How the Whole Family Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep (Really!)
By: Rhea Seymour
Every parent knows that when Junior doesn't get a good night's sleep, the whole household pays for it. And feeling tired is just one of the side effects when you don't catch enough zzzs. "Sleep affects cognitive ability — how well you can pay attention, memory, decision-making and problem-solving; all of the things that are essential for learning at school," says Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep (Marlowe, 2005).
Missing out on sleep also affects your mood. "Kids have a much more difficult time regulating their emotions so they get frustrated, aggravated and cranky more quickly." The same goes for mom and dad. "A child not getting enough sleep has a huge impact on the whole family," says Dr. Mindell. "It has a direct effect on you which goes back to your kids. If you're cranky and irritable and drowsy driving, it's going to have a huge impact on your child." Don't miss out on any more time in the Land of Nod: read on to find out what you can do to help your child sleep better tonight and maybe catch more snooze time yourself.
Recognize sleep problems. According to a poll of children (infants to 10-year-olds) conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), more than two thirds experience sleep problems at least a few nights a week, ranging from snoring to night-waking to resisting going to bed. Night terrors and sleep walking episodes, which tend to occur when a child is in a very deep sleep, are more common in pre-school age children. "If you notice changes in your child's behaviour during the day or he's doing poorly in school, one of the reasons can be sleep apnea," says Dr. Daniel Glaze, medical director of the Children's Sleep Centre at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. "It's very important that parents tell their doctors about sleep problems."
Examine extracurricular activities. Today's kids are overscheduled, says Mindell, with a huge number of activities every week — and many of them in the evenings. "Kids gets home at eight, still have homework to do and then you expect them to go from 60 miles an hour to asleep and they just can't do it." She suggests thinking about your child's day, prioritizing what's important and making sure sleep fits in there. "Do only one sport per season or talk to the coach or girl scout director about trying to schedule things at a more reasonable hour."
Wind down with a bedtime routine. Whether a child is two or 12, set up routine that happens before she goes to sleep. "The routine should be the same from night to night and it should be something that calms down the child so a period of quiet reading or saying prayers quietly," says Dr. Glaze. The NSF poll found that reading or being read to resulted in more hours of sleep and better sleep, according to Mindell. While a warm bath is often a staple of the bedtime routine, and is usually conducive to going to sleep, it can be a problem with young children. "For a three-year-old bath time may be fun time and it activates them which may make it difficult to go to sleep." Hint: make a good night's sleep more likely by keeping your child's room cool, dark and comfortable.
Teach your child to sleep. Some children may associate certain behaviours, such as being rocked, receiving a bottle or watching TV, with going to sleep and can't get back to sleep unless they're carried out, explains Dr. Glaze. "Parents need to help children learn to put themselves back to sleep when they wake up at night." Behavioural approaches, like the Ferber technique involves "letting the kids alone if they're fussing or crying for a certain amount of time and then going in and in a very neutral way, putting them back to bed and leaving the room quickly to try to extinguish these behaviours." If this is still a problem by age three, it can be a significant one, says Dr. Glaze, because these are kids who can get out of bed and wander around the house. "In that case, you may need to try other means to keep kids in bed, ranging from positive reinforcement like sticker boards — kids get rewarded for staying in bed and not disturbing the family--to locking the door or putting up a gate so the kid will stay in the room and go to sleep."
Eliminate sleep thieves. Take a look at your child's diet to make sure she's not getting caffeine from hidden sources. "The NSF poll found that a large number of school age children are having caffeine every day, primarily in soda." says Mindell. "Start keeping track of what your child is drinking — look at the labels to see if it has caffeine or not. It sneaks into things — it's in Sunkist Orange Soda but not diet Sunkist Orange Soda. There's no reason for three to 12-year-olds to have caffeine."
Electronics in a child's bedroom are also keeping kids awake and probably promoting bad sleep habits, says Dr. Glaze. "Keep the bedroom electronic free — no TV or computers."
Stick to a bedtime. "It's best if your child can go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time in the morning, even on weekends," says Mindell. "It's going to set your child's body clock and make it so they're falling asleep at the same time every night." In the morning, help your child get exposure to morning light. "Have them sit and eat cereal in a sunny spot in the house or sit on the outside windows if riding the bus to school and don't let them wear sunglasses first thing in the morning," she says. "What happens is light to their eyes is going to set their body clock for the day and make it so they can fall asleep more easily at bedtime."