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Tips to help children get to sleep

14 Jun 2020

If your child’s routine has been disturbed in the past few months, it might have affected their sleep patterns. Get bedtime back on track with these expert tips

Quick Facts

  • Reassure children and never show your own frustration and stress
  • Getting children active outdoors will help reset their sleep/wake cycle, making bedtimes easier
  • Setting boundaries around screen time will help encourage healthy sleep

For a lot of children, the past few months have brought many changes. Their normal routine might be out of sync and their home environment might have changed. They might have had to take time off school, with their parents working from home.

That’s a lot of change to deal with. One of the consequences of this could be changes to their sleep habits, with a later sleep schedule and more fluidity in their wake-up times.

Some of the ways that sleep issues can manifest include:

  • Problems falling asleep
  • Waking in the night and unable to go back to sleep
  • Vivid dreams or nightmares
  • Increased bedwetting (small children)
  • Separation anxiety

These tips can help reduce bedtime issues and help your child get enough sleep, whatever their age.

TODDLERS

1. Stick to a routine
A bedtime routine is one of the most helpful ways for toddlers and small children to fall asleep easily. It provides cues that it’s time for bed and is calming and reassuring.

Licensed Livi child psychologist Martin Forster recommends keeping to a routine even at weekends and during holidays. You can make it quite playful, talking through what you’re going to do and in what order.

You can help promote a good night’s sleep with quiet and relaxing activities such as a warm bath and reading them a story.

2. Wear them out
Regular exercise and fresh air will make your toddler feel tired. Very young children and toddlers benefit from outdoor play in many ways but it also helps to tire them out, which promotes better sleep at night.

3. Fade away your presence
If a child won’t sleep in their own bed or without a parent present, Forster says one of the best ways to help them become more independent is to ‘fade away’ your presence. Start sleeping next to the child and gradually move further out of the room each night.

4. Create a suitable sleep climate
A cool, dark, comfortable room helps a good night’s sleep. Try to keep your child’s room around 17-18C and use blackout curtains or blinds.

PRIMARY YEARS

1. Stick to a routine
If schedules have changed due to coronavirus, sleep times might have become later. Try to keep to a schedule that will regulate their sleep patterns. Although their routine will be a little different to when they were toddlers, consistency is key. A bath or shower and a book at bedtime are still cues that it’s time for sleep. A routine also acts as extra comfort and reassurance.

2. Get them outdoors
Time outside in the sunshine is important for young children. It helps their immune system and regulates their circadian rhythms (their natural sleep-wake cycle), which improves their sleep.

‘There’s a connection between exercise and movement throughout the day and sleep,’ says Forster. ‘Kids who exercise will sleep well.’ He advises not to do lots of exercise within 2 hours of going to bed as it can stimulate children.

3. Reassurance and support
Children pick up on family worries, even when you’re trying to hide things from them. This can affect their sleep and cause problems such as bedwetting.

‘Help them cope with their worries by talking about them and easing the burden,’ says Forster. Reassuring a child is one of the first ways to alleviate their anxiety, he says. ‘The most important thing to communicate to a child is: “We have a plan.”’

If their sleep is disrupted by bedwetting, Forster says try not to show your frustration. ‘It’s important to carry those emotions within yourself and be comforting and not to make a big fuss about it,’ he says. ‘Try to deal with your own stress or you can get into a vicious circle where a child is stressed about wetting the bed, which can make it worse.’

It helps to make sure your child doesn’t have too much to drink before bed. Make going to the toilet part of the bedtime routine.

Gentle breathing exercises can also reduce anxiety before bedtime. The Headspace app for children has easy breathing exercises and meditation techniques.

4. Limit screen time
Increased screen time impacts sleep quality.
Schoolwork and educational apps mean children need to use tablets and computers but you still need to set boundaries around screen time. Try to keep a schedule for screen use, offer alternatives and come up with other ways to learn and have fun. Model healthy screen use by putting aside your own screen at certain times.

Forster says breaking up screen time with getting outdoors and exercising is vitally important.

5. Drawing and talking about dreams
Stress or worry might show up in vivid dreams or nightmares. A child’s life experiences and what happens during their day is ‘material for their dreams,’ says Forster.

‘Talk to them about their dream, then discuss how a good ending to that dream might look. What would happen to change the ending of the dream?’ Forster says that making up stories and drawing pictures about a troubling dream is helpful as it ‘re-programmes the brain’.

TEENS

1. Morning exercise
For teens, it’s useful to get outdoors. Encourage them to do a workout such as a run in the fresh air, first thing. This triggers the body to produce more melatonin in the early evening, which helps prepare their bodies for sleep.

2. Reassurance to ease anxiety
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in children and adults. Teenagers might be concerned about global issues. They’re also prone to stress from school demands, problems with friendships, self-esteem issues, and changes to their body.

As the teenage years are a challenging time, ensuring they have enough sleep is one way to support them. You can help to ease their anxiety with regular chats and fun activities, encouraging them to grow in independence and confidence.

A set routine for meals, schoolwork and bedtime is still useful to help them get good quality sleep. Offering to chat before they go to bed can help them get things off their chest.

3. Encourage them to stop using devices before bed
Teenagers are adjusting to remote learning and social gatherings via video calls. Setting limits around screen use and making sure teens take screen breaks is really important.

Try to encourage them to avoid screen time 1-2 hours before bed. The blue light given off by electronic devices suppresses the production of melatonin – the hormone that helps us prepare for sleep. Blue light also reduces Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, essential to the processing of emotions and learning. So, too much screen time may mean your teen wakes up feeling sleepier, not refreshed.

4. Associate the bedroom with sleep
For teens who wake in the night, Forster recommends they do not lie in bed struggling to sleep. He suggests they get up and do something else in another room until they feel tired again. That way, they only associate the bedroom with sleep.

Last updated:
14 Jun 2020