Children's Sleep Hygiene

Children's Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene refers to the set of habits and guidelines that promote consistently restful and sufficient sleep at night and complete alertness during the day. It's what you can do (and in some cases, not do) to help your child (and you, as a consequence) sleep easy and well.

Like dental hygiene, sleep hygiene isn't just for children; it's for everyone, no matter the age. And like dental hygiene, instilling good sleep hygiene habits early on in life will promote the retention and sustaining of those good habits throughout one's lifetime.

Sleep hygiene can even help people to avoid a bevy of the sleep-related disorders discussed throughout these pages. The clearest sign that someone has poor sleep hygiene (or could at least use some improvements in the area) is if they experience troubles sleeping at night and/or experience sluggishness during the day.

In the introduction to my book DreamChild Adventures in Relaxation and Sleep, I outlined these childhood sleep problems:

  • bedtime resistance
  • anxiety about sleep
  • sleep onset delay
  • nighttime wakings
  • inadequate sleep duration
  • difficulty awakening in the morning
  • morning moodiness
  • daytime sleepiness

Every one of these issues can be sourced (at least in part) to a lapse or gap in some aspect of proper sleep hygiene—and by the same token, every one of these problems can be alleviated (again, at least in part) by making the appropriate adjustments in sleep hygiene.

Even anxious children can experience transformative improvements in their sleep through adjustments in their bedtime habits in routines—so much so that it can leave them better prepared on a mental, emotional, and physical levels to handle their anxieties in a positive and healthful manner.

The following list a good quick and handy reference of good sleep hygiene for children. (Note that while many of these items are applicable to adults, this list is specifically on good sleep hygiene for children.)

Bedtime Schedule

The first rule of good sleep hygiene is to create a bedtime routine that works for you and your child, and then stick to it. It is inconsistency in a child's bedtime routine that is most often at fault for any sleeping troubles that are experienced. Likewise, it is instituting this regularity in bedtime practices that has the most profound affect on reducing, or altogether eliminating, sleeping difficulties.

Why is this consistency so important? Because sleep and waking cycles need to act in harmony with all other body cycles, such as body temperature, metabolism, dietary schedule, and hormonal activity—what collectively are known as “circadian rhythm”. Our bodies are designed to naturally seek out what’s known as a state of “homeostasis”—that is the condition wherein all body systems find balance. In order to achieve that homeostasis, all these circadian rhythms, must sync smoothly with one another.

To best establish a comfortable and effective sleeping/waking framework for your child, then, it helps to attend to his other daily, circadian rhythms with as much vigilance as you do his sleeping/waking rhythms. Find consistency in the flow of your child’s entire day, including schedules of eating, playing, napping, bathing, exposure to light and dark, etc. Start with the events that already typically occur at the same time each day, and work from there. Perceiving your child’s sleeping schedule as part and parcel of this larger set of circadian rhythms empowers you to create synergy in these rhythms and promote that optimum state of balance in every waking and sleeping moment.

What follows next are some practical suggestions on how to establish a bedtime schedule that works. First of all, as implied above, to be complete, a bedtime schedule must include both a regular bedtime and a regular waking time. And integral in determining these times, of course, is making sure they are practical and realistic for you and your child's other life schedules.

What’s more (and what many parents fail realize, or if they do realize, fail to enforce) is that this bedtime schedule should stay consistent 7 days a week. If you must adjust it for weekends, then don't adjust it by any more than an hour in either direction, or else you defeat the whole purpose of trying to instill a natural circadian rhythm in your child. His physiology simply will not know when it is time to sleep or be awake. And this goes double for teenagers.

Adults, of course, find this framework a challenge because their own schedules usually differ from weekdays to weekends—and in many cases from weeknight to weeknight. This irregularity in their own schedules makes it particularly difficult for parents to enforce a regular bedtime schedule for their child each and every night of the week, but it makes it no less necessary. Children, as we all know, are not adults and need to be coached into a successful adulthood. (Again, perhaps, may be doubly important for teens.)

At the same time, in order to be effective the sleeping and waking times you set must not merely be consistent and practical, but they must also enable your child to get just the right amount of sleep she needs—not too little and not too much: this is critical. Experts agree that many children do not receive their ideal sleep requirements, which range from 11 hours at age five to 10 hours at age nine, 9 hours during teenage years and finally around 8 hours when they reach age twenty.

Think of a bedtime time schedule like setting your child's "biological clock"; set it right and your child's bodily rhythms begin to naturally run like clockwork. Sleeping soundly at night and living an active and alert waking life can become second-nature, a healthy habit she can carry with him throughout his lifetime.

Bedtime Routine

The second rule of good sleep hygiene, and just as important as the first, is setting up a regular bedtime routine for your child. A regular bedtime routine, about 1/2-hour long leading up to bedtime itself, is how you can best help your child to prepare for a good night's sleep. A bedtime routine involves engaging in comforting and familiar activities that are also relaxing.

Thirty minutes before bed is the time for him to start winding down, not up. To be avoided during this critical time period are

  • heavy emotional conversations
  • TV
  • video games
  • active, rough-and-tumble play and cardiovascular/aerobic exercise
  • caffeine (chocolate, caffeinated teas, and some sodas)
  • lots of liquids (water, juice, milk)*
  • big meals and sugary snacks*

It turns out certain light snacks can actually help a child, once he falls asleep, to stay asleep. Foods with tryptophan (like milk and turkey) fall into this category. Just remember to keep bedtime snacks light.

Good bedtime routine activities include

  • taking a warm bath
  • reading a story together
  • quiet, relaxing family time
  • listening to tranquil music, nature sounds, or a relaxation CD
  • stretching

As children grow older you can be more flexible with bedtime routines, which may grow to include a walk outside, a chat on the back porch about the day’s events or future plans, or perhaps playing a board game or card game or doing a puzzle together. Older children may want to retire to their room to read, listen to music or work on a favorite hobby before retiring for the night and possibly listening to one of my audio programs for sleep.

Whatever activities you (and your child) decide upon, the cornerstone of your child’s bedtime routine is that he knows what time he is to slip into his pajamas and brush his teeth, what time to be in bed, and how much time he can spend on in-bed activities such as reading or listening to a sleep program.

One significant reason children function best with a certain amount of structure is that, not surprisingly, uncertainty has been shown to foster anxiety in children, and anxiety is the greatest enemy of sleep. But children only experience this sense of structure if, once it’s established, you consistently enforce it. If you make an exception, even rare ones, you encourage resistance to the very rules you want followed; then both you and your child will feel frustrated.

It definitely takes effort to set, enforce, and adhere to a consistent bedtime routine, but it takes more effort to deal with a child who doesn’t have such structure and consistency in her life. So while your child may not particularly welcome the idea of a clear and consistent bedtime routine or schedule, especially at first, you can take heart that the benefits for all concerned will quickly become apparent, and in time she may even grow to enjoy it and look forward to it.

These two “rules” then—a regular bedtime schedule and a regular bedtime routine—comprise the foundation of good sleep hygiene. From there it’s a matter of refining various habits, behaviors, circumstances, and beliefs. For your convenience, I’ve divided those refinements into two categories: Environmental Sleep Hygiene and Daytime Sleep Hygiene.

Environmental Sleep Hygiene

Certain qualities of your child's sleep setting can play a significant role in the quality of his sleep.

  • set a bedroom temperature that's comfortable and will remain consistent throughout the night, erring on the cooler side as it's more supportive of healthful sleep than an excessively warm room (that being anything over 75 degrees); and keeping the temperature consistent throughout the night can help avert nighttime wakings
  • make the room sufficiently dark; a small nightlight is okay, if needed, but too much brightness interferes with restful sleep
  • ensure sufficient ventilation/air circulation, such as by cracking the door open or using a ceiling fan set on low; refrain, however, from leaving a window wide open all night for both safety and health reasons (additional air quality solutions follow at the end of this list)
  • provide your child a quiet sleeping environment, for reasons that should be obvious
  • shut off the television, and what's more take the television out of your child's bedroom; all television-viewing should cease at least 30 minutes before bedtime
  • keep the bed for sleeping, in other words refrain from getting your child in the habit of associating his bed with anything other than sleeping, such as playing, reading, eating, or watching TV
  • dress your child in comfortable pajamas/nightclothes, as the more comfortable he is the easier a time he'll have of falling asleep and staying asleep
  • for the same reason, provide your child with a comfortable mattress and pillows, bedsheets and blankets
  • keep alert for dust, dust mites, and other allergens commonly found in beds and bedrooms; helpful air quality solutions include
    • keeping pets out of children's bedrooms
    • replacing old carpets and pillows/bedding/mattresses
    • cleaning out ducts and furnace filters
    • employing an air conditioner or HEPA air filter

Daytime Sleep Hygiene

Many of the factors that influence your child's sleep the most don't even occur at night. On the contrary, a variety of habits and behaviors that have a major impact on her sleep occurs in broad daylight.

The following are suggestions of daytime behaviors supportive of good sleep hygiene

  • expose your child to sunlight first thing in the morning, as soon as possible after waking, as it helps to set his circadian rhythm for the rest of the day, and long-term for the rest of his life; additionally ensure your child gets sufficient exposure to natural sunlight on a daily basis
  • avoid naps (with the exception of very young children), as it can both lead a child to be less sleepy at bedtime and disrupt his natural circadian rhythm, or sleeping/waking pattern
  • discuss your child's medicines with his pediatrician, as some children's medications (including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines, and all-natural/herbal remedies) could have side effects that interfere with your child's restful sleep; if your child turns out to be on such a medication, your doctor can usually help you find adequate alternatives devoid of such side effects
  • don't use your child's bedroom for punishments or time-outs, as a child must feel comfortable, safe, and happy to be in his bedroom in order to fall asleep and sleep soundly—all of which are prevented when he starts associating his bedroom with punishment
  • monitor the content of your child's television viewing, internet surfing, and video game playing, as exposure to excessively violent, disturbing, or confusing images could be responsible for many sleep disturbances, such as nightmares
  • confront bullying or other prevalent emotional issues in your child’s daily life, as any number of daily stressors—from being subjected to bullying on a daily basis, to experiencing trouble in school, to facing emotional troubles at home like a divorce, a death in the family, a move, or a sibling rivalry—could have a negative impact on your child's sleep

Consider these, then, the Four Pillars of Good Sleep Hygiene

  • 1. Bedtime Schedule
  • 2. Bedtime Routine
  • 3. Environmental Conditions of the Bedroom
  • 4. Daytime Behaviors and Habits

    Improvements in your child's sleep patterns likely won't happen overnight, but once you begin implementing good sleep hygiene practices in your child's life you're bound to notice positive results in their due course.

    If you do take these suggestions and your child isn't eventually getting a complete and restful night of sleep on a nightly basis, then it's time to reevaluate your practices and make the appropriate adjustments where it seems appropriate.

    Beyond Sleep Hygiene

    As you undergo this process of reevaluating and refining, you may start by examining the Four Pillars of Sleep Hygiene as they relate to your child’s life. And if sleep hygiene alone isn’t adequate to achieve the quality sleep your child needs, it may be time to consider using one or more of the DreamChild Adventures therapeutic programs, which are so often helpful.

  • Related Features

    • Sleep Associations All childhood sleep experts address the importance of sleep association, the cardinal rule of which is this: All children should fall asleep under the same circumstances that they will experience when they awaken during the night.
    • The Connection Between Sleep & Other Childhood Issues In the process of putting together DreamChild Adventures in Sleep & Relaxation, I worked closely with the parents and caretakers of many children who struggled with sleeeping problems as well as a variety of other psychologyical issues fairly typical among children and teens. In this article I will briefly and broadly map out the connection that I have found exists between sleep and other childhood issues.
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