Sleep-starved parents and an adorable baby with night owl tendencies may be funny to watch on TV or in the movies, but nobody wants to live that in real life. To help your kids get the sleep they need to maintain their health (and your sanity), try these tips:
Find Your Baby’s Sleep Number
According to sleep expert Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, late bedtimes cause many childhood sleep problems, because overtiredness makes it harder for children to get to sleep and stay asleep. But figuring out when to put your baby to bed can be tough.
To find your baby’s perfect bedtime, first determine how many hours of sleep he needs in a 24-hour period. Newborns need between 14 and 16 hours of shut-eye per day; tots 1 to 3 years old need 12-14 hours, and kids 3 to 6 need 10-12 hours. You can then determine how many hours your child can comfortably stay awake in 24 hours. Calculate the right bedtime so that your child is not awake longer than that and you’ll prevent overtiredness.
For example, a 1-year-old who needs 14 hours of daily sleep can stay awake for 10 hours per day. If he gets up at 6 am and naps for 3 hours each day, he needs a standing date with his bed at 7 pm.
Sleep doctors agree that an effective bedtime routine is one that’s absolutely set in stone: the same things, in the same order, every night. “Our bodies love routine, and this is especially so with children and bedtime,” says Teitelbaum. Performing the same events in the same sequence before bed cues a child’s subconscious for sleep. Sure, a routine this solid is bound to get boring for you. But the routine is for their sake, not yours (and a happily snoozing child is well worth the effort).
Shut Off TVs
Bright lights, fast-paced activity, and over-stimulating content are bedtime don’ts. So television, which pours out light and stimulation just as kids should be winding down for sleep, has no place in a bedtime routine. Numerous studies have linked television-watching with poor sleep in children, yet it remains a common evening activity in millions of households with young kids. Turn off the boob tube at bedtime and use the time for reading and other quiet activities instead.
Avoid Nap Traps
Naps are important to babies and young children—they promote healthy nighttime rest, and new research from Emory University shows that they help babies learn and retain new information. But napping all day is guaranteed to make your baby nocturnal. To promote healthy naps while preserving nighttime sleep, don’t allow naps longer than three hours.
Serve Sleep-friendly Snacks
The best bedtime snacks contain sleep-inducing tryptophan along with complex carbohydrates that help tryptophan cast its sleepy spell. Nut butter on whole-grain toast, cheese on whole-grain crackers, and cereal with milk or soy milk are healthy options. Be sure to serve the snack an hour before bedtime—sleeping on a full stomach can contribute to poor sleep and nightmares.
Nix the Nightlight
You may love the way your child’s smile lights up a room, but when it comes to sleep, the best light is no light at all. Nighttime light disrupts melatonin production, and even a small nightlight or the light from the baby monitor can be enough to prevent deep, restful sleep. Dim the house lights after dinner and install effective blackout blinds to get the bedroom truly dark. A black twin-sized flat sheet can be folded in half and tacked around a window in a pinch to make the room sleep-ready.Get Kids Moving
Moving all day can help your child sleep all night, because exercise helps children fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. So put aside your stroller and carrier and let your little one move. Aim for at least 60 minutes per day of vigorous activity. Toddlers and young children need plenty of chances to walk and run; babies need lots of time on their tummies and backs to wiggle, stretch, and work their muscles.
Practice with Pacis
The journal Pediatrics reports that nearly 70 percent of parents give pacifiers to their newborns. And it’s likely that a good portion of these parents find themselves getting up at night to replug their baby’s lost binky. The sooner a child learns to manage her own pacifier, the better everyone sleeps. So give your baby plenty of practice. Incorporate “paci practice” into tummy time and playtime, and your baby will be self-plugging in no time.
Wake Up Sunny
Start your child’s day with strong morning light. That will set her internal clock so she’ll fall asleep more easily at night. Open the bedroom curtains to let the light shine in, and serve breakfast in a sunny spot.
Malia Jacobson is a sleep journalist, the resident sleep expert at Parenting Squad, and the author of Ready, Set, Sleep: 50 Ways to Help Your Child Sleep, So You Can Sleep Too.