Everyone knows that sleep is critical to growing children and their mental and physical health. Regular, high-quality sleep habits help children consolidate memory and learn better. Lack of sleep contributes to childhood depression, anxiety and even the risk of suicide, along with physical health problems, including the risk of injury. The challenge is making sure kids log those precious zzz’s.
There are three main components of high-quality sleep for children. First, they need enough total hours: sleep duration. Sleep quality is also important: getting a good night’s sleep with few interruptions or awakenings. And finally, there’s bedtime, basically a consistent schedule, with bedtime and wake-up time roughly the same throughout the week.
Even when you know how important a good night’s sleep is, it’s easy for the length, quality, and timing of your sleep to get off track. It can happen for infrequent reasons, such as the pleasant chaos of a vacation or the upheavals that accompany pandemic life. Healthy sleep habits are also difficult to maintain for everyday reasons, such as parent-child disagreement, busy schedules, and the leisurely weekend behavior of older children. But there are ways for families to get back to sleep.
As a child development researcher and family therapist, she studies parenting and family behaviors that create healthy environments for children’s sleep patterns. In particular, I help parents develop consistent and nutritious routines. Sleep patterns are established early and parents play an important role in fostering children’s perspectives and attitudes. Here are the general tips I share with families, regardless of the age of their children.
Establishes and models family values about sleep
Children are observant learners. They pay very careful attention to both the spoken and unspoken rules of their clan.
For everyone in the household to sleep well, sleep can’t be something that only the children have to worry about, while adults who have the freedom and power joke about their own unhealthy habits. If sleep feels like a punishment, rather than the health gift it is, children are likely to resist it.
Adults need to talk and walk because sleep is a priority for everyone in the family. Be a role model. If, for example, you have been in the habit of watching TV in the afternoon, work to control it. Use positive language about your own sleep. Pay attention to what you say and what you communicate through your own habits, reinforcing that it is important for the whole family to sleep and have energy for the next day. Don’t make the mistake of talking about bedtime as an opportunity for adults to distance themselves from children.
Get to know your child
Remember that every child is unique, so don’t expect one-size-fits-all sleep tips to work universally. A child’s temperament plays an important role in the length, quality and timing of sleep. For example, a fussier child may not adjust as quickly to a sleep schedule during the first year. And temperament is a fairly stable part of who your child is and will continue to be.
A parent’s job is to continue to encourage routines and set boundaries, but with constant warmth and sensitivity about the characteristics of the unique child you have.
When you’re exhausted and struggling with a child’s behavior, it can be hard to stay positive. My recommendation is to use daylight hours wisely as an investment in your relationship. Be proactive in noticing your child’s well-being. Remember that your child is his own person, learning in many ways throughout the day, and that child development is a marathon, not a sprint, for positive change. Sleep regressions or other sleep difficulties, such as night waking or changes in sleep habits, are opportunities for growth, not punishment.
By laying these foundations, it is easier to adopt a positive and respectful attitude in times of stress. Remember that change over time is more important than controlling a particular moment. After all, strained parent-child relationships can lead to continued sleep and behavior problems in young children.
It aims for consistency, with some flexibility
In my practice, I see two common, but opposite, mistakes parents make around sleep.
First, many parents drop rules and boundaries altogether. Often this happens as a result of what children bring to the equation: personal temperament or age-related phenomena. For example, the peak of behavioral aggression that can occur in childhood or the change in sleep time that occurs in adolescence can cause some parents to just throw in the towel and give up.
Alternatively, other parents become rigid. They see the conflict around sleep as a power struggle that the adult must win.
I think balance is key. Parents should adopt a consistent approach that aligns with the sleep values they’ve been clear about all along. But they also need to be flexible to help children adapt routines to their own unique needs.
For example, all children of all ages should have a regular bedtime and wake-up time. However, parents may be open to a collaborative plan with older children about what these moments should look like, or to attend to younger children’s patterns and cues, working on a reasonable compromise that takes into account the needs of the individual child. The message from parents about the importance of sleep should never be given up.
Manage household issues that affect sleep
Research shows that certain problems outside the bedroom create immediate and long-term risk to children’s sleep quality. These include exposure to second-hand smoke, excessive or nocturnal exposure to blue light from screens, and conflict in the home. Addressing these factors will likely pay dividends when it comes to getting your kids to sleep well.
Good sleep hygiene is a family affair. It’s never too late to nudge habits in the right direction and recommit so everyone gets the rest they need. Your child’s sleep habits can be critical to lifelong well-being.
Erika Bocknek is a professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Wayne State University.
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