t fall for it. When trying to get a healthy nighttime routine established, you will get push back. Say goodnight. When they get out of bed, gently walk them back, and say goodnight. If they cry (and I’m talking the temper tantrum, I’m angry I’m not getting my way cry) say goodnight. Your child doesn’t yet trust that goodnight means goodnight. You both must learn this new boundary. As they push back less and less their body clocks will start to take over. Eventually, they will learn that goodnight means goodnight and its time for bed. Their natural levels of melatonin will kick in just after the bedtime routine and they will fall asleep quickly and are much more likely to stay asleep all night long.

The time on the clock is only a small part of getting a good night sleep. Similarly, the change at Daylight Savings Time should only be a small bump in the road. If your routine, the environment, and you are consistent, then shifting your child’s internal clock shouldn’t be that hard. As light levels and activity go down, your child’s melatonin will naturally kick in. If the bedtime routine is the same, then their conditioning will mentally prepare them for bed the same as before. Work with nature instead of against it and everyone will get a better night sleep, no matter what time it is.

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