Monday, July 7, 2008

Bedtime Tips

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are good at putting kids to bed and those who aren't.

If bedtime was a credit course at Mom School, I would be teaching at the graduate level. Did you know lack of sleep puts children at risk for a variety of mental and physical problems? But bedtime doesn't have to be a nightmare. The following post on how you can get your child into a good bedtime routine, improve everyone's mood and reduce family stress, was originally posted on HubPages.

I Give Good Bed
Around these parts, I am known as the Queen of Bedtime. In fact, my bedtime prowess even led to a new friendship. Some years ago, a woman I knew of but had never met, called me and said: “I heard a rumor that your kids are in bed by eight o’clock.”

“No,” I replied.

“I knew it was too good to be true,” she lamented.

“My kids are in bed by 7:30,” I said, “they’re asleep by 8:00.”

I told her my techniques and exactly one week later she called to say: “It worked! You’re my new best friend and I’m taking you out to dinner!” We have been best friends ever since.

Why Do Children Need Regular Bedtimes?
In today’s fast-paced world, developing and sticking to a regular bedtime seems like a Herculean task. We are all so busy with work and lessons and play dates and school that bedtime is often defined as the time when we finally get our children into bed. But studies have shown that children who don’t get adequate rest are at risk for a multitude of mental and physical problems, including:

  • Depression
  • Increased rates of injury
  • Behavioral problems and learning difficulties
  • Excessive worry
  • Obesity Increased rates of tardiness and absence from school
  • Aggression
  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • And, ironically, insomnia

When you consider that sleep deprivation has been used throughout history as a form of torture, it’s not surprising that a lack of sleep can cause all these problems and more. For most parents, all you have to do is recall those early days of your child’s infancy to bring back the horrors of sleep deprivation — the headaches, moodiness, feelings of disorientation and, often, despair. It’s no different for your children.

How Much Sleep Do Children Need?
According to Michael J. Breus, PhD, a diplomat of the American Board of Sleep Medicine in Westchester, IL, the amount of sleep varies depending on the age of the child:

  • 1-3 years : 12 - 14 hours per day
  • 3-6 years: 10 ¾ - 12 hours per day
  • 7-12 years: 10 - 11 hours per day
  • 12-18 years: 8 ¼ - 9 ½ hours per day

Some children need more sleep than others. Learn to recognize the signs that your child is not getting enough sleep:

  • Irritability or frequent tantrums
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Snoring (which can be a sign of sleep apnea — a sometimes dangerous condition where people stop breathing for short periods when sleeping)

Sleep Habits are Learned Behaviors
Though sleep can be defined as “a natural and periodic state of rest during which consciousness of the world is suspended”, good sleep habits are learned, not born. In his seminal guide to children and sleep, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Marc Weissbluth, MD, explains in detail the importance of developing good sleep habits in your child right from the start.
Let’s be clear: short of drugs, you can’t make someone fall asleep. Sleeping is a private, personal matter. Giving your children the tools they need to soothe themselves into a restful night’s sleep is a gift that will last a lifetime.

How to Make Bedtime Work for You
My family is no exception to the modern phenomenon of being overscheduled, but we strive to make missed bedtimes the exception, not the rule. When my teenagers moan that their friends don’t have bedtimes, I remind them that I am not their friends’ mom; I am their mom. I have known my children their whole lives and I can tell when they are not getting enough sleep.

I would like to claim that I have been a paragon of bedtime virtue right from the start, but in my case, necessity was the mother of invention. When my preemie twins came home from the hospital, my husband had just started a new business and was working crazy long hours, including every evening and every weekend. By 7:30 p.m., I was completely done, so I developed our first bedtime routine. It was the only way I could survive.

Set Up a Routine and Stick To It
Routine is the key to successful bedtimes. The goal should be to wind down the day to a quiet place that invites sleep.

Explain the Rules — We can’t expect children to obey rules they don’t know or understand. If your family has developed bad bedtime habits, don’t despair. Just decide on your new routine and lay it out for your kids. Ideally, you should do this first thing in the morning, but definitely not right before bedtime. Use the voice of an outside authority (lie if you have to): “Dr. So-and-so believes we are not getting enough sleep in this family, so starting tonight we are going to have a new bedtime routine.”

Be clear and thorough: What time will you start getting ready for bed? What time is “lights out”? What will the consequences be for not obeying the new rules?

Kids Take Their Cues from You, So Set the Tone — Most of your kids’ attitudes about sleeping and bedtime will come from you. When my children were very little and only understood facial and verbal cues, I would sing our way up the stairs to bed, smiling and cheering: “Guess what time it is — every mama’s favorite time of day — bedtime!” For many years, they were na├»ve enough to cheer right along with me.

Whenever my children are away from home for even one night, when it comes time for bed I always whisper some reinforcing words in their ears, like: “I’m glad you had fun at your sleepover, but doesn’t if feel great to be home in your own wonderful bed.” They almost always smile and snuggle in more deeply.

Help Your Child Identify a Portable, Safe Transitional Item — “Transitional item” is just a fancy word for a “woobie” or a “lovey” or a “blankie” — a stuffed animal or blanket-like object that your child can use to comfort himself. Some children identify their transitional item early on; others want to take the whole menagerie of stuffed animals into bed with them. It’s best to have just one (a few a most). One of my sons used a cloth diaper, which was great, because we had tons of them and they were interchangeable. My other children had one-of-a-kind items that were not replaceable, but worked for them (Skanky Blankie, Itchy Rainbow Blankie, Honey Bunny and Pooh Bear are all adopted members of our family).

Remove the Obvious Obstacles to Bedtime — Most of these are pretty obvious:

  • don’t give your kids caffeine.
  • try to stick to quiet activities in the hour before bedtime.
  • don’t take phone calls or get involved in projects at bedtime; if you get distracted, so will your kids and the next thing you know, you’ll have to start the whole process over again.
  • turn off the TV (and other screens, such as video games and computers) at least a half hour before bedtime. Fast-paced television programs can act as stimulants, and scary programs can lead to nightmares or a fear of them.
  • cut back on excessive activities. This is probably the hardest thing to do at first — learning to say no to some fabulous opportunity for your child to learn or experience something new. But over scheduling can lead to postponed bedtimes and interrupted routines.

Don’t use bedtime as a form of punishment — I believe children should think of their beds as the safest, most comfortable, most wonderful place in the world. To this end, I never use early bedtime as punishment. I may say: “It seems to me that you are very tired today, so we are going to get an early start to make sure you get to bed on time.” I don’t send my children to their bedrooms for time out discipline, either. I may say: “It seems to me that you could use some time alone. Why don’t you go play in your room until you are ready to rejoin the family.”

Take care of business before bed — Make sure your children brush their teeth, get a drink and use the bathroom before you tuck them into bed. Take the “bathroom” question out of the equation. If your child is old enough to use the bathroom alone, she is old enough to do it without asking questions. Simply say: “If you have to go, go, but then get right back into bed.”

Limit Bedtime Stories — I believe in reading to your children, but in our house, a bedtime story means one story — my choice. Why just one? Negotiation is the death knell of a smooth bedtime. Once you start negotiating, you are doomed. Like the true predators they are, sleepy children can smell fear and will attack if they spot slightest sign of weakness. Pick another time of day to enrich your child with story telling. One bedtime story is enough to help your child settle down for the night.

The Answer is “No” — I tell my children that I am a great mama (OK, slight exaggeration) until bedtime. I will listen to them, answer their questions and try to say “yes” whenever it is reasonable and safe. After bedtime, the answer to any question they have is “no”.

  • “Can I have some juice?” No.
  • “Can I read with a flashlight?” No.
  • “Can I go to college?” No, not tonight, go to sleep.

If you have a quick-witted child like my youngest, you need to be prepared for the inevitable smart-aleck question: “If the answer to any question is ‘no’, does that me I don’t have to go back to bed now?”

A smart-aleck question deserves a smart-aleck answer: “I’m sorry, but the answer center is closed. Please check back in the morning, and be sure to ask for your consequence for getting out of bed.”

Keep the Transition Short — Once you have read your one bedtime story, keep the hugs and kisses, goodnight wishes, and tucks brief. Beware of stall tactics, such as:

  • “Mom, what was your favorite story when you were little?”
  • “Mom, where do babies come from?
  • “Mom, what if I hate college and can’t find a job?”

Believe it or not, my children have tried all of these. Kids can be sneaky little varmints, so I had to hone my skills and learn to recognize a wide variety of procrastination techniques. The solution for almost of them is simple: “Honey, I’d be happy to talk about this with you — tomorrow. Good night.”

The Ultimate Bedtime Secret
I absolutely swear by this one: stories on tape (or CD or iPod download). This is much better than letting your kid read in bed because she can do it in the dark. The rule is that they can listen to as many stories or chapters as they want as long as they stay in bed. If they get out of bed or start fooling around, the audio player gets taken away. For most kids, listening to a story in the dark while snuggled warmly in bed will help them fall asleep in short order.

Stories for every age and every taste are available in audio format, with more titles being added every day. My kids loved the Rabbit Ears Radio. Audio books can be expensive, but most public libraries have a good selection, or considering setting up a swap among your friends.

Common Bedtime Mistakes
I have given this advice to many people over the years, and most have had success with it. Occasionally, however, it doesn’t work and this is usually the result of substituting one bad routine with another. For example, one woman I knew decided that her new bedtime routine would include either her or her husband laying down with their child until he fell asleep. It’s true that the kid stayed in bed, but she didn’t learn to fall asleep on her own.
One other mistake that parents make is trying to adopt a routine that is too long or difficult to maintain. Keep it simple. Do what works for your family, and don’t be afraid to change the routine if it isn’t working.

Better Bedtimes Mean Happier Families
Once you get bedtime under control, you will experience a noticeable drop in your household stress level. Bedtime will no longer be a tug of war, but rather a satisfying ending to the day. I guarantee that a better bedtime will make you happier mom or dad.
These tips worked for me (most of the time). Let me know if they work for you. And, if you are so moved, please feel free to send me a gift certificate to your favorite restaurant.
Photo credits: Starry Night (top) by Drennen; Bedtime Story by greypoint, both via

Photo credit: Boogie Asleep by Jennifer Gensch via a Creative Commons License

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Beck said...

Yes, my husband and I would like to teach at It's Bedtime, Kids! school, too. I can definitely tell when kids don't have set bedtimes by their behaviour!

Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting that both adults and children have problems with sleep. When I saw the headline to your post, I thought I was going to read tips for adults: Drink a glass of warm milk, don't eat or exercise too close to bedtime, and so on.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Susan Bearman said...

Ah, Peter, all any adult needs to cure insomnia is a few small children in the house. But perhaps I'll take your advice and explore the adult sleep problem in more detail. Thanks for the idea!