Building a Better Bedtime Routine
Sleep is very important to your child's health and well-being. In fact, good sleep habits start from birth.
However, getting young children to sleep (and to stay asleep) is often one of the most daunting tasks of parenthood.
Regardless of your child's age, the key is to have a predictable series of steps that help him wind down from the day.
Parents may find that routines may ease the stress that some families experience at nighttime.
Jessica Begley, Certified Child Sleep Consultant & Health Educator at MaineHealth Learning Resource Center, joins the show to discuss the easy changes you can make to help prepare your child physically and mentally for sleep.
Not only will bedtime become calmer but the whole family will be better rested.
Jessica Begley(Guest): Well, we know sleep is really important for our children in order for them to really grow, learn, play and interact to the best of their ability with anyone around them. The bedtime routine really sets them up for success with this. So, the goal of that time of a bedtime routine is really to prepare your child physically and mentally for bed. There’s a huge shift that happens between when they’re awake and interacting and engaged with the world around them to when they are alone and really turned inward and the bedtime routine helps them get there.
Melanie: So, what should we start doing? Start around may be dinner time and then go after that. How do we get them ready and ourselves as well?
Jessica: I think as parents, we’re so busy that we forget about how easily impacted our children are by the world around them. At home, I think it is important for parents to, after dinner time, take the whole environment and whole culture of the house down a bit and one thing that you can do is turn off the TV; turn off the news; turn off your iPads and your iPhones and your other devices to take the tone down in the house. That’s really important because that blue light that’s emitted by those devices can impact the release of melatonin which is that sleepy hormone. So, just take the whole tone down of the house.
Melanie: That’s so important with all those electronic devices. When we turn those things off, take them down. You don’t want any of this stuff in their rooms, correct?
Jessica: Exactly. You really want to take those devices right out of the bedtime routine completely. I hear parents who are using their iPads and other tablets to read bedtime stories to their kids but it’s really not a great idea. You want to pull out an actual book; turn the pages; sit down and connect with your child with an old-fashioned book.
Melanie: And what about things to help them get them ready: brushing their teeth, putting on pajamas, the lighting--all of these things contribute to that good night’s sleep.
Jessica: Yes. I put the focus on the “five B’s.” This is what I use to help parents remember what should be in their bedtime routine. The first is breast feeding or bottle feeding. Obviously, if you have a young child or young baby, that should come first and then a bath. Taking a bath increases the body temperature and then about 45 minutes or an hour later, it’s rocked and that helps the children feel sleepy. Then, we think about hygiene like brushing our teeth and then maybe some book reading and then, the last piece, I like to call it “bookending the day.” That’s taking maybe five to ten minutes to really connect with your child doing something that really requires the parent to be emotionally available to the child. So, maybe you sing a song or a lullaby, say some prayers or talk about your day. The benefit of that is that research shows that when parents are emotionally available for their children during the routine, they actually wake less that night.
Melanie: Now, what about our teenagers, Jessica? They are the ones it’s so hard to get into that routine. They say, “But, Mom, I’ve got homework. I have to work on the computer for school.” What do would we tell our teenagers about the importance of getting sleep and how do we get them to go to sleep?
Jessica: I think with teens, we’re at a disadvantage because their bodies naturally go to bed later and wake later in the day. So, they are natural night owls and, unfortunately, our society isn’t set up in way that works with that. So, as parents, we really need to be great role models and make sure we turn our devices off. I like the idea of having a device curfew. So, maybe around 8:00 or so, you say to your teens, “We’re going to take the devices away. We’re going to put them away and we have a place where we put them and we leave them until the morning.” They are lot of teens that actually will sleep text. So, they are so used to it on auto pilot, responding to these texts, that if the cell phone is in their room, they will actually text back in their sleep without even knowing that they are doing that. So, we really need to prevent that.
Melanie: What about things like light and white noise, Jessica? With certain kids, they’re afraid of the dark. Even into their teens, some kids just don’t like dark in their room. But, for melatonin purposes, for that deep sleep, we need a little bit of darkness. So, what about that white noise and how dark should the room be?
Jessica: Yes. We really want to think about keeping the room cave-like and you want to make this kind of a sleep sanctuary. So, you want to keep it cool, dark and quiet. So, if it’s comfortable for you as the parent, it is comfortable for child in terms of the temperature. But then, you really do want to make sure the room is dark. So, somewhere between around an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is pitch black. Parents do worry about that their child is afraid of the dark but for the young babies, they don’t have that socially constructed fear of the dark yet. So, 8 is probably fine for them. For older toddlers who maybe have that fear, a small night light is perfectly fine and shouldn’t impact that melatonin. White noise is a great tool because I think that it helps prevent the parents from having to be the nighttime police or bedtime police in terms of noise for other members of the house, so it blocks out some of that household noise. Also, it’s a great part of the routine that can be replicated anywhere. So, you can bring that white noise with you on vacation. That’s really important to be able to replicate our bedtime routine wherever we are and that is an easy tool you can use.
Melanie: If some kids are anxious—if they’ve got school the next day or activities—or if they’ve had a big day at school that day, sometimes it’s hard to relax and fall asleep. Do you have some advice for parents that can help their kids get into that relaxed mood? What about certain things that people are talking about nowadays like melatonin?
Jessica: Yes. Melatonin is something that you really need to talk to your doctor about because it can have side effects and it hasn’t been studied extensively in a healthy, normal child population. We know that there is some research around some special need populations or special circumstances but I would definitely refer to your doctor for that. In terms of processing the day and anxiety that kids may have, you know, being a kid is hard nowadays; being a toddler is hard; being a baby is hard. There’s a lot going on. I think what is important is to know your child. Some children do best if processing externally by talking with a parent happens before bed and, with others it just brings up too many emotions and sets them up for more anxiety. A good time to do that for them is maybe around the dinner table. So, going around the dinner table and talking about one good thing and one bad thing that happened that day gives them time to connect with the family and going to bedtime with maybe some of their worries eased a bit.
Melanie: What advice do you have for parents who have toddlers and school-aged children that fight that bedtime because that is a big deal and everybody wants bedtime to be a sweet time for families but sometimes it could be the most stressful part of the day?
Jessica: Yes. Well, the first thing to think of when you have a baby is to really think about what is it that you are really going to sustain throughout childhood? So, don’t start a bedtime routine that isn’t something that you can continue for the long term. Don’t bounce your five- or six-month-old on a yoga ball for 30 minutes if that’s not something you can see yourself sustaining. It’s really about limit setting. So, we want to make sure that we are empathetic and responsive and warm during the bedtime routine but we also need to set limits because as a parent, you know what your child needs best. Sometimes that means not giving the child what they want which may be to stay up and watch more TV or read more books but to allow yourself to meet their need, which is to sleep.
Melanie: So, not always giving in to them because some kids just are going to fight bedtime, Jessica. A 9-year-old or an 8-year-old will say “Well, I don’t want to go to bed at 7:30 or 8:00.” Well, they’ve got school the next day and they need that long night’s sleep. Do you have any advice for parents about that negotiating technique?
Jessica: Yes. So, I say there really shouldn’t be much negotiation with the bedtime routine. You’re the parent and sleep is in the realm of health and safety and parents make the rules around that. But, it is really important to help instill the real reason why we want to get our kids to get great sleep from the beginning. Talk about how sleep is important. As a society, we haven’t placed enough importance on sleep and we’re seeing that. Sleep deprivation is really becoming a public health epidemic and we need to change that and the best time to change that is with your family, right from the beginning. So, talk to your kids. Tell them about how sleep is really important to help them store and file away all the things that they have learned in school so that they can pull them out later and be that role model for your child. It’s hard work. It’s just like any other part of parenting. It’s hard work, but you need to be consistent and empathetic and warm but firm.
Melanie: That’s great information. In just the last minute, your best advice on good, quality bedtime routine and why they should come see you at Maine Health Learning Resource Center
Jessica: It really comes down to that with parenting, it’s all about relationship. So, you want to build a relationship with your child where they’re going to feel supported and comfortable so that during the bedtime routine, you have that opportunity to connect go into bedtime with less anxiety and less worry. So, as a parent, remember that relationship is important. Consistency is important and limit setting is really important.
Melanie: Thank you so much. You are listening to MMC Radio. For more information, you can go to MaineMedicalCenter.org. That’s MaineMedicalCenter.org. MMC.org. This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.