And so to bed…
Junior Magazine, November 2009
A milky drink, a cosy bedtime story, a sweet kiss goodnight and your child drifts off to sleep. Well, that’s the dream, but how do you make it reality?
People often talk about the pitter-patter of tiny feet, but they don’t warn you that this will be the sound of your child wandering from her bed to interrupt yet another evening… However, if you look at it from your child’s perspective, another story unfolds. In her eyes, maybe bedtime spells the end of daytime fun and exploration, or perhaps she likes being with you so much that being sent to her bedroom feels like rejection. If so, can you blame her for wanting to stay up?
After all, who wants to be the first one to bed every night? Relentless bedtime battles, however, can leave both you and your child exhausted – and that’s no fun for anyone. So, how can you make the perfect bedtime dream a reality?
We all know the effect a late night can have on our ability to function the following day. If your child is trudging wearily into school, it’s likely that you are plodding alongside, zombie-like, clasping a strong coffee. Lack of sleep adversely affects our memory, mood and concentration, as well as reducing our ability to deal with infections – not that that will necessarily have much sway with your child. But you could point out that a good night’s sleep will also make her clever. “Disturbed sleep can disrupt long-term physical and mental growth,” says Dr Marc Weissbluth, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.”Approximately 75 per cent of brain growth occurs after birth and healthy sleep is thought to be important for this growth.” This is also why it’s best to encourage good sleep habits before your child starts school. “Poor school achievement is often more common among poor sleepers,” says Dr Weissbluth. “Young children who have difficulty sleeping become older children with more academic problems.”
So, where to start? If there’s one thing the experts are unanimous on, it’s the need for routine and consistency. “Carry out the same series of steps every night,” says Mandy Gurney, founder of the Millpond Sleep Clinic. “Keeping the routine focused and calm will help to minimise bedtime battles.”
The next step in triumphing over your child’s anti-bedtime campaigns is to diagnose any problems. “It’s a good idea to keep a sleep diary,” says Siobhan Mulholland, author of Helping Your Toddler to Sleep. “A pattern usually begins to emerge and that helps parents see what’s going wrong. Often, there’s a lot of activity around bedtime, such as one parent coming home from work and playing with a child, which is not conducive to a sleepy state. The answer is to go back to basics – to the sort of structured routine your child enjoyed when she was a baby.”
Sometimes, all it takes to send a child peacefully off to sleep each night (and skipping to school the next morning) is a warm bath followed by a cosy bedtime story, a hug and goodnight kiss. By having a regular sequence of events, your child will begin to associate “bath, book, bed” with sleep, and doze off within 20 minutes.
Having a routine makes sense when you consider the body’s circadian rhythm, or internal body clock. “Our normal daily rhythms are around 25 hours, so we would drift out of sync with the 24-hour day if it were not for external cues like a set bedtime, a bedtime routine, lightness and darkness,” says Michael Breus, author of Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program To Better Sleep And Better Health. “Otherwise, you may have a tendency to drift in and out of sleep late into the night.”
In many ways, bedtime starts at teatime. If this is kept to a regular time, it will act as a ‘sleep cue’ for the beginning of the end of the day. And it works. For example, on hearing the theme tune for The Archers, my brother would regularly chirp, “Bedtime!” and trot happily upstairs.
Being active during the day can also help ensure a restful bedtime. Research by Monash University in Melbourne and the University of Auckland has found that for every hour a child is inactive, it adds three minutes to the time it takes to get to sleep; children who fell asleep faster also tend to sleep for longer.
However, rigorous activity should be encouraged a few hours before bedtime. “The final hour before bed needs to be quiet and calm,” says Gurney. And calm means putting the DS and Wii to bed as well. Whenever my partner and I have relented on this rule, it invariably ends in tears, tantrums and a light night as we try to calm our children down. Looks like we should have read Dr Shelly K Weiss’s Better Sleep For Your Baby And Child. Her list of problematic evening activities includes those “that cause excitement or anxiety: rough-housing with a family member; exercising vigorously within three hours before bedtime; working on complicated homework or playing computer games within an hour of going to sleep; discussing stressful problems just before it is time to fall asleep.”
If, however, you have a child, like mine, who tends to discuss her worries just as I’m kissing her goodnight, try to make time earlier in the day, perhaps over supper, for a heart-to-heart. “Some children spend time before sleep worrying about problems, especially if there is a new event in their lives such as starting school,” says Gurney. “If your child is still awake after 30 minutes, she should get up, go into another room and read with you for a while or listen to a tape; a warm milky drink may also help. Then, when she is sleepy again, return her to bed.”
To work out the best time for bed, first consider the time your child needs to wake in the morning then work back from this with the amount of sleep she needs for her age. It’s recommended that a child between one and six gets 10-12 hours per night and from six upwards, ten hours per night. If you’re way off target, bring bedtime back gradually over the course of a couple of weeks – this way, you’ll face less protest when it’s time for bed.
Once a time is set, try using a soothing lullaby as another sleep cue. Personally, I can’t hold a tune in a bucket, but my children occasionally request a rendition of The Owl And The Pussycat, and it does have a strangely soporific effect on them. “Light and darkness are other major cues that tell our body when to wake and when to fall asleep,” says Weiss. “Darkness triggers the production of melatonin, a hormone which promotes sleep. For this reason, it is much healthier to fall asleep in a dark room.” Blackout blinds can help induce sleep; the comforting glow of a night light can also be beneficial if your child is not comfortable with complete darkness.
Once you’ve created the ultimate sleep environment, don’t fall for your little charmer’s ever-inventive delaying tactics to keep you in the bedroom just that little bit longer. “Children will always have that one last trick up their sleeve – another kiss, a hug, a drink of water, using the bathroom,” says Breus. “Do your best to pre-empt any requests before your child gets into bed by providing a glass by her bedside and making sure she goes to the toilet. And let your child know that once she is in bed, she has to stay in bed.”
Two-year-old Felipe was master of the one-last-thing technique. He’d clocked that, having spent all day at work, his father saw bedtime as the opportunity to spend time with him. Taking full advantage, Felipe was indulged with extra stories, bottles and his favourite sleep-inducing comfort – a spot of back scratching. Consequently, Felipe would get overexcited and not settle. “If bedtime is more fun with one parent than the other, you may end up the one parent being rejected, and tantrums when the favoured parent goes out for the evening,” says Mulholland. “The simple solution is for parents to take turns at settling and stick to a regular routine, whoever is doing it.”
Finally, remember that what works for one child may not work for another. But once you have established a sleep routine, stick to it. You may love a lie-in, but beware of encouraging your child to do the same. It all comes back to those circadian rhythms. “Wake-up time helps synchronise your body clocks and enables us to sleep on time at bedtime,” says Gurney. “Parents should encourage a regular sleep-wake schedule, with a regular bedtime and a regular time for getting up. Try not to deviate from this schedule, even at weekends or holidays.”
So there you have it: routine, routine, routine. Stick to that and your child will be sleeping like Rip van Winkle, and be set for life.