Good Night, Sleep Tight
I was recently invited to speak on the topic of Sleep on “Childhood Matters,” a Sunday morning radio program hosted by Rona Renner, RN on 98.1FM here in the Bay Area. (You can listen to the August 14, 2011 program HERE). During the show, we took phone calls and e-mail questions from parents of children ages 10 weeks, 4 years, a 5th grader, and a teen. And what I realized is that sleep is not just an issue for new parents with babies, it’s an issue that profoundly affects parents throughout childhood and beyond. Even when our children do sleep through the night, we may still lie awake ourselves, especially during stressful times.
Ensuring that our children are getting enough sleep is a fundamental goal of parents from the earliest months of life until our children leave home. In the early years, we wonder if we should keep our children close while they sleep, or encourage them to sleep independently. We may limit our daily outings in order to stick to a schedule for naps. And we may devise elaborate schedules and routines in order to encourage our children to sleep. In the preschool years, new fears disrupt sleep patterns: from the obvious (monsters, spiders, cartoon villains), to the more subtle fears (starting a new school, moving from crib to bed, potty learning struggles, or beginning kindergarten).
The one thing we can’t do, and this is frustrating for all parents, is fall asleep for our children. We can encourage, cajole, bribe, threaten, wish, plead, demand, hope, and plan for good sleep, but the act of falling asleep lies squarely in the child’s domain of control. Here are the areas you can control as a parent to support your child as they fall asleep: create an environment conducive to sleep, stick to a regularly scheduled bedtime and nap schedule, and follow a cozy (but not extensive) bedtime routine.
Environment: Is your child’s room prepared for sleep? Is it quiet, calm, dark (enough)? What about soft music or white noise? Is there a small night light? Depending on your child’s age, do they have a pacifier, stuffed friend or favorite blanket with them?
Schedule: Do you always put your child down at the same times for nap and bedtime? This gets tricky for children in the first two years as they move from three or four naps to one nap per day. Parents want to be consistent with naps, but also flexible as their child grows into less daytime sleep. Children set their internal sleep clocks to our external schedule and routine. Think about the last full-time job you had. Did you always have lunch around noon? Most likely, you began to get hungry about 15 minutes before lunchtime. Do you always go to bed by 10pm? You may start yawning by 9:45pm. You want children to set their clocks to your schedule.
Routines: Moving from high-energy activities to quiet, calming ones help guide a child towards sleep. When I support families in creating bedtime routines, I always begin from dinnertime. Everything you do from dinnertime on is part of your bedtime routine. If there’s time to play after dinner, make sure to offer quieter activities: puzzles, books, shape sorters, drawing. It’s important to do things in the same order each day, since children rely on you to provide predictable and gentle transitions.
Focusing on the areas in your control, such as the environment, schedule, and routines, can reassure you that you’ve done all you can to encourage your children to sleep. Now, it’s up to your child to do the rest.