From babies who won’t wake up all night, to toddlers who refuse to nap, to preschoolers who battle bedtime, up to 70 percent of children under age five have complicated sleep problems that cause parents to lose sleep, as well. These problems can be caused by anything from sleep habits to hunger to anxiety. These snooze issues are hard to deal with because when your child isn’t sleeping, you aren’t sleeping either, and that lack of sleep affects every minute of every day for every person in the family. Not getting shut-eye isn’t just about being tired—sleep has a role in everything; dawdling, temper tantrums, hyperactivity, growth, health, and even learning to tie her shoes and recite the ABCs.
This lack of sleep seeps into your daily routine, making you a zombie while affecting your work, family dynamic, and ability to take care of day-to-day business. No matter the age of your tiny sleeper, we have tips that can improve not only her sleep and daytime disposition, but your slumber and overall outlook as well.
- Consistency is key. Establish a set time for your little one to go to bed and wake up in the morning. Since her biological clock has a strong influence on her wakefulness and sleepiness, doing this will “set” your child’s internal clock so that it functions smoothly. Aim for an early bedtime to ensure that your kid gets the rest she needs. Youngsters respond best with a bedtime between 6:30 and 7:30 P.M., since most children will sleep better and longer when they hit the hay early.
- Encourage regular daily naps. Resist the urge—and your child’s begging—to skip naps during the day. Your tiny ball of energy will find it difficult to go through the day without a rest break—and if she passes on sleeping altogether, her morning cheerfulness can quickly segue into fussiness as the day goes on. Also, avoid catnaps—the length and quality of naps affects night sleep, so the deeper sleep she gets during the day, the more likely she’ll snooze at night without a fight.
- Set the biological clock. Take advantage of your little one’s biology so that she’s actually tired when bedtime arrives. Darkness causes an increase in the release of her body’s sleep hormone (melatonin), triggering the biological “stop” button. Dim the lights during the hour before bedtime to help her slow down and allow sleepiness to naturally occur. Exposure to morning light’s like pushing the “go” button in her brain—one that says, “Time to wake up and be active.” So keep your mornings bright!
- Develop a bedtime routine. Set schedules create security, so you must establish a consistent, peaceful bedtime routine—allowing your kid to transition from the motion of the day to a tranquil state of sleep. Coordinate the specifics in your routine—bath, pajamas, teeth brushing, story—and do things in the same order everyday. This will help you function on autopilot at the time when you‘re most tired and least creative.
- Create a cozy sleep environment. Make certain her mattress is comfortable, the blankets are warm, the room temperature’s right, pajamas are comfy, and the bedroom’s soothing and welcoming. If she welcomes soft noise, consider playing nature sounds (rain, ocean waves) or lullaby music to help lull her into slumber. Establish an environment where your child’s relaxed, and she’ll sleep like a baby.
- Provide the right nutrition. The right pre-sleep snack can mean the difference between sound sleep and tossing in the blankets. Carbohydrates tend to have a calming effect on the body, while foods high in protein or sugar generate alertness—particularly when eaten alone. Whole-wheat toast and cheese, a bagel with peanut butter, oatmeal topped with bananas, or yogurt and low-sugar granola are all excellent choices for a pre-bedtime snack. Vitamin deficiencies from too much pizza, cookies and fried chicken can also adversely affect your sleeping beauty, so provide her with a daily assortment of healthy foods to cover daily vitamin requirements.
- Help your child to be healthy and fit. Too much TV combined with a lack of physical activity makes kids lethargic, and can prevent good sleep. Kids who participate in organized sports, pick-up ball games with neighbors or even a nightly walk fall asleep more quickly, sleep better, stay asleep longer, and wake up feeling refreshed. Avoid activity in the hour before bedtime though, since exercise is stimulating—she’ll be jumping on the bed instead of sleeping in it!
- Teach your child how to relax. Many kids hop into bed when the clock strikes bedtime, but aren’t sure what to do once they’re there. Choose a soothing activity right before bedtime, such as a warm bath or nightly story time. As she listens to you read a book or tell a tall tale, she’ll lie still and listen, and the quiet stillness allows her to become sleepy.
Sleep-deprived kids can be a challenge for over-tired parents to handle, but with these eight tips, you’ll be armed and ready to tackle any issues interrupting your little one’s rest cycle. Remember that just like you, your child’s happiest when she’s well rested—even if she doesn’t make the connection. Use these tricks and soon your cranky kid will be sleeping like a baby.
Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.