By Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., Sunshine House Chief Academic Officer
When my son was three, he started to have nightmares and as a result, I was starving for a full night’s sleep. Finally, in desperation, I created some anti-monster spray (water with food coloring and a touch of perfume) to spray around his room and I let him sleep with his plastic light saber. Surprisingly, these steps (which seemed silly to me) worked, and they became permanent fixtures in bedtime routine. He is 24 now. I am not sure if he still uses these tools, but since then, I have never taken sleep for granted. As adults, we all seem to muddle through the days without enough sleep. We look on with amazement as children fight going to bed and, perhaps a little envy, as they protest having to take a nap. However, we know that a regular bedtime and enough sleep are essential for a child’s development. Researchers have long discussed that not enough sleep is associated with decreased learning and difficulty focusing. A recent research study out of England also connects the lack of a consistent bedtime with behavior challenges, both at home and at school.
Of course, anyone who has tried to convince a young child that they really are tired enough to go to sleep knows that a regular bedtime and enough sleep are sometimes easier said than done.
The following tips might restore a little peace around bedtime, and might even buy you a few minutes to yourself.
Have a routine:
Young children have very little control in their lives, yet having a sense of control is essential for the well-being of all humans. A routine helps children gain a sense of control as they know what is coming next. Always follow the same steps in the same order so that children know what is expected of them.
If possible, create a pictorial schedule that shows children the steps they take to go to bed. Take pictures of your child brushing his teeth, reading a story, in his pajamas, getting a drink of water, etc. Mount these on cardboard. Your child can help you put them in an order that makes sense. By letting your child help decide on the order, you are giving him an even greater sense of control, which can lead to fewer conflicts around bedtime. Follow the steps in that routine every night. Limit distractions: Experts strongly suggest that children not have screens (computers, televisions, etc.) in their bedrooms. Or, at least that these be turned off when your child is in bed. They also recommend that children not watch screens in the 30 minutes prior to bedtime. You can also limit distractions by making sure you have drapes covering the windows and using a white noise machine (or a humidifier) to block out environmental noise.
We all need to unwind as we transition from the go-go-go atmosphere of the day to the world of sleep. Look for ways to relax with your child before bed. These methods could include reading stories, taking deep breaths together, having conversations recapping your days, and/or giving each other light hand/back massages. Relaxing before going to bed helps a child understand her body’s cues and get prepared to fall asleep.
Be consistent and firm:
As much as possible, it is important to start your routine at the same time every night and to be firm in not extending your deadlines. Especially at the beginning, young children will test you to make sure you really are serious about following your routine (pushing limits – it is what they do). When they find that in spite of their best efforts, you are not going to stray from what you say, they are more likely to comply over time. The more you waffle, the longer it will be before your child learns to follow the routine.
The good news about the bedtime study was that researchers found that when parents went back and established consistent bedtimes, children’s behaviors improved. This speaks highly about your power as a parent to impact on your child’s success in school and life. When peace reigns around the nightly bedtime ritual, there is only one thing to be said, “Sweet Dreams.”