Bedtime Problems

The Bedtime Battle

For many parents and children alike, bedtime has little to do with lullabies and sweet dreams.   Bedtime is often battle time when kids are reluctant to head to bed for fear of being alone or missing all the fun that happens after they shut their eyes for the night.  Some fear darkness, while others fear ghosts and bad dreams to come.  Children sometimes cry wolf and parents trudge thru the inevitable tantrums and endless requests for “must haves” before they will fall asleep.  Bedtime problems happen in kids of all ages.  From babies who do not want to be left alone to teens who do not want to let their technology rest, many American kids are simply not getting enough sleep.  The good news is that most kids can be persuaded to sleep well with a few simple ideas and a routine that works.

Infants and Toddlers
For infants, the routine needs to be similar in that you put them into their crib on their back before they fall asleep so they have to learn to self soothe.  I tell parents, ” You need to put them to sleep during the day, the same way you want them to go to sleep at night.”  All babies wake up multiple times each night.  If you hold them until they fall asleep in your arms during the day, they will wake you at night expecting you to do the same thing. If they cry, check on them and if all their needs are met, step outside the room to let them to fall asleep on their own.  Teaching them how to fall asleep during daylight hours will be extremely helpful to parents when the baby knows how to settle back down to sleep after waking for a few seconds at night.

Younger Children
For younger children, routines take the bite out of bedtime problems.  Having special time and attention can be something each of you can look forward to each night.   Have them take a relaxing bath and brush their teeth.   Read their favorite book to them or dim the lights in the bedroom and say prayers.  Kiss them goodnight and leave them to make the final lull into sleep on their own.   Make sure there are no TV’s in any of the children’s bedrooms.  A recent study showed that kids with regular bedtimes scored better on tests. Adequate sleep has a significant effect on performance and behavior of children so work hard to establish a bedtime ritual to look forward to.

School age Children
Children need appropriate bedtimes. In most cases, they have to be in bed by 8 p.m. to get the 9-11 uninterrupted hours that are needed.  Many children are overbooked and are staying up late to complete homework and just to get everything done after sports activities, a parent’s long workday and late dinner..  You need good sleep every night to perform at your best each day and there is no real catch up for sleep on the weekends.     Kids who are sleep deprived are more likely to have behavioral issues, overeat, and perform poorly on tests.  So make an 8 o’ clock bedtime a priority.

Teens
Some teens are over stimulated while others do not have enough to do.  Both problems can impact sleeping.  Many get hyped up on coffee, teas, chocolate, and energy drinks.  Stimulation can also come from texts, phone calls, computers and television (i.e screen time). Kids who have been sleeping or sitting around all day are wide-awake as night falls.  I would treat both problems by increasing activity during the day.   I always say to parents, “When you play like a baby, you sleep like a baby.”  Cutting out the napping and increasing outdoor activity will make kids more energized during the day so they feel less of a need for naps or for stimulants.  The activity and the exposure to sunlight will also help to tire them out by nightfall as well as prime the brain to release chemicals that help them to sleep at night. Remember to also have them turn off the technology and turn it in each night to you by 9 p.m. or so. They may retrieve it in the morning before school or after homework is done in the evening.

Getting a good night’s rest is important to the health and wellness of our children and contributes to how they feel and how well they perform on a daily basis.  A good night’s rest is possible when you develop a routine that works for the kids in the family and stick to it. To sum it all up:
•    Pick a regular bedtime
•    Limit screen time to 2 hours per day
•    Get rid of the stimulants.
•    Keep a daily routine, including getting out and getting active for at least an hour per day.
•    Put the babies on their backs to sleep while they are still awake and let them self soothe.

Bedtime is a battle you can win. You may even start to look forward to it every night!

Wendy Willis, MD
Wendy K. Anderson, MD, is a member of the Section of Ambulatory Pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

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