Everyone knows that sleep is vital to growing children and their mental and physical health. Regular, quality sleep habits help children strengthen their memory and learn better. Lack of sleep contributes to childhood depression, anxiety, and even suicide risk, along with physical health problems, including risk of injury. The challenge is to make sure kids are logging those precious zzz’s.
There are three main components to quality sleep for children. First, they need enough total hours – duration of sleep. Sleep quality is also important – sleeping well at night with few interruptions or awakenings. Finally, there’s sleep timing—essentially, a consistent schedule with roughly the same bedtime and wakeup time throughout the week.
Even if you know the importance of good sleep, the duration, quality, and timing of sleep can easily be thrown off course. It can happen for rare reasons, such as the pleasant chaos of a vacation or the disruptions that accompany pandemic living. Healthy sleep habits are also difficult to maintain for everyday reasons such as: But there are ways for families to get their sleep back on track.
As a child development researcher and family therapist, I study parenting and family behaviors that create healthy environments for children’s sleep patterns. In particular, I help parents develop consistent and caring routines. Sleep patterns are recognized early, and parents play an important role in nurturing children’s perspectives and attitudes. Here’s the overarching advice I give to families, regardless of the age of their children.
Establish and model family values around sleep
Children are attentive learners. They pay close attention to the spoken and unspoken rules of their clan.
For everyone in the household to sleep well, sleep must not be something that only children have to worry about while adults, who have freedom and power, joke about their own unhealthy habits. When sleep seems like a punishment and not the gift to health it is, children are likely to resist it.
Adults need to lead the conversation and lead the way that sleep is a priority for everyone in the family. Be a role model. For example, if you have developed a habit of watching TV until the wee hours, work on reducing it. Use positive language about your own sleep. Be mindful of what you say and what you share through your own habits, and affirm that it is important for the whole family to sleep and have energy for the next day. Don’t make the mistake of looking at bedtime as a chance for adults to distance themselves from the kids.
Do you know your child
Remember that every child is unique. So don’t expect one-size-fits-all sleep recommendations to work universally. A child’s temperament plays a significant role in the duration, quality and timing of their sleep. For example, a livelier first-year child may not adapt as quickly to a sleep schedule. And temperament is a fairly stable part of who your child is and will remain.
A parent’s job is to encourage routines and set boundaries—but with ongoing warmth and sensitivity to the traits of your unique child.
When you’re exhausted and struggling with child behavior, it can be difficult to stay positive. My recommendation is to use the hours of the day wisely as an investment in your relationship. Be proactive about noticing the good in your child. Remind yourself that your child is an independent 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 disorders, such as nocturnal awakenings or changes in sleeping habits, are opportunities for growth, not punishment.
By laying these foundations, it becomes easier to maintain a positive and respectful attitude during stressful times. Remind yourself that change over time is more important than being in control of a specific moment. Finally, strained parent-child relationships in young children can actually lead to ongoing sleep and behavior problems.
Aim for consistency with some flexibility
In my practice, I see two common — but conflicting — mistakes parents make around sleep.
First, many parents let go of rules and boundaries altogether. Often this happens because of what children bring into the equation: personal temperament or age-related phenomena. For example, the peak of behavioral aggression that can occur in infancy or the shift in sleep timing in adolescence may cause some parents to just throw in the towel and give up.
Alternatively, other parents become rigid. They see conflicts about sleep as a power struggle that the adult must win.
I contend that balance is key. Parents should take a consistent approach that fits the sleep values they’ve always known about. But they also need to remain 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 can be open to a shared plan with older children about what these times should be like, or take patterns and cues from younger children and work towards a reasonable compromise that takes into account the needs of the individual child. Parents’ message about the importance of sleep should never be ignored.
Manage household issues that affect sleep
Research shows that certain issues outside of the bedroom pose an immediate and long-term risk to children’s sleep quality. These include passive smoking, excessive or evening exposure to blue light from screens, and domestic conflict. Managing these factors will likely pay dividends when it comes to getting your kids a good night’s sleep.
Good sleep hygiene is a family affair. It’s never too late to change habits in a good direction and get back to making sure everyone gets the rest they need. Your child’s sleep habits can be a crucial building block for lifelong well-being.
Erika Bocknek is a Professor in the Elementary Education Department at Wayne State University.
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