Helping Children Sleep Well and Cope with Nightmares
So often, when children start kindergarten, by mid-afternoon, many of them look EXHAUSTED. It’s a long day to learn to adapt to! And if they were used to taking naps, it can be a huge adjustment. When I see a child having behavioral difficulties, one of the first questions I ask families is about sleep habits. Oftentimes, sleep disturbances can be at the root of behavioral difficulties during the day. It seems so basic and simple that we often overlook this area.
Why is sleep important?
Getting enough sleep is extremely impactful for children’s development. According to the CDC (2018), six out of ten middle schoolers don’t get enough sleep and seven out of ten high schoolers don’t get enough sleep. In addition, children and adolescents who don’t get enough sleep have a higher risk of a variety of issues including obesity, diabetes, injuries, poor mental health, and problems with attention and behavior (CDC, 2018; Paruthi, Brooks, D'Ambrosio, 2016; Owens, 2014; Lowry, Eaton, Foti, McKnight-Eily, Perry & Galuska, 2012; Fitzgerald, Messias & Buysse, 2007).
How much sleep do children and teens need?
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends that children six to twelve years old get nine to twelve hours of sleep each night and teens need eight to ten hours of sleep each night. They report that getting enough sleep regularly contributes to “improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health” and not getting enough sleep is "associated with an increase in injuries, hypertension, obesity, and depression, especially for teens who may experience increased risk of self-harm or suicidal thoughts.” (Paruthi, Brooks, D'Ambrosio, 2016).
What can help my child sleep at night?
A few seasons in my life I have struggled with my own sleep as an adult and my children have had time periods where they struggled with their sleep. Here are some tips my family has found to be helpful! Please note, this is not medical advice.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends turning off screens an hour before bedtime and to avoid having screens (phones, computers, tablets, TVs) in the bedrooms (2016). So, a good first step is to remove both work and electronic devices from all of the bedrooms.
Having a predictable bedtime routine is so helpful for kids. AAP has published a free online resource on bedtime routines called “Brush, Book, Bed” (2014). You can use this simple nighttime visual schedule to help your child follow a routine. If you're looking for other visual schedules for the day, check out this other free visual nighttime schedule I created for you.
I created this free nighttime visual schedule for you! Just subscribe to my free resource library at the top of this page.
This schedule has four steps. When the child completes the task they flip it up to the done portion and it velcros shut:
Brushing teeth time
Reading, singing or snuggling time
Make a relaxation habit a part of your bedtime routine. Lots of children find it helpful to use a few breathing techniques like Unicorn Breath and Buddy Breath from my book, Skills for Big Feelings, before going to bed.
for children too! If you are looking for more relaxation apps, check out this post. I also have a free printable list of apps and resources for anxiety available in my Free Resource Library. For access, just scroll to the top of this page to subscribe!
Model good sleep habits for your children because as Gordon Neufeld writes, "children do not experience our intentions, no matter how heartfelt. They experience what we manifest in tone and behavior.”
Some people can be very sensitive to light, so pay attention to light sources. You can get room-darkening shades or curtains and consider one of these Smart Sleep alarm clocks. I have this alarm clock and I absolutely love it! You can dim the time so the numbers show little light during the night, and you can make the alarm slowly mimic the sun by getting increasingly brighter before the alarm sound goes off. It helps me wake up less groggy. This is really helpful for me because I use room darkening shades and am very sensitive to light. You can also consider using an eye mask or a weighted eye pillow. I have this one, filled with lavender, and it is lovely!
Consider a weighted blanket. I use one but don't use it all year long. I do love it and find it very soothing to fall asleep with. If you are going to buy one for a child, make sure you figure out what weight they need, as the blanket should be a certain percentage of their body weight. An occupational therapist can help you figure out the right weight blanket to buy.
Notice what temperature feels comfortable – the research says that “the thermal environment is one of the most important factors that can affect human sleep” (Okamoto-Mizuno & Mizuno, 2012). Many people find cooler temperatures more comfortable to sleep in.
Limit caffeine intake. I know this is tough, but at least limit caffeine intake in the afternoon and evening if you can’t cut it out.
Consider using aromatherapy. I made a lovely linen pillow spray that helps with sleep and if I am traveling I put 1 drop of Atlas Cedarwood, 1 drop of Lavender, and 1 drop of Clary Sage on a cotton ball and put it underneath my pillowcase. You can also use a kid-safe sleep blend with a diffuser or a pre-diluted roll on blend. Essential oils are powerful so please be sure to consult with a certified aromatherapist before using essential oils with children or pets!
According to John Hopkins University (n.d.), the impact of aerobic exercise during the day is similar to taking a sleeping pill! So, increasing physical activity during the day is also important.
Many people take melatonin to sleep, but did you know that dark or tart cherry juice has melatonin in it, and other constituents that help with sleep? According to research by Losso et. al. (2019) "tart cherry juice is an effective treatment for insomnia. It has no adverse events as demonstrated in our study as well as in prior studies by others.”
TLDR: Sleep Tips:
Turn off screens 1 hour before bedtime
Avoid having work or any screens in bedrooms
Have a predictable, structured bedtime routine and use a visual schedule