Woodley Wonderworks, via Creative Commons
Source: Woodley Wonderworks, via Creative Commons

Children can have a hard time pressing the ‘pause’ button on their active brains at bedtime. They wonder what the rest of the household is doing, they worry about monsters and other scary creatures invading their home, and they think about all the things they’d rather be doing than sleeping.

As with adults, children’s sleep needs vary, but experts agree kids need a lot of sleep in order to function at their best, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Babies do best when they’re getting fourteen to fifteen hours a day, spread across the day and night. From their first birthday until they’re about three, young children should be getting twelve to fourteen hours a day. From age three to six, ten to twelve hours is best; after that, until about twelve years old, kids still need a lot of sleep—ten or eleven hours a night.

Here’s a 12-point checklist for helping your sleep-resistant child find the peaceful regenerative slumber he or she needs:

  1. Sleep-conducive environment. A good room for sleeping is quiet, safe, and darkened. It’s kept at a comfortable temperature, and doesn’t contain a television, phone, or any other electronic devices. It’s best when your child associates her room with peaceful times.
  2. Emotional connection. Bedtime is a time of separation, which many children worry about. As bedtime approaches, be especially attentive to ensuring your child feels safe and listened to, secure in your love.
  3. Exercise and outdoor time. Children sleep better when their bodies are as tired as their minds, and when they’ve had ample outdoor time that day.
  4. A full but not-too-recently filled stomach. Hunger can interfere with sleep, as can too big a meal too close to bedtime. 
  5. Everything turned off. An hour or so before bedtime, turn off all electronic devices—phones, television, and other screens. As you move toward sleeptime, dim the lights in your child’s room, perhaps leaving on a nightlight or some kind of ambient light from under the door or outside.
  6. A bedtime routine. Good sleep habits require a dependably consistent bedtime routine, seven days a week. This might include toilet time, followed by tooth-brushing, face-washing, two songs, one story, and the grateful body scan below, or any other combination of getting-ready-for-bed activities that works for you and your child. Be patient, calm, loving, and systematic. If you try to rush through it, you’ll sabotage your attempt to get your child to bed and to sleep as quickly as possible.
  7. A good-night journal. Writing or drawing about the day can help a child work through his thoughts, clear his brain, and calm his body.  
  8. A friend to hug. A favourite stuffed animal, doll, or blanket can help a child soothe herself as she goes to sleep, replacing the warmth and comfort of her parents.
  9. Grateful body scan. Sitting or lying next to your child, ask him to close his eyes, and imagine along with you as you start with the feet, and go up through the body: “Goodnight, feet. You’re happy to be settling into bed, finally resting. You’ve worked hard today, running, walking, jumping, climbing. Goodnight, legs. You feel so heavy, so glad not to be working. Thank you for letting me go fast all day long. Goodnight, stomach and chest, and all the organs in there. Thank you for the healthy food and air you’re changing into energy for me and helping me to grow. Goodnight, arms. You’ve been busy today, lifting, hugging, and helping me do things. Goodnight, hands. Thank you for helping me draw and paint and write, and hold things, and play. Goodnight, head. You feel so heavy resting deep into the pillow. Thank you for all the thinking, tasting, wondering, smelling, and hearing you’ve done today. I send a smile to all the parts of my body as I gently drift off to sleep.”
  10. Counting your blessings. Together with your child, make a mental list of all the good things that have happened today, every kind word or deed, every source of happiness the day provided. There are many ways to do this, including singing it as a lullabye to your child.
  11. Intention for the morning. Suggest your child set an intention. For example, “I will wake up in the morning feeling refreshed and ready for the day.”
  12. Steady breathing. Teach your child to pay attention to her breath, counting to five as she breathes in, then again to five as she breathes out. Have her do that five times, then another five if she’s still awake.

Children who are unusually active, curious, imaginative, or anxious can have a hard time getting the sleep they need. All children benefit from the routines and mindfulness techniques described here, but for these kids—and for any kids going through periods of change, stress, or disruption—it can be especially important. A bedtime routine sets the stage for a healing regenerative sleep, and a happier, more productive day tomorrow. 

Other Resources

“Make a Bedtime Plan,” by Katherine Eskovitz

“Bedtime Mindfulness: A Gratitude Body Scan for Children,” by Kellie Edwards

The Secret Life of Sleep, by Kat Duff

Review of The Secret Life of Sleep, by Linda Graham

“How Colouring Can Help You Sleep Better,” by Alanna McGinn

"How Much Sleep Does Your Child Need?" by Joseph A. Buckhalt

The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time, by Arianna Huffington   

The National Sleep Foundation 

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster 

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