Many children crawl into bed, stare at their parents and say, “I’m not tired.” I’ve heard stories of kids ripping around their bedroom at nighttime, having a hard time winding down to sleep.
There are things parents can do to help create the best conditions for sleeping.
Here are seven suggestions to inviting sweet dreams:
1. Turn ALL screens off at least an hour before bedtime.
We know that the artificial light from any kind of screen (TV, computer, mobile device, video games) stimulates the brain, so it is very important to turn these all off at least an hour before bedtime. I suggest having a “power-down time” for the family, where everyone turns their technology off and the wireless internet is also turned off in the house.
2. Keep all screens out of the bedroom.
It is important to create a positive pairing for your body between the bedroom at nighttime and sleeping. This means training your brain that your nighttime routine and being in your bed tells your systems, “Ah… I’m in bed. That means I’ll be falling asleep now.” This is referred to as positive sleep hygiene. As I mentioned above, the light from screens activates us, so it is important to not put TVs, computers, or other mobile devices into children’s rooms—that will change the pairing to, “I’m in bed… time to rev up and look at a screen.”
3. Make sure all the child’s ya-yas are out during the day.
Children need fresh air, exercise, and unscheduled time. Give your child an opportunity to run and burn off all his energy. Some children have more ya-yas than others, so try to find the point where your child’s energy tank is mostly drained.
4. Fill your child's attachment tank.
Did your child get enough connection time with you today? Many children act out at bedtime, when really they are trying to say, "Hey, I didn't get enough of you today." I explain more about that here.
5. Avoid napping too late in the day.
Several parents have asked me for help with two- to four-year-olds who are not falling asleep until after 9pm. Ninety-five percent of the time, when I ask the parents about things that might be contributing to this, we discover the child is sleeping too long, too late in the day.
If your child under four years old isn’t collapsing into bed at 8pm, consider reducing the daytime sleep and moving it earlier. I actually pulled napping from our schedule when my children were two-and-a-half, because they weren’t falling asleep until 10pm some nights! After the tricky transition period of finding ways to get through the “witching hour” (4-6pm), they both fall asleep almost immediately at bedtime.
Many children who go to daycare are automatically laid down for a nap between noon and 2pm. If this is preventing your child from falling asleep by 8pm, talk to your providers about alternatives to napping—quiet playtime or just napping for 40 minutes instead of two hours.
6. Slow the body down.
When a child is revved up, it is likely his flight-or-fight system is stuck in the “on” position. Here are some ways to shut this system off:
Have a bath (unless that happens with a sibling and there is often action and fighting during this time)
Read books that bring a feeling of happiness
Talk about your child’s three favourite things from the day
Give your child a massage, focusing on the area at the base of the head and neck and down the spine (to get the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in). I learned a technique that works great for this: put a finger on each side of the spine and draw long, slow lines from the head down to the tailbone.
Teach your child deep breathing techniques—kids are SUPER at meditating. Find a person to teach you how and create a practice where you take time to breathe at night (I learned from Laurel Crossley). Sometimes when one of my kids is too revved up, I snuggle with him, breathing slowly onto his face until I hear his breathing match mine.
Lower your voice at night. Nighttime can bring out the worst in parents if everyone is exhausted and the kids are not following instructions. (I continually post articles on my facebook page with strategies to encouraging kids to cooperate and calm everyone down.) Resist any feeling to shout or use a harsh tone.
7. Address nighttime anxiety.
Our self-talk can be used to calm us down or work us up into a panic. Teach your child how to rely on positive messages to calm herself when she is in her room alone (because YOU need sleep, too!).
This is one strategy I use with clients to improve nighttime courage:
Remind your child that she is in charge of her bedroom, so if anything she doesn’t like comes in at night, she just has to say, “GET OUT!” and that thing must leave. If she says, “I tried that, but the squishy monster didn’t leave,” you can say, “Oh, well those kinds of monsters aren’t very smart—you are WAY smarter than it—you might have to tell him a couple of times.”
Tell the child that she is the boss of her room and always wins. Don’t talk about real or not real—a statement like, “Don’t worry, honey, monsters aren’t real,” is actually invalidating. It probably feels real to her. Try instead, “Monsters are story characters, so you get to decide how the story is going to go. Think of ways to win—will you blow him out? Love him so much he turns into a hugging monster?”
This is what I do with my kids:
I have to give my husband credit for this! At night, we say, “Let’s take the bad dreams out,” and then we run our fingers through their heads, stopping to rub a spot on the head, do a pulling motion onto our finger, then flicking each one off our fingers (as if you were pulling something out of their hair). After doing this a few times, we say, “It’s time to start some good dreams…” and then we calmly tell a happy story. I am going to post a video of how I do this shortly.
Please seek help from a trained professional if your child’s anxiety is stopping him or her, and you, from sleeping.
As I mentioned earlier, I continually post free parenting resources on my Facebook page. You are welcome to pop over there to learn, ask questions, and join our supportive parenting community.
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