My Kids Refuse to Sleep! A 10-Step Plan to Win at Bedtime

Is your kid one of the "under-slept" crew? Ten steps to foster better sleep.

Posted Nov 04, 2019

Does This Describe Your Child?

New research presented by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that almost 50% of U.S. children are “chronically under-slept.” This interferes with measures of “flourishing” in school: alert, engaged interest in learning, emotional regulation skills such as frustration tolerance, and motivation to engage in focused attention.  (To read more about this study, click here.)

When children are under-slept and have poor emotional regulation skills, it’s harder to parent them. They’re more reactive, prone to snap at their siblings or parents, and it’s harder to complete an evening routine. Homework time becomes more challenging, chores seem daunting, and the child frequently overreacts. This can lead to a spiral. Kids are reactive, so their parents’ mood begins to fray. Next thing you know, parents are being counterproductive, yelling, and punishing instead of connecting. The guilt about yelling can contribute to parental burnout, and the cycle repeats itself. (To read more about parental burnout, click here, here, and here.)

Yusuf Demirci/123RF
Chronic under-sleeping is a problem for kids. Here's a 10-step plan to fix it.
Source: Yusuf Demirci/123RF

During my years of listening to parents and kids talk about their challenges, I’ve come to realize how crucial sleep is, and how we undervalue it. That’s why I target sleep directly in my parenting classes—I want both parents and children to be getting enough of it.

Here’s my 10-step acronym for how to encourage sleep. The word DREAMTIMES reminds us of the steps. 

  1. Digital Bedtime
  2. Relaxing Routines
  3. Early Light
  4. Avoid stimulants 
  5. Manage Mealtimes
  6. Temperature Shifting
  7. Interest 
  8. Model It
  9. Exercise Early
  10. Soothing Sleep Environment

Digital Bedtimes:

One of the most easily targeted factors that interfere with sleep is digital media. Whether your child is eagerly awaiting a DM or a “like” on her feed or is streaming a video, the combination of adrenaline and blue light is the natural enemy of sleep. Parents, it’s not great for us, either. Let’s come up with a time that the Wi-Fi is shut off, for the entire family. I promise that DM will still be there tomorrow.

Relaxing Routines:

Our brains are responsive to patterns and predictions. If the same relaxing ritual is used every night, the child’s brain will get the message that it’s sleepy time now. Using all five senses can be helpful. For example, massaging some lavender-scented cream onto your child while singing a special lullaby: The scent of the lavender, which is known to be soothing, also signals the brain that it’s relaxation time. You can also have a “wake-up scent” and “wake-up song.”

Early Light:

Research on circadian rhythms reveals that exposure to bright light in the morning (and a dark sleeping environment) helps foster deeper sleep. If you don’t live in an environment where that’s possible, consider using a sunrise alarm clock. This is a clock that gradually lights up, mimicking sunlight, so that by the time the alarm sounds, the room is bright.

Avoid Stimulants:

Caffeine hides in many more products than we realize. For example, many headache remedies, mocha ice cream, and chocolate contain caffeine. That relaxing cup of hot chocolate might wire your kid instead. If your child is on a psychostimulant and has a hard time sleeping, speak to your doctor about altering the timing of the medication or lowering the dose.

Manage Mealtimes:

Eating too close to bedtime can interfere with sleep. Going to bed hungry can have the same effect. If your child already ate dinner and is feeling the dreaded “bedtime munchies” offer a satiating, but not terribly attractive snack. (Is he really hungry? Is he just trying to delay the inevitable?) A sliced apple, smoked turkey, or a few baby carrots come to mind. If he’s “only hungry for cookies,” he’s probably not really all that hungry.

Temperature:

We think hot baths help us sleep by making us all warm and cozy. According to a study published in Sleep Medicine Review, a hot bath helps you fall asleep by cooling you off! The researchers found that the rapid cooldown when stepping out of the tub triggers sleepiness. In my Targeted Parenting classes, we’ve experimented with a hot bath and then a tepid (not cold!) shower. May parents reported that it helped their children fall asleep faster, and they seemed more rested in the morning. In addition, keep the temperature in the child’s room on the cooler side. Overheated rooms may interfere with deep sleep.

Interest:

Spark your child’s interest in sleep. Educate him about how sleep can help him grow, put on muscle, and repair organs. The more the child understands the purpose of sleep, the less he will resist it.

Model It:

Show your child that you take sleep seriously because you go to bed on time too. If you’re not having cola after 6 p.m. because you don’t want caffeine to keep you up, tell your child. If you’re following the digital bedtime, make sure your child knows about it. Children learn from what we do more than from what we say.

Exercise Early:

If you can include some cardio exercise in the family’s early morning routine, this can be helpful. Exercising in the morning can reset the circadian clock so that the body feels fatigued at bedtime.

Soothing Sleep Environment:

I’m a big believer in setting up the bedroom to be a trigger for sleep. Keep phones and electronic devices out of the bedroom. Make sure the bedroom feels like a soothing, not very stimulating environment. White noise machines can block out anything distracting from the rest of the house and can keep kids asleep even if the house settles or there’s a sudden noise outside.

If you follow these 10 steps, your family’s sleep should improve. Keep track and see if that correlates with better performance at school and an overall healthier attitude. Together, we can end this under-sleeping epidemic.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. "Only half of US children get enough sleep during the week." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 October 2019. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/Only-Half-of-U-S-Children-Get-Enough-Sleep-During-the-Week.aspx

Gohil A, Hannon TS. Poor sleep and obesity: concurrent epidemics in adolescent youth. Front. Endocrinol. 2018;9:364

Tai Y, et al. Effect of bathing on objective sleep quality among elderly: a longitudinal analysis of repeated measurements in the Heijo-Kyo cohort. Presented at: SLEEP, the Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies; June 2-6, 2018; Baltimore.