There’s a long list of things that can prevent children from getting a good night of sleep.
Erratic bedtime routine. Early morning school start times. Too much screen time. Sleep apnea. Anxiety. Schedule disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seasonal time changes.
Being tired can cause all kinds of problems for them, affecting behavior, school, health and mood.
Thankfully, there are things parents can do to help their kids get to sleep, stay asleep and wake up ready for their day, according to Leisha Cuddihy, PhD, a psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“Sleep affects every aspect of our lives,” Dr. Cuddihy said. “Sleep is where we fill up our tanks. If you’re running on half a tank of gas every day, it’s going to be harder to get through.”
Many families are struggling to get children back into healthy sleep patterns following COVID-19 disruptions, Dr. Cuddihy said.
“When schools shut down, there was less structure in children’s schedules and many were not having to get up at the same time every day,” she said. “When their schedules became less structured, sleep became more erratic. And we are seeing many children and adolescents have a lot of difficulty this fall getting back on track.”
Other disruptions, such as busy schedules and daylight savings time changes, can also wreak havoc on sleep.
So, why, exactly, is schedule and routine so important to sleep?
It’s all about that internal body clock that ticks strong in children and adults alike. Controlled by the brain, that internal system is designed to regulate one’s sleepiness and wakefulness during a 24-hour period. It’s also called circadian rhythm.
Thankfully, as much as it can be thrown for a loop, that rhythm can be retrained. It takes time and commitment to new habits, Dr. Cuddihy said.
There’s also a misconception about how much sleep kids really need, she said. It’s probably more than most parents think.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids ages 3-5 need 10 to 13 hours (including naps), kids ages 6-12 need nine to 12 hours and teens ages 13-18 need eight to 10 hours.
It’s important to know your child and where they fit within that range, as some kids require more sleep than others, she said. Summer sleep patterns can be a good indicator of that—for instance, if your kids don’t have to get up early for school, how many hours do they sleep?
Dr. Cuddihy encourages parents to do all they can to ensure that amount of time is available to their kids for sleep and set them up for a good night’s rest.
Here are her tips for how to best do that:
1. Set a routine
Establish a consistent bedtime routine and stick to it as much as possible.
It’s important that kids have time to wind down before sleep, Dr. Cuddihy said.
“It’s hard to slam on the brakes when it comes to bedtime,” she said. “You need to give your brain an opportunity to relax and separate from the busyness of the day.”
For younger kids, this might be easier. But for older kids with evenings full of homework and extracurricular activities, it can be more challenging, she said.
“Parents should keep an eye on extracurricular activities and evaluate what the benefits and costs are,” Dr. Cuddihy said. “If they are really busy and are only sleeping six hours a night, then their mood and focus is impaired and you’re sacrificing some level of engagement. They may have a lot of activities they want to do, but they’re not getting as much out of them.”
If kids are struggling with sleep, it may help to keep them on a similar schedule during the weekend, she said. So on Saturdays and Sundays, try to wake them up within a few hours of their normal weekday wakeup time.
She recommended starting the bedtime routine about 30 minutes before lights-out time. Good bedtime practices include taking a bath or shower, reading, coloring, guided meditation or relaxation techniques. This is especially true for kids with anxiety.
2. Avoid screens within one hour of bedtime
Monitor your kids’ screen time all the time, but especially right before bed.
It’s important to help detach from the activities of the day. But it’s also physical, because research shows the blue and blue-green light from screens—including tablets, smartphones and laptops—can keep you awake well after the device is powered down.
It’s important to know your kids, because some can store their phone or tablet in the bedroom to use as an alarm clock and not engage with it, Dr. Cuddihy said.
But others might need those devices removed from their bedrooms so they’re not tempted to use them. Remember, you can always buy an inexpensive alarm clock for them if needed.
3. Create a sleep-friendly environment
Light. Noise. Temperature.
There are a lot of different variables to create a room that’s conducive to sleep. Work with your kids to find what works for them.
Maybe they need blackout blinds to make their room darker at night, or lights turned on in the morning to help them wake up. Some kids like white noise to block out other household noises.
Weighted blankets or fans help others. And while some kids like a bedtime snack, eating too much right before sleep can keep some kids awake.
It takes experimentation and, in some cases, the help of a professional to figure it out, Dr. Cuddihy said.
Teens often fight an uphill battle because early morning school start times can work against their body clocks. Research shows that during adolescence, teens’ bodies shift to later bedtimes and later morning wake times.
“There are many initiatives nationwide to get later start times for high schools,” she said.
Some of those efforts have been successful, but there are many challenges to making them work. She encourages parents and teens to do their best with strategies such as these—and get help from a medical professional if needed.
4. Watch for red flags and seek help if needed
Look for signs of a medical problem such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, which do occur in kids as well as adults, Dr. Cuddihy said.
Signs include loud snoring, mouth breathing and severe restlessness, such as bed covers strewn all over in the morning.
Other red flags of sleep problems in younger kids include resistance at bedtime—such as refusal or dawdling—or needing a parent in order to fall asleep.
In older kids, signs of trouble include not being able to get to sleep at night or extreme difficulty waking in the morning.
You’re not alone if you need professional help from a pediatrician or sleep specialist, Dr. Cuddihy said. She works with families to assess all the factors and come up with a plan. While supplements and medication might be a last resort, there are a number of options that can help.