All parents know the importance of a good night’s sleep, yet many children and adults still aren’t getting enough of it.
Despite improving attention, concentration, maintaining a healthy immune system, reducing stress levels and helping to support physical and emotional health, The Sleep Council reports that 40% of the UK population suffer with sleep issues.
If you’re a parent, you may find that it’s your child who suffers with sleep issues. Perhaps they have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, either of which can place an enormous toll on family life.
Why else does sleep matter?
Not only does sleep improve our ability to function, getting the right kind of sleep improves our ability to regulate our emotions. While sleeping, our brains filter and process information, strengthen connections and store memories – important elements in maintaining emotional wellbeing.
Sleep is important as often it’s the first step to maintaining good emotional health, addressing challenging behaviours and improving relationships.
Children and adults with a diagnosis of ASD or ADHD or those who may have experienced early trauma can be easily overstimulated, resulting in poor sleep. This lack of good quality sleep can further increase existing difficulties with focus, attention and irritability. Similarly, for those vulnerable to anxiety the change and uncertainty resulting from the global pandemic can show up in poor sleep routines.
As parents, a good night’s sleep means we can exercise patience within our parenting. For children, getting a good night’s sleep means they are less prone to meltdowns, challenging behaviour and are better able to accept adult help to regulate their feelings.
During the summer months when evenings are lighter, along with more relaxed routines over the summer holidays, many families report that their children have been going to bed later and getting up later, affecting the body’s natural sleep pattern.
The science of sleep
Our bodies are governed by an internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle called the circadian rhythm. When it’s dark and when we are relaxed, our bodies release a natural hormone called melatonin which acts as signal to the body that it is time to sleep. Having a rhythm and building a sleep routine is essential for the brain and body to prepare for sleep.
You can find out more about these approaches from the Cerebra Sleep Service who are specialists in understanding the sleep needs of children with additional needs.
Top 10 tips to building a sleep routine
With children back in school now is the perfect time to start thinking about cementing down a sleep routine that works.
Here are our top 10 sleep tips to get you started.
- Go to bed at the same time each day. Start the routine an hour before bedtime. Focus on quiet and calming activities like drawing and jigsaws. Avoid physical exertion or rough play.
- Stop screen time an hour before bed. Screens on television, tablets and phones release a blue light that interferes with the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone which tells the body it’s time to sleep.
- Follow a predictable routine. Start with a light snack and a bit of water or milk so children are not hungry or thirsty. If wetting is an issue, don’t give liquids before bed but do give plenty in the morning. A little bit of toast and a milky drink can be very soothing. Avoid sugary snacks or drinks as a high sugar diet has been found to lead to more awakenings in the night.
- Dim the lights as you approach bedtime. Along with stopping screen time an hour before bed, dimming the lights around the house can also help the body to recognise that it’s time for sleep.
- When you head off to bed don’t come back to the living area. Build positive associations with the routine by enjoying saying goodnight to others. This can help signal that this is now bedtime.
- Run a warm bath. This can be very relaxing and comforting for children (and adults). Including lavender or Epsom salts helps some children relax their bodies. We all have individual needs so if the sensory experience is very alerting for your child it may not be helpful to bath before bed. Critically our body temperature drops in the preparation for sleep and getting out of a warm bath supports this.
- Help your child get comfortable. Ask them whether light or heavy covers feel best and help them to notice. Do make sure your child can stick their feet out to cool down during the night! We all have sensory preferences, follow your child’s lead with this.
- Read a story to your child to calm and prepare them for sleep. You can substitute this with music Some children prefer to listen to music or nature sounds to begin to calm. For anxious children we love this bedtime story.
- Help your child feel safe and soothed. A soothing back rub can help children get to sleep but it’s important to build in techniques that don’t rely on you too. This could be gentle breathing exercises, cuddling a toy, listening to music or turning on a night light. As parents we can help our children create healthy sleep routines by introducing ways to self-soothe.
- Get up at the same time each day. Along with going to bed at the same time each night, waking at the same time each morning is an important part of the routine. During the day make sure your child has an opportunity to get out and exercise. Daily exposure to daylight helps our circadian rhythm reset each day.
What if we have tried all those tips already?
Your child needs to be tired to sleep so if they are not settling until late, continue to wake them at the same set time each morning. Consider introducing more physical exercise in the day or waking earlier if they are struggling to settle at night. A routine which supports the body’s natural rhythm helps the brain and body prepare for sleep.
Sleep is a rhythm and building a sleep routine means sticking with it and allowing your child’s body to adjust and settle. If your child is not sleeping well, try and go to bed a little earlier yourself. Remember that getting plenty of sleep is as important for you as it is for your children. And, a good night’s sleep seems to make family life just that little bit easier.
You can find amazing sleep meditation from our friends at Holistic Hatchlings here.
Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.
If you are struggling with your child’s behaviour please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how we can support you and your family.