Mom has been there—with the possible exception of THAT mom who smugly claims that her child has slept 12 hours a night since their first night home from the maternity ward. We’ve all had our share—or far more than our share—of finding ourselves jerked out of sleep for the fourth time in one night by our crying baby, awake and ready-to-play toddler, or by the small child who keeps crawling into our bed or needing endless glasses of water, bathroom trips, night-night songs, more light in their room, less light in their room, the closet and under-bed areas checked for monsters, or simply wanting our company because they are awake at 3 AM.
While there is no easy, push-button solution—no matter how hard you scour the Internet looking for one while rocking a fussy toddler at 2 AM—there are some tips that may genuinely help your particular night owl to sleep better. And let’s face it… you’ll try just about anything at this point.
Be in the Know About Night Time
First, it’s crucial to have realistic expectations about how many hours your child should sleep at night based on their age. For instance, newborns should sleep about eight hours during the daytime and eight hours at night. However, because they have tiny stomachs, it’s unrealistic to expect a newborn to sleep through the night. The majority of newborns will wake every two to four hours for feedings. Breastfed babies in particular will need to be fed often throughout the night, as breast milk isn’t as heavy or filling as formula.
Toddlers (1-2) should sleep 11 to 14 hours in a 24 hour period, while preschoolers should sleep 10 to 13 hours. School-aged children need 9 to 11 hours of sleep.
Regular Routine for Bedtime
One of the most essential requirements for getting your child to sleep better at night is to get their brains and bodies trained to pick up on specific cues that it’s time to sleep. This is crucial for setting their internal clocks to produce adequate melatonin in the evening.
Keep a specific routine for bedtime that begins at a consistent time every night. Good routines include a warm bath, tucking into bed, a bedtime story, prayers if you are religious, and a song. If you have a child who doesn’t fall asleep easily, you can try setting a limit for soothing such as, “I will lie down with you for five minutes and rub your back,” and then stick to it.
Blue Light = Bad Night
Sleep research has shown that the importance of circadian rhythm and the production of melatonin can’t be underestimated when it comes to sleep. Human life is programmed to follow the rhythms of sunrise and sunset, with the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, triggered by lowering light. Because we now live with electric lights, this trigger is being disrupted in most households. Research has shown that while red and yellow light, which mimics firelight doesn’t disrupt melatonin production, blue light does.
In order to trigger appropriate amounts of melatonin to be produced in your child each evening, stop screen time and exposure to blue light at least an hour before bedtime.
An often overlooked detail is the color of your child’s night-light. Many night-lights have blue lighting because it’s dim, but this is a mistake, since blue light reduces melatonin production. If your child uses a nightlight, be sure it has a dim yellow or red glow.
Keep Your Cool
Body temperature is naturally lowered during sleep as another function of melatonin. You can help this process along by lowering the temperature in their sleep environment at night. Keeping the room cool will also cause your child to want to snuggle down beneath soft, warm covers, which is conducive to falling asleep.
A breathable mattress topper is another way to ensure regulated body temperature during the night. Memory foam gel toppers not only help to regulate temperature, but the best mattress toppers can also alleviate pressure-points and allow for deeper, less restless sleep.
Long dark nights can be scary for a small child. You can do two important steps toward getting your child to sleep better in one smart move: by filling a spray bottle with water combined with a few drops of lavender essential oil. Tell your child that this bottle is magic monster spray-away. While it’s important for your child to know that monsters aren’t real, you can tell them that this spray will help keep any imaginationary monsters out of their room. Spray the air in their room to keep these scary monster thoughts out. This will ease their fears, and at the same time, the proven sleep benefits of lavender will help ensure a deeper sleep.
Shrewd Sleep at Nap Time
In general, children do well with early nap times. While infants require more frequent naps, toddlers and very young school age children should nap only once per day, and not after 1 PM. Napping too late in the day may inhibit a child’s ability to become sleepy at an appropriate bedtime.
Also, allow your child to sleep in the light for their naps. If the room is darkened, melatonin production goes into overdrive and your child will be groggy and grouchy when awakened. If high levels of melatonin are triggered during the daytime, the body will naturally wait a long period of time before triggering it again. This means your child will have trouble sleeping at bedtime.
Time the Tire-Out
While it’s true that physical activity will tire out a child and help them sleep better at night, physical exercise and energetic play should be earlier in the day and limited once it’s about two hours before bedtime. Exercise raises blood pressure and heart rate, and stimulates the body, which is the opposite of what you want after sundown.
Limit sugar and caffeine—especially after dinner. Caffeine and sugar can be found in foods such as chocolate, soda, tea, and sweets. These should be excluded from a child’s diet as soon as dinner time is over.
Repeatedly telling your child (or begging them) to go to sleep can cause counterproductive sleep anxiety. Instead of stressing that they have to sleep, try getting them to simply focus on being quiet, still, and restful when you put them to bed.
All children are unique, and despite your best efforts you might just have a child who makes fighting sleep their goal for the first years of their life. While it’s true that in the middle of the night when you are up with a cranky child it may feel like forever, the truth is that before you know it, it will be you knocking on your teenage child’s door at noon on a Saturday, telling them to get out of bed and mow the lawn. It will happen, I promise!