Dana Obleman has helped sleep train over 100,000+ children and is the founder of the Sleep Sense Program. She shares with us sleep tips & tricks to help settle your little one to get a good night’s rest, including why Baby Dream Machine is the must-have device.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen a major surge in questions about sleep regressions on my social media channels. So many parents have been telling me their little ones have started calling out for them in the night, or they’re waking up at 5:00 in the morning and not going back to sleep.
I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but if you’ll allow me to speculate a little, I think the main reason for this sudden surge is the fact that kids have been out of school.
You heard that right. I’m about 90% sure that the reason so many kids are having a hard time sleeping through the night all of a sudden is because of the cancellation of in-person classes, and let me tell you why.
As a professional pediatric sleep consultant going on 15 years now, there are two things I recommend to everyone whose kids are having trouble with their sleep. One is the elimination of “Sleep Props” like feeding and rocking to sleep, and the other is a consistent schedule paired with a predictable, repetitive bedtime routine.
So today, let’s look specifically at the second factor. Schedules and bedtime routines.
When it comes to sleep, our bodies don’t just go into “sleep mode” at the flick of a switch. After the lights go out, we start producing melatonin which signals our brain and muscles to start slowing things down. Once our systems have downshifted, our eyes start to close and we drift off to sleep, but it takes a little while for all of that to take effect.
On the other side of the coin, our bodies still respond to stimuli that tells us when it’s time to rev things up. When our eyes are exposed to blue light, the wavelength that’s emitted from the sun, our brain assumes it’s daytime and that it needs to produce daytime hormones. Similarly, if we engage in physical activity that increases our heart rate, our brains assume we’re either running from a predator or chasing down prey, and can stimulate adrenaline production, which can obviously impede our ability to fall asleep.
So one of the most effective methods of helping your little ones get a good night’s sleep is to get their systems familiar with the cues that signal the brain that bedtime is around the corner. The more recognizable those cues are and the more they happen at the same time every day, the better your little ones’ bodies will respond to their natural need for sleep.
What’s all that got to do with school closures? Well, once school let out and everyone suddenly got a little lackadaisical about bedtime and awake time, and online classes became the norm, meaning kids were suddenly spending way more time in front of blue light-emitting computer monitors closer to bedtime, a lot of those natural instincts got completely upended and sleep issues started occurring at a much higher rate.
Now that we’re into the summer break, your kids might not be spending as much time in front of a monitor, (although let’s be honest, they might be spending a whole lot more, given how much they tend to look at their phones, play video games, and watch TV over the holiday) but if you’re seeing issues in their sleep patterns, check this out. Here are five easy ways to help them get the sleep they need.
1. Embrace the Darkness
That sounds so ominous, doesn’t it? I’m not speaking metaphorically though. Literally, an hour before bedtime, start turning down the lights in the house and turn off any screens. It will help trigger your child’s system to start producing melatonin. If it’s still light out when your little one goes to bed, cover the windows with some blackout blinds, or even black garbage bags if you’re in a pinch. If your little one needs a nightlight, make sure it’s a warm hue, like a pink or red color. Blue lights stimulate cortisol production and that’s the last thing you want when your kids are trying to sleep.
2. Keep Bedrooms Distraction-Free
Your little one’s bedroom should be used for sleeping almost exclusively. Try not to keep a lot of toys and activities within eyeshot of their sleeping area. It’s definitely tougher for your little one to get to sleep if their favorite playthings are sitting just out of reach, or there’s a bed full of stuffed animals ready to have a little impromptu slumber party.
3. Keep it Boring
Establishing a sleep schedule and a bedtime routine might sound a little mundane, but you can’t imagine the impact it has on your child’s sleep. A good bedtime routine should take around 30 minutes and when it comes to bedtime, I suggest somewhere between 7:00 and 8:00 PM for kids over 3 months of age. If a bath is part of your routine, put that right at the beginning. Baths are pretty exciting for kids and we want them to start winding down as early as possible as we get close to bedtime.
4. Create a Sleep Sanctuary
The more cues you can establish as a sign that it’s time to sleep, the better. Aromatherapy and pink noise are great associations that kids can make easily to cue their systems to go into “bedtime mode.” A familiar scent and noise that they only experience in their bedroom when it’s time for sleep are two very strong stimuli that can prompt melatonin production and tell the muscles and brain to relax. Pink noise has the added benefit of helping to drown out exterior noises that might wake your little one up, so that comes doubly recommended.
5. Don’t Help
It’s all well and good to snuggle and comfort your little one as they’re getting ready for bed, but avoid the temptation to rock them or cuddle them to the point where they actually close their eyes and drift off. “Practicing falling asleep” may sound like a weird concept to a grown up, but kids really do need to learn how to get from awake to asleep on their own so they can do it when they wake up in the night.
Why Sleep is so Important for Children
I know we tend to ease off the rules come summertime, but there’s really no good case for that. The health benefits of a good night’s sleep don’t go away depending on the season. Kids who regularly get adequate sleep show improved attention, learning capacity, better behavior, and better overall physical and mental health. Not enough sleep can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, and depression in kids, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids up to the age of 12 need anywhere from 9-14 hours of sleep a day.
So don’t sleep on good sleep habits! It’s a year-round commitment and it’ll keep your kids happy and healthy, and prevent them wandering into your room at 4:00 in the morning complaining that they can’t get back to sleep. There’s no telling when this situation with Covid and the school closures is going to end, but your whole family will be in a better place to deal with whatever happens when you’re all sleeping soundly through the night.