As a child psychologist, one of the first things I ask clients is, how much sleep is everyone in the family getting? Without a proper night's rest adults are crabby, distracted and less likely to follow through on healthy habits and goals. Lack of sleep makes the constant problem-solving and patience needed as parents difficult to muster. If children don't get enough sleep they are grumpy, don't eat well, and have a very hard time regulating their emotions. Paying attention in school and staying on task is hard enough, without sleep it will feel impossible. So when there is a concern about behavior or school performance it is important to check on quality of sleep first.
How much sleep does your child need?
- Infants 4 months to 12 months should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
- Children 1 to 2 years of age should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
- Children 3 to 5 years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
- Children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
- Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health (American Academy of Pediatrics).
If your child is not getting enough sleep check out the Sleep Routine Checklist below to help them get to sleep and be their best and brightest self.
- Right on time. Try to start your child's bedtime routine the same time everyday. The routine will likely begin after dinner for younger children and an hour before bedtime for older children. Busy schedules can make consistency tricky, but children will mentally and physically be ready to wind down at bedtime when they can expect it regularly.
- Shutting down. Turn off all screens at least an hour before bedtime. Even if someone is very tired the screen lighting keeps our mind up and active in a way that is hard to relax from. For older children, texting with friends keeps their minds on high alert about social concerns even when they are home in bed. I recommend removing all screens from a child's bedroom at this time so they won't be tempted.
- Call it a day. An hour before your child should be in bed have them pack away all school projects. If your child is on a behavior plan, this is not the time to go over it with them. Let the day end and allow yourself and your child time to wind down with relaxing activities before bed.
- Winding down with the senses. Help your child calm their body and mind by attending to all their senses. A warm bath or shower gives them the signal to prepare for sleep. Soothing and familiar smells help to calm. Use a favorite body lotion and give them a relaxing massage, it only takes a couple minutes and they will love the chance to connect with you. Turn off the news or turn down loud, distracting TV shows. You can find soothing sleep mixes on Spotify or iTunes which you can play as they prepare for bed. Make sure their pajamas are comfortable, sometimes a new sleep outfit or blanket can make a huge difference.
- Checking in. Now that you have removed most distractions and created a relaxing atmosphere, take advantage of this quiet time to check in with your child. Spend time reading together and learning about their day at school. Give them what they crave- you! Sit close and offer lots of hugs.
- Cuddle buddy. Does your child have a special stuffed animal they like to sleep with? This is an amazing strategy they use to deal with being physically separate from you. You can solve lots of bedtime issues by comforting your child's lovey or helping your child "care for" their stuffed animal in the same way they need support. Don't shame an older child if it is still part of their process- they are taking care of their needs. You can encourage your baby by showing lots of love to their special item before bed. Remember, to your child this teddy represents both you and her, so be gentle!
- A time to relax. Sometimes a child won't fall asleep immediately- this doesn't mean your routine failed! It can take about 30 minutes for a child to fall asleep. If they are in their room and quietly reading or resting this is wonderful- they are teaching themselves how to fall asleep and you don't need to interfere.
- Figure out what the worries are. If you start to see that your child is having trouble falling or staying asleep more than one night in a row- do some investigating. Sleep disruptions can be triggered by a new change or with general worries (social issues at school or home or concerns about a big test, championship or keeping up with homework). Spend some time during the day or early evening with your child to let them know they don't have to "worry alone" and even schedule time to regularly problem solve the issue so they don't have to wait until bed time to do so.
- Managing nightmares. All children will get nightmares and depending on their age they want to run to you for comfort. Help them imagine a silly or fun ending to their nightmare and give them a huge snuggle. If it is part of your sleep plan to have your child sleep in their own bedroom- send them back with confidence (as you know they are safe). If they are having a very difficult time you can let them know you will come check on them in 10 minutes- this often brings enough relief that they can fall asleep on their own. If the nightmares are repetitive ask some more questions during the day time, as this can signal a young child managing a stressful situation or set of worries.
- Be a sleep model. Now that you have your child in bed examine your own sleep routine. Do you get a chance to pamper your senses? Are you falling asleep in front of a screen? You are setting the habits for your household, so spend some time creating a comfortable sleep routine for yourself and hit the hay!
What happens when it's not enough? If you have created a sleep routine (and given your family at least 2 weeks to practice) but find that the behavior issues in your home make it difficult to implement, it may be time to seek support. A mental health professional specializing in child issues should be able to create a plan to support your family.
If your child's worries or nightmares are causing you concern- listen to your gut. Make them an appointment with their physician and let the doctor know what is going on, if your physician finds no physical issues that could cause sleep disruption, contact a mental health professional for further support.