Getting your child to sleep can be a tiring process

Fiona O’Farrell, a paediatric occupational therapist specialising in development and sleep, gives tips on how to get your child settled into the school/sleep routine

A tired child cannot concentrate and therefore cannot learn, says Fiona O'Farrell

THIS week, most children will have either returned to school, started school for the first time, or will be starting pre-school.

The routine will be: Get sleepy children out of bed, eat breakfast, and get out the door with school bag packed. Working parents say this is the most stressful time of the day. It does not need to be.

Over the summer, children fall out of routine: Unstructured days, with later bed times, are the norm. However, this lack of bedtime routine, and insufficient quality of sleep, can play havoc with early morning starts for school and impact negatively on your child’s ability to concentrate and learn.

Insufficient sleep can result in over-tiredness. Over-tiredness disrupts the ability to learn and to process new information, impacting on all learning and behaviour.

As an adult, have you ever tried
to learn something new while tired? It’s difficult. Imagine trying to stay focused for approximately five to six hours.

To help children learn to their best potential and to remain focused, and to minimise temper tantrums, a good sleep routine is essential.

Help your child to start and continue a sleep routine over the coming school term.

Once established, keep the sleep routine consistent, and soon it will be the new norm for your child.

A sleep routine can take two to three weeks to establish. So now is
a good time to start.

What is a sleep routine?

  • A sleep routine is about consistency. It is about developing routines and sticking to them — like going to school in the morning;
  • Routines and consistency around nap time/rest time — up to the age of four years, children still benefit from a day time nap/rest to prevent over-tiredness. Just remember not to let your child nap late in the afternoon, especially after 3pm;
  • Routines and consistency around wind-down time for bed in the evening;
  • Developing and maintaining a consistent bed-time routine before your child gets into bed for sleep

Why is a sleep routine important for your child?

  • Helps ensure your child gets the quality sleep he needs on a regular basis;
  • Better potential for learning new information;
  • Retain information learned at school;
  • Increased concentration levels;
  • Decrease in negative behaviours;
  • Decreases incidence of nightmares and night terrors.

How to create a sleep routine for your child

  • Encourage your child to play outdoors after school, for at least an hour. Outdoor activity will help provide the brain with oxygen, tire out little muscles, burn off excess energy, and prepare your child for sleeping;
  • Create a wind-down time in the evening for at least an hour before bedtime. During the wind-down time, the environment and activities should be calming. Limit exposure to television, and other forms of technology, as these alert the brain. A massage is more conducive for sleeping than rough-and-tumble type play. Choosing appropriate activities can be a challenge, especially for dads. Many of the fathers I speak with say that, on returning from work in the evening, they like to play with their child and this often involves rough-and-tumble activities, such as
    spinning their child in the air. Dads will often say they feel guilty when not playing with their child in this manner. I always advise dads that alternative activities still offer quality time. For younger children, these
    activities include bath time, massage, and reading a book. For older children, activities such as playing outdoors, involving tug of war and bear hugs, are more calming for your child’s nervous system;
  • Once established, keep the sleep routine the same each night. For example: dinner, brush teeth, go to the toilet, read story book, and into bed. Toddlers and pre-school age children like boundaries around bedtime, as it makes them feel more secure. Be aware of the requests to read another book. Delaying tactics, such as asking for
    another book to be read or asking for food are indicative of your child already being over-tired, so you will need to consider moving your child’s bedtime earlier.

Finally, making sleep a family priority will mean you are giving your child the best potential for learning and will help make those school mornings and evenings a lot easier for everyone.

Fiona O’Farrell, BSc., O.T- CORU registered, consultant paediatric occupational therapist, specialising in children’s sleep difficulties, development and premature babies, has worked for twenty years in the NHS & HSE and in private practice.

Validated by Department of Health board of directors, Irish Neonatal Health Alliance. For further information. visit:


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