Everyone knows that sleep is essential for children’s growth as well as their mental and physical health. Good sleeping habits help children consolidate their memory and learn better. Lack of sleep contributes to childhood depression, anxiety, and even suicide risk, as well as physical problems like risk of injury. The challenge is therefore to ensure that children can benefit from these precious moments of rest.
When it comes to children, quality sleep depends on three main components . First of all, they have to sleep a sufficient total number of hours – the first criterion is therefore the duration of sleep. The quality of that sleep is also important – sleeping soundly, with little disruption or waking during the night, is important. Finally, it is necessary to take into account sleep schedules – the main thing being to favor consistency, with a time of going to bed and a time of getting up more or less identical throughout the week.
Even if we know the importance of good sleep, it is easy to lose sight of these issues of duration, schedules and regularity. This can come from exceptional circumstances, such as holidays. It can also be due to mundane reasons, such as disagreements between parents and children, busy schedules or the relaxation of older children during weekends. But there are ways for families to take matters into their own hands.
As a child development researcher and family therapist, I study parental and family behaviors that create healthy environments for children’s sleep patterns . In particular, I help parents to set up consistent and stimulating routines. Sleep patterns set in very early, and parents play an important role in shaping children’s outlook and attitudes. Here are the main tips I give to families, regardless of the age of their children.
Set family rules
Children learn by observing. They are very attentive to the rules of the group , whether they are expressed or remain tacit.
For everyone in the family to get a good night’s sleep, sleep quality should not be a concern confined to children, while adults – who are the ones with the freedom and power – would allow themselves to joke about their own bad habits. If sleep is perceived as a punishment, rather than a gift for health, children will tend to have resistant attitudes.
Adults should make sleep a priority for everyone in the family. Lead by example. If you’ve gotten into the habit of watching TV until the early hours of the morning, try to get rid of it. Speak positively about sleep. Pay attention to what you say and the messages you communicate through your own habits, thus reinforcing the idea that it is important for the whole family to sleep and to be energized for the next day. Don’t make the mistake of viewing bedtime as an opportunity for adults to distinguish themselves from children.
Know your child’s needs
Remember that each child is unique. So don’t expect sleep advice to be universal. A child’s temperament plays an important role in the length, quality and frequency of sleep they need. For example, a more spirited child may need time to adjust to a schedule. These questions of temperament vary little over time.
A parent’s job is to encourage routines and set necessary boundaries, while being sensitive to individual needs.
When you’re exhausted and have to struggle with a child’s bad behavior, it can be hard to stay positive. I advise you to think about this relationship and its investment on the scale of the day, noting what is going well at different times and remembering that child development is a marathon, not a sprint. Regressions or other sleep difficulties, such as waking up in the night or changing sleep patterns , are opportunities to set things right and move forward, not punishments.
Once these basics are laid, it becomes easier to take a step back from everyday life and maintain an optimistic approach in times of stress. Remember that change happens over time more than in spot checks. After all, strained parent-child relationships can fuel sleep and behavior problems in young children .
Know how to stay flexible
In my practice, I find that parents make two common—but opposing—mistakes when it comes to sleep.
First of all, there are many who completely abandon rules and limits. This is often linked to the child’s temperament or age phenomena. For example, the peak of behavioral aggression that can occur in toddlers or the shift in sleep schedules that occurs in adolescence can lead some parents to disengage from these issues.
Other parents become rigid. They view sleep conflicts as a power struggle that the adult must win.
I believe that balance is essential. Parents need to adopt an approach that is consistent with the values they have always stood for when it comes to sleep. But they also need to remain flexible to help children tailor routines to their own needs.
For example, all children, regardless of age, should have a regular bedtime and wake-up time . However, parents can talk with older children about the appropriateness of these times or, based on feedback from younger children, make reasonable compromises to accommodate each child’s needs . In any case, the message that sleep is important should remain the guideline.
Do not neglect external problems that influence sleep
Research shows that some everyday issues can affect children’s sleep quality, such as exposure to passive smoking , exposure to blue light from screens, and the existence of conflict in the home . These factors are to be taken into account when we want to help children have better nights.
Good sleep hygiene is a family affair. It’s never too late to change habits in the right direction and encourage everyone to take the rest they need. Your child’s sleep habits can be an essential part of their lifelong well-being.
Author Bio: Erika Bocknek is Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at Wayne State University