Written By: Alan Greene, M.D.
Getting kids down at night can be a chore to say the least, and getting them to stay asleep is another challenge altogether. However, getting rest that is consistent and of good quality is paramount for the health and wellbeing of growing children.
Kids who are chronically even slightly sleep deprived exhibit similar symptoms to ADHD, and often are misdiagnosed as such. Problems with focus and hyperactivity are classic signs of sleep deprivation. The brain works diligently during sleep, assimilating memories from the previous day and preparing for the day ahead. It’s no wonder then that getting enough rest is crucial every day. Even children accurately diagnosed with ADHD will likely need less medication and show fewer symptoms with adequate sleep each night.
Interestingly, animals in the wild do not have problems sleeping when they’re supposed to. Their natural cycles are triggered by signs from the environment that it’s time to rest, such as changes in light. Now, as most homes are outfitted with artificial light, and there are often TV and computer screens lit well into the night, humans have made it more difficult for their bodies to understand that it’s nighttime, and therefore time to rest. However, certain things can be done to help signal to the brain that bedtime is approaching, and even make it a welcome experience. Even brand new babies can benefit from creating a consistent ritual around bedtime.
The youngest babies sleep a lot, sometimes in excess of 16-18 hours a day. Often the challenge at this age is the experience of a day and night reversal, where babies sleep more during the day and are more active at night. While this may seem challenging to new parents, rest assured that your baby is most likely not a vampire. It’s helpful to create stimulus during the day, and less so in the evening, to show that sleep is for nighttime. The feet are a very sensitive area of the body, and gently playing with baby’s feet during the day is a way of reminding them that this is a time of activity and awareness. Eye contact also has a strong effect. When a baby experiences eye contact from a parent, their heart rate goes up. They experience a surge of energy and become more alert. During the day, becoming conscious of making eye contact while nursing and interacting signals that this is a time of alertness. In the evening, becoming aware of the amount of eye contact and looking less intently into the baby’s eyes will also naturally help them to wind down.
Around 10 months of age is another time when issues with sleep may arise. Around this time babies are learning to walk, and they are so excited! When they wake up in the middle of the night, they often remember that they are learning to move around more, and will try to pull themselves up and see if today’s the day they’ll make their first steps. Often as they do this they come to realize their parents are in another room, and they may experience separation anxiety and begin to cry.
When babies cry in the middle of the night, regardless of age, a few things can be done to help. If you’re hoping to change a habit of rocking or holding them to get them to settle down, it can still be helpful to sit in the room with them. Gently guide them to lay down, helping unclench their fists, and sit nearby, singing or even playing a recording of yourself singing a lullaby. After 3-4 nights they will come to learn to go back to sleep on their own. And if this is during the time when they are learning to walk, about two weeks after they’ve starting to take steps on their own, the excitement dies down and they begin to fall back asleep more readily.
The very best thing parents can do to help kids and babies sleep better is to create a consistent routine, or ritual. Our brains are very adaptable, especially the brains of children. Creating regularity around bedtime helps on a conscious and unconscious level, generating signals that it’s time to wind down. First and foremost, going to sleep and waking up at the same time creates a strong pattern that the brain likes to follow. Other activities can be made a part of the ritual as well. For instance, as dinner comes to an end, bath time always follows, along with brushing teeth and reading a book in bed. Repeating the ritual daily will solidify the notion that these are the things we do as bedtime approaches. It’s also important to note that some things may become a ritual without realizing it, so take note of anything that’s done on a regular basis, such as rocking in the same chair, as this may become an expected part of the routine in the child’s mind.
Changing any blue tinted light bulbs to a warmer, yellow light will help the brain to quiet down more easily as well, and even playing soft music as the children get ready for bed can have a soothing effect. It can even be an opportunity to invite kids to take an active role in learning what helps them fall asleep. Above all, consistency is key. Devising a bedtime ritual that both children and parents enjoy is not only useful but creates the potential for a loving, bonding experience.
Want to learn more? Check out our podcast episode dedicated to sleep