By the time evening rolls around, both parents and children are at their physical and emotional end. It can be a struggle for both parties. However, as the parent, there are steps you can take to prepare your child for bed well in advance. You can help your children develop habits that not only support the transition to bed but also help them fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
Create a Calm Atmosphere Early in the Evening
Both the mind and body must be calm and relaxed for sleep to take hold. A child that's been running, jumping, and playing up until bedtime won't be prepared to lay down for the night.
At least an hour before bed, preferably even earlier, try to calm things down in the home. Wrestling and roughhousing should stop in favor of quieter activities like putting puzzles together, coloring, or playing with a car or train set that keeps your child in one spot. It's also a good time to put on soothing music to subtly bring energy levels down.
2. Establish a Bedtime Routine
Bedtime routines are one of the most powerful ways to help your children fall asleep faster. A child’s circadian rhythms may not be as strongly established as adults. These rhythms rely on natural light, meal timing, and environmental cues to start the release of sleep hormones. A bedtime routine can help trigger the brain to start the sleep cycle.
The activities you include in the routine are up to you, but they should help your child achieve a calm, relaxed state. You've got classic favorites like reading a book or singing quiet songs together, both of which also give your quality time together.
A warm bath is another popular bedtime activity. In many cases, a bath taken 60 to 90 minutes before bed can trigger the start of the sleep cycle by prematurely raising the body temperature. The body then rapidly tries to bring the body temperature down, which initiates the sleep cycle.
Any activity that helps your child feel calm and relaxed can be a part of a healthy bedtime routine. It might take some trial and error to find what works because what works for one child may not work for another. For example, some children treat bath time as a trip to the water park. The excitement and active play may make it harder for them to fall asleep. You know your child best so don't feel pressured to use classic activities if they don't work for your family.
3. Pick a Bedtime and Stick to It
Consistency is a tool that can help you. The human body loves routine, and once it recognizes the routine, it will stick to it. Pick a bedtime that works with your schedule and go with it, even on weekends. That includes starting the bedtime routine at the same time each day so that at the end you're turning out your child's light on time. Your child's brain will adjust by releasing sleep hormones in anticipation of bedtime, which slowly makes the bedtime process easier.
However, life happens and sometimes the chaos of a busy schedule can make a consistent bedtime difficult. If you miss bedtime once or twice a week, you haven't ruined everything. When you’re first establishing a bedtime, try to be as consistent as possible for the first couple of weeks. Once your child has adjusted to his bedtime, an occasional late-night won't throw him off for more than a day, maybe two.
4. Build a Sleep Supportive Atmosphere
Your child's bedroom should be sleep supportive. A cool, dark, quiet room reduces distractions and helps the body maintain a lower body temperature. The mattress, whether in a bed or crib, should be free of lumps, valleys, and tags that make it uncomfortable for your child to sleep.
Any kind of distractions like televisions or iPads can deter sleep too. Not only do their screens give off a bright light that can suppress sleep hormones, but even the thought of watching or playing with them can make it hard for some children to sleep. You can help by removing these devices from the bedroom.
Bedtime doesn’t need to be a battleground. You have the flexibility to adjust a bedtime routine to meet your family’s needs. It might take some time and patience, but with consistent effort, you can have everyone sleeping better and longer. So take a look at your evening and see where you can make the small changes that could make a big difference.
Bio: Stacey L. Nash is a Seattle area writer for Tuck.com whose insomnia led her to research all aspects of sleep. With a degree in communications from the University of Puget Sound, she helps put sleep into the forefront of the health and wellness conversation. When not researching and writing about sleep, she spends time with her husband and four children on their heavily-wooded, twelve-acre piece of heaven.