To help your child to get a good night's, you need to look at what happens during their day, says Helen O'Callaghan
ENSURING your child gets a good night’s sleep means paying attention to what their whole day looks like, starting from when they get up in the morning.
Bedtime routines are undoubtedly important — for many, it’s bath, book and bed — but we need to be mindful that everything we (and our children) think and feel, see and do, eat and drink, affects sleep, says sleep consultant and author of The Baby Sleep Solution Lucy Wolfe (sleepmatters.ie).
So what steps can you take during the day to help your child settle at night to uninterrupted, quality sleep?
Love routine: From babies to adults, our bodies function better when we’re in routine, says certified child sleep consultant Erica Hargaden (babogue.com). “Humans thrive on routine. Our bodies and minds like predictability.”
She sees school providing children with this regularity, structure and routine. “They know what’s coming next. They have expectation in their day — which is why during summer holidays they can become a little uneasy.”
Wolfe especially emphasises regular wake-times. She recommends children wake up no later than 7.30am everyday, even at weekends. “If you’re not struggling with your child’s sleep, you may not need to observe it so closely, but a more consolidated night’s sleep starts with wake-time.”
Eat to sleep: Eat and drink at regular intervals and at similar times each day. Avoid giving children high-sugar, processed and caffeinated products. “These raise blood sugar levels and give surges of energy when we don’t want them, as well as disturb sleep quality,” says Wolfe. Where caffeine’s concerned, parents often think of tea and coffee, which children may not be having, but forget chocolate contains caffeine too. “And some foods have hidden sugars, like certain yogurts. Fruit is great but it has natural sugar, so be mindful they don’t have too much.”
Hargaden warns against a sugary start to the day — watch sugar-laden cereals — and recommends a whole-food focus: think porridge and wholemeal toast. “You want to avoid that sugar crash mid-morning . It’s about fuelling little people to get the most out of their day and sending them to bed nutritionally satisfied.”
Stimulate the mind: Hargaden says pushing the mind will have a physically tiring effect on the body, in turn helping the drive for sleep when bedtime comes. “School-going children are intensely busy. They’re using their brains all day and transitioning through different topics. That learning takes up a lot of brain activity.”
Add schoolyard play and after-school activities and you see how vital it is to keep a balance. Wolfe cautions some children are over-subscribed so they never get down time. “If the body’s over-tired, the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in. Parents complain the child can’t switch off and isn’t tired, whereas in fact when children find it difficult to go and stay asleep, they’re often in an over-tired cycle. When this happens, an earlier bedtime’s always recommended.”
Exercise: Two to 18-year-olds should be getting at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily.
“Whether they’re kicking a ball or playing, getting them out and active will mean they’re more tired going to bed versus the child who’s sitting watching TV or on a device. That child isn’t expelling energy like the one who’s more physically active,” says Hargaden.
But watch sporting — or other activity — classes that start late in the afternoon, says Wolfe. “Even for adults, we recommend not doing strenuous activity two to three hours before bedtime — and children have smaller bodies. Early bedtimes are really needed up to age 10 — then they shift a little, but not that much later.”
Love fresh air: Bright, natural light helps regulate sleep patterns, which is why it’s good when children get up early in the morning. During darker months of the year, it can be hard to get school-going children out in the fresh air once they come home.
Hargaden always sends her children — aged four, eight and 10 — out to do a lap around the house. “That low light level in the day gives the body a natural indicator that night-time is coming.”
Watch sleep quality: Children aged between five/six and 13 should be getting nine to 11 hours sleep a night. Easy to quantify — but sleep quality, which is vital, is harder to measure.
“On paper, the child might be getting enough sleep for their age, but talk to any primary school teacher and they’ll tell you about sleepy children, unable to concentrate,” says Wolfe. “If a child’s getting the recommended amount of sleep but doesn’t seem well rested — red-rimmed eyes, dark circles, mood and behaviour that don’t fit with being well-rested — it could indicate their sleep quality isn’t good.”
Wolfe says the biggest contributor to poor quality sleep in school-aged children is over-use of electronic media and computer games, which stimulate the waking part of the brain.
Limit screens: Too much screen time or being on-screen too close to bedtime stops the brain going into the deep restorative sleep that we all need.
“Electronic media disjoints the circadian rhythm. The out-of-sync body rhythm makes it harder to go to sleep and to stay asleep, so children find it hard to switch off, wake up for long periods at night, have restless interrupted sleep and poor concentration,” says Wolfe, adding it’s incumbent on parents to encourage quality sleep.
The rule in Hargaden’s house is no TV first thing in the morning or (or any screens) in the hour before bedtime. “It’s hard for parents in their working lives. They come home in the evening, there’s dinner to cook — it’s easy to switch on the TV and everybody’s sitting, preoccupied, and looking like they’re relaxing. And if you turn it off, there can be a negative reaction,” she says, while at the same time recommending a switch to quieter activities for the pre-bed hour.
Quiet time: Think jigsaws, floor games, children using their imagination to entertain themselves, says Hargaden. “Spend time chatting with them, figuring out how their day went and telling them about your day. Have that conversation flow.”
Wolfe recommends beginning relaxing activities half an hour before bed for younger children, stretching this to an hour for older kids. “Have low-impact interaction, reading, gentle stretching, even meditation for young children— I use Maureen Garth’s
Help children own their bedroom: Wolfe recommends children spend non-sleep time in their bedroom, familiarising it for themselves as a nice place to be. “It’s a good idea for them to be in their bedroom, not just for sleep, so they feel safe and secure there. Within reason, allow them to re-arrange their bedroom so they have a sense of ownership of it.”
Use essential oils: Hargaden’s a big fan, especially when children are busy or anxious. She likes lavender and frankincense and reaches for copaiba for grounding. “When using essential oils with children, it’s very important you dilute them – health food shops will advise. Rub oils up and down child’s spine and massage into their hands and feet. I like children to smell them and to take deep, deep breaths, which is automatically calming.”
Place family photos in bedroom: These bring immediate comfort if children wake during the night. “Photos of mum and dad and of grandparents next to the bed create security and closeness,” says Wolfe.
Lucy Wolfe’s Sleep Through Body & Bed Spray, 100ml costs €19.99.