Three Essential Parenting Sleep Tips

Understanding sleep for children can ensure you get the most out of your kid.

Posted Oct 21, 2014

Even when science points to clear outcomes, we often have a hard time embracing recommendations when they run counter to our expectations. Parenting small children is one of the most intense periods of many people's lives, and there is no shortage of experts who have ideas about what is best for other people's children. Some of this advice is rooted in science, but much of it -- especially when it comes to sleep -- is based solely on ideas that sound scientific, but really aren't. That all being said, here are three tips for parenting when it comes to sleep that are well founded and might lead to better moods all around.

1) Expose kids to daylight to change their sleep schedules. This is especially important straight out of the womb, when infants' sleep schedules are usually the opposite of their parents. When children wake up, make sure they get outside for a few minutes so they're exposed to daylight rather than the dimmer indoor lighting in the house. It can take a while for a child's circadian clock to change -- the generally accepted rule is that a circadian clock can change about an hour each day -- so you need to be patient and deliberate. It also helps to time meals according to the schedule you want your kid to adjust to, since meals also shape the circadian clock. And this all holds true for kids throughout their aging: if kids need to adopt a particular schedule, daylight and timed meals can make a big difference. If the sun is unavailable due to very early school schedules (see #3 below), you can invest in a light therapy box that will provide sufficient light to adjust a circadian rhythm.

2) Don't do anything to increase sleep-related anxiety. Children are susceptible to the same fears that adults are, and if someone repeatedly has difficulty falling asleep, sleep-onset insomnia is a likely outcome. This means that a kid can develop difficulties falling asleep because they associate sleeping with bad feelings. Many schools of thought for parents still stress scheduling sleep and forcing children to sleep by themselves (the ‘cry it out’ method). But if these conditions lead to an infant or toddler having a hard time sleeping, it can also lead to a child having real difficulties associated with sleep -- like insomnia, but also nightmares and bed wetting. Co-sleeping -- putting a crib or bed into the parents' bedroom -- is one solution, since children often feel much more comfortable sleeping around other people; bedsharing is another possibility, if you're willing to share a bed with an infant. A couple years of bedsharing with a small child may ultimately lead to less co-sleeping or bedsharing with an older child, so it may be a wise investment.

3) Let kids sleep as much as they need -- unless they need to wake up for something specific, like school. It is well proven at this point that sleep needs go up during adolescence, leading to a shortage of sleep for many children during the school year. Teens have a hard time going to bed before 11 PM or so due to changes in circadian timing, and then have to wake up early for school. With an average 9-10 hour nightly sleep need, this often means that students are constantly shorted sleep, leading to learning impairments and behavioral difficulties. On the weekends and during vacation, the best thing parents can do is let kids sleep as much as they need to. Don't force them to go to bed at set times and let them wake up when they're ready. On weekends during the school year, they'll often be catching up on lost sleep from the week before, and during vacation it's letting them sleep as they need to. Maybe turn it into a science project, and ask them to keep a sleep journal -- that way you and they will know exactly what their sleep needs are and how they might be better accommodated during the school year.

It's also important to remember that humans haven't evolved to be consolidated sleepers, and that up until recently (like the 1840s), and still in many parts of the world, people sleep in unconsolidated ways. Even though an average of 7-9 hours of sleep in every 24-hour period is common, how this is arranged can vary quite a bit, including nighttime periods of wakefulness and extensive naps during the day. If kids aren't sleeping through the night, or if they're napping throughout childhood, that's not a health problem. In fact, it's just the opposite: kids should be getting as much sleep as they can and feel that they need to; if a kid is sleepy, just let him or her sleep. But also keep in mind that sleep needs vary throughout the lifecourse, so what works during one phase of life might not during another, so it's important to stay vigilant about sleep and what works for your kids and your whole family.

It can be a real challenge to overcome one's ideas about what's best for children, especially when parent's schedules and sleep needs conflict with what's best for young sleepers. But like so much of parenting, an investment in the short term can pay off in the long term -- for parents and children.

About the Author

Matthew Wolf-Meyer, Ph.D.

Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist and historian of science and medicine at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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