When a child is not getting enough sleep, or having sleep issues, it can impact on all areas of their development, including their emotional, physical and mental health. Veronica O’Connell, Senior Occupational Therapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services’ Willow Grove Adolescent Unit, takes us through some tips and advice for helping your children to build a good sleep routine.
We know that COVID-19 has seen families tackling a wide variety of new parenting challenges, such as home schooling. Being confined to home has also posed a challenge for children to maintain a healthy sleep routine.
A good night’s sleep is about getting to sleep and staying asleep. In general, most children fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed; however, this can be impacted on by the level of physical activity your child has engaged in during the day and by their bedtime routine.
Having a regular and calming routine is important to help children to develop better sleep habits; a nighttime ritual signals to your child that it’s time to wind down.
Tips for a bedroom routine
- Set regular sleep and wake times: Having a regular sleep and wake time is good for children’s body clocks. If they have slipped into a pattern of going to sleep and getting up late, consider making changes to the sleep routine incrementally over two weeks. Move bedtimes and wake up times forward by five to ten minutes a day or ten to 15 minutes every second day.
- Relax before bedtime: Turn off electronics one hour before bedtime: light and light emitting devices are known to contribute to difficulty falling asleep. Instead, encourage your child to relax before bedtime, using this time as an opportunity to engage in quiet activities, such as colouring in, jigsaws, reading a book, listening to gentle music. Choose activities that help promote relaxation. Consider having a family relax time, such as reading, listening to books together or engaging in quiet and calming activities as a family. If your child takes longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, they might need a longer wind-down time before turning the lights out to go to sleep.
- Create a soothing bedroom environment: Keep bedrooms organised, clean and uncluttered. A quiet and dimly lit space is important for good sleep (a dim night light is fine). Blackout blinds can be helpful particularly during the summer months. Remove all electronic devices from the bedroom: blue light from televisions, computer screens, phones and tablets might suppress melatonin levels and delay sleepiness (melatonin is the sleep hormone that makes us feel drowsy).
- Watch the clock: Observe whether having a clock in the bedroom helps or hinders your child getting off to sleep. Some children like to have a clock so they can see when they need to go to sleep or get up in the morning. For other children, it can be distracting as they will check the time often during the night.
- Get plenty of activity: Increase your child’s physical activity around late afternoon so they are physically tired; however, avoid exercise too close to bedtime as it can be very alerting.
- Be mindful of noise sensitivity: If your child is noise sensitive, white noise can help to mask out background noise.
- Use verbal and visual prompts: Give your child warnings that bedtime is approaching. You may need to create a visual timetable so that everybody knows what the routine involves.
- Avoid caffeine and sugary drinks: Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in energy drinks, tea, chocolate and other foods and drinks. Avoid food and drinks that contain caffeine and sugar in the late afternoon and evening.
- Watch out for COVID-19 overload: With the stress of COVID-19, many children may be experiencing an information overload and experiencing trouble falling asleep. Spend five to ten minutes with your child during quiet times in the afternoon or early evening, and talk about what is on their mind. Monitor what your child is watching and the amount of information they are getting about COVID-19.
- Give praise: Remember to praise your child when you see they are trying to make positive changes to their sleep routine.
Getting ready for sleep
Having a regular bedtime routine promotes good sleep patterns in children. A routine of bath, teeth, story and bed can help younger children feel ready for sleep. For older children, the routine might include having a quiet chat with you about their day, then some downtime to relax before lights out.
Developing a good sleep routine is an important step in strengthening your child’s mental, physical and emotional health, and will benefit your family life as a whole, especially during this time of COVID-19.
If your child has sleep problems that persist for more than two to four weeks or that affect your child’s daily life, visit your GP to chat through in more detail.