Alright, so you know your child probably needs more sleep than he or she is getting. What do you do about it?
First, parents need to unite in prioritizing sleep. Bedtime should not be an optional activity for your young children. Communicate early that bedtime is crucial to their health; in fact, it is just as important as eating healthy and regular exercise. Tell your children that not only is their sleep important to their health, but it is important to your marriage. Mom needs to be off the clock at a reasonable hour; Dad needs time too*. Come up with a bedtime that you both can support and make it as solid as your work schedule. There should be no compromising during the school week.
Second, make up your mind about where your child sleeps. If your family believes in co-sleeping, fine. That’s a preference; I have no problem with it. But if your family does not subscribe to co-sleeping, then make it an expectation or rule that your child not come into your bed at night. Tell your child what time he/she may come into bed with you; it should be just about the time you regularly wake up anyway. Your bed should be your restful sanctuary. Your child should not be invited there during the nighttime.
Third, make sure your child develops solid sleep hygiene. Here are some helpful hints:
1. The child’s room should be dark at least a half hour before bed. (melatonin production occurs in the absence of light)
2. Make sure the room is quiet. (no iPods, vibrating cell phones, and for pity’s sake, no TV in the child’s room!)
3. Comfortable bed and room temperature.
4. Consistent bedtime (Your child’s bedtime should be vary no more than a half hour, even on weekends)
5. Wear pajamas or bedtime clothes.
6. Have a routine:
• Get ready for bed
• Brush teeth
• Say prayers, goodnights, etc.
• Other things that key your brain that it is time to sleep
7. Have a snack before bed: milk and graham crackers or cookies
8. No caffeine! (especially after noon)
9. Exercise every day, preferably before dinner time
10. Bed should be for one thing only: sleep! (not reading, doing homework, watching T.V., etc.); these things confuse the brain and don’t allow it to shut things down.
11. Make sure your bladder is empty.
12. If there are worries or concerns during the day, talk about them BEFORE bedtime. This is especially important for people who struggle with anxiety.
Fourth, younger children should know that coming out of their room after bedtime is verboten. In our home, we have The Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not come out of thy room, lest thy risk being smitten (or some other creative expression of parental wrath). The only exceptions are when thine ears are bleeding or thou beist on fire”. Set those boundaries early and you will have far fewer problems later on.
Finally, consider sleep aids as a last resort. Most importantly, children should not take prescription sleep aids, which are highly addictive, can have nasty side effects, and create a template for using drugs to solve problems. If their sleep is severely dysregulated, take your child to the pediatrician; perhaps the child has sleep apnea or some other medical problem that is preventing solid sleep. If the child is anxious, deal with the anxiety first—without using drugs. If the child still cannot fall asleep, a natural sleep aid such as Melatonin is a better choice than addictive drugs such as Ambien and Lunesta.
If all of that doesn’t work, try a baseball bat or Jack Daniels**.
*If Dad works late during the week, have him be the primary bedtime tucker-inner and story reader. I know many dads feel guilty about not having time with their children because of their schedules and feel a pull when they are home to spend time with their children. While I honor and support this, it is imperative that dads not succumb to the temptation to allow their connecting time to interfere with healthy bedtime.
**Please, no irate letters telling me I am irresponsible for suggesting we use violence or alcohol with our precious children.