Good sleep routines are important for children’s development and function.
Teaching healthy sleep habits takes time but it’s worth the effort because poor sleep habits can be hard to change.
“Sleep is learned behavior,” said Dr. Lori Shepherd, a Marshfield Clinic pediatrician. “What you do when children are babies affects their sleep going forward.”
Start sleep routines early
By 6 months old, start putting babies to bed partially awake. Falling asleep in the same setting every night helps children associate their bedrooms with sleep. Don’t let children of any age get in the habit of falling asleep on the couch.
Practice a 20-30 minute calming bedtime routine starting at about a year old. A routine may include brushing teeth, snuggling with a transition object like a blanket or stuffed animal and reading, singing or praying in the child’s bedroom. Start the routine at the same time every night and stick to a consistent bedtime.
Sometimes kids wander out of their rooms after bedtime insisting they’re not tired or asking for more stories and snuggles. This is common behavior for kids ages 4-7. When that happens, reassure children by walking them back to bed, but make it clear the bedtime routine is over and they need to try to fall asleep, Shepherd said.
Create a sleep-friendly environment
Most kids sleep best in a dark room with the blinds closed. Use a dim nightlight for children afraid of sleeping in the dark.
Keep TVs and other electronics with glowing screens and bright lights out of the bedroom. Electronics in the bedroom can lead to chronic sleep issues.
Make sure kids get enough sleep
Getting enough sleep has a big impact on kids’ daily functioning. Kids who don’t get enough sleep can struggle in school with behavior, attention and academic performance. Poor sleep can affect their health.
Most preschool children need 11-13 hours of sleep, elementary school children need 9-12 hours and teens need 8-9 hours.
“Being overtired can make it hard for kids to fall asleep,” Shepherd said. “Kids who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have nightmares or night terrors.”
What to do about waking
Give children who wake up crying at night 5-10 minutes to fall asleep on their own before checking on them.
“It’s important kids get the confidence to go back to sleep in their own beds even if you have to sit next to them while they fall asleep,” Shepherd said.
Walk children back to their bedrooms if they wander to your room during the night. Repeat part of the bedtime routine to help them fall asleep again. The comfort of a routine can help soothe children after a nightmare.
Night terrors are different from nightmares. They are a sleep disorder that causes children to become extremely distressed during deep sleep. They usually happen 2-3 hours after the child falls asleep. Children may not recognize their parents during a night terror or remember what happened the next day. Instead of trying to wake the child, speak gently until the episode passes and he is able to go back to sleep.
Talk to your child’s doctor if a good sleep routine, consistent bedtime and dark, quiet room don’t solve waking problems.