How do I get my kid to sleep?
I know what it’s like to constantly tell my daughter to go to sleep to the point of losing my voice and still fail. I’ve suffered from burning and twitching eyes, headaches from sleep deprivation, and hair-pulling due to frustration for many months. I’ve gone from being a strict parent, to a tough negotiator, to an exhausted Mum who begs her child to go to sleep. Most nights, I wanted nothing more than to close my eyes for just a few seconds, but I knew that wasn’t gonna happen when my daughter kept screaming, “No!!!” after I insisted it’s time for her to sleep. I definitely know how it feels to sound like a broken record while my child simply refused to listen.
Trust me, I’ve been there.
My daughter has given me all sorts of reasons why she doesn’t want to sleep, from the annoying (I still want to play my games/toys/watch TV) to the plausible (I’m hungry/thirsty, I need to pee/poo, the aircon is too hot/cold) to the wildly imaginative ones (i.e., there’s a monster/alien under my bed/outside my window and the like).
This went on for years, until I finally had enough. I decided that I needed to put an end to this torture.
So I did my research and I found that there are actually proven strategies on how parents like you and me can get our kids to sleep, without drama, negotiations and full blown tantrums.
These tips that I will be sharing with you come from my own personal experience and what I’ve learnt from watching countless videos, reading numerous books and getting in touch with the experts. I hope they can help you get your kid to sleep too!
Sleep has many elements
I desperately wanted to give my child (and myself) a good night’s sleep. Before I started my research, I thought I just needed to discover that single, most effective tip, follow it, and all my sleep-related woes will be over.
But I found that there is no single solution or magic pill to get my child to sleep.
As it turns out, getting my daughter to sleep at the proper time, night after night, includes a mix of physical, biological, mental, and environmental preparations.
I decided to follow these four strategies to get my daughter to sleep, and the results have been amazing!
Tip 1: Prepare your child’s body for sleep
I was amazed at how my daughter’s little body can contain an endless supply of energy, but my amazement quickly turned to frustration when she was still wide awake at past midnight. Here are the specific methods I used to help condition my child for bedtime.
Let your child soak up the sun in the morning
My daughter is an early riser. I initially thought that was a drawback until I read that exposing children to early morning sunshine is actually beneficial for them and us, their sleep-deprived parents!
So I encouraged her to play outside, under the sun, while I’m making my coffee or preparing her breakfast. I read from a post by evolutionary anthropologist and child development expert Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., that early morning sunshine ensures my child gets her daily supply of natural vitamin D while lowering her risk for sleeping problems such as delayed bed times. I aim for at least 15 minutes of early morning sun. I also observed that my daughter is more energetic during the day (and too sleepy to argue with me at night) when she gets her daily dose of morning sunshine.
Cut back on their naps in the afternoon
I have encountered several experts who said children stop napping at different ages, but the majority of kids do so during the preschool years (from 3 to 5 years of age). My daughter is within this age range and still takes an hour-long (sometimes longer) afternoon nap. On those days that she naps for two hours or more, I have noticed that she finds it more difficult to sleep at night.
So what I did was to let her take her nap in the early afternoon (between 12:01 to 2 pm) but wake her up after an hour. If she wakes up very early (say, from 5 to 7 am), she takes her nap in the late morning (from 9 to 11 am) instead of in the afternoon. For children 5 years old and above, the Raising Children Network (Australia) recommends waking them up after 20 minutes of snoozing.
Reduce or eliminate screen time in the evening
I’ll be completely honest with you: this is one of the most difficult tips to follow, but it is not impossible.
It is scientifically proven that limiting screen time before bedtime can help children sleep faster. Our bodies are wired to produce high amounts of the sleep hormone melatonin at night, when there is less light. This is why we feel more sleepy during evenings than daytime. The more light our children see at night, the less melatonin their body produces, and the more difficult it will be to get them to sleep.
To wean my daughter from her beloved TV and mobile games before she sleeps, I made up a rule: 30 minutes of screen time during dinner, but not a second more. We allow her to watch her favourite TV show or play her games on our smartphones within this time period. But we shut off the TV and keep other blue-light-emitting devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets, and computer monitors) out of her reach after the 30 minutes has passed.
No stress at night
One of the most helpful tips I encountered in my research dealt with stress. I learned that kids, just like us adults, find it more difficult to sleep if they feel anxious, angry, pressured, sad or any combination of these before they go to bed.
In my experience, I have seen the link between stress and my child’s difficulty in sleeping. Whenever my daughter and I would get into a heated discussion about her refusal to sleep, it takes her another hour (sometimes more) to actually fall asleep. But if I stay patient and calm, she cooperates and falls asleep faster.
Follow a bedtime routine
My daughter - a preschooler - loves following routines. Apparently, she’s not alone in this. Children, whether they are toddlers, preschoolers or of school-age, respond very well to consistent and structured activities. Experts believe routines give children a sense of comfort because they already know what will happen next.
When I developed my child’s bedtime routine, I made sure it includes fun and relaxing activities. This helped increase her level of participation and promoted a peaceful, sleep-inducing atmosphere for her.
You may find some inspiration in my daughter’s bedtime routine and tweak it accordingly:
- Take a bath
- Dress up
- Brush teeth
- Potty time
- Story time (at least three stories/books of her choice)
My friend and fellow Mum whose child is of school-age shared with me her son’s routine:
- Take a bath
- Dress up
- Brush teeth
- Read a book
- Talk with Mum or Dad
- Lights out
Important to know
Your kid’s recommended number of sleeping hours is dependent on their age. According to Raising Children Network (Australia):
- Toddlers (from 1 to 3 years old) require at least 12 hours of sleep per day, including a nap time of 1 to 2 hours.
- Preschoolers (from 3 to 5 years old) require at least 11 hours of sleep per day. Some kids at this age still take a nap, while others stop napping completely.
- School-aged children (from 5 to 8 years old) require at least 10 hours of sleep per day.
Your kid’s circadian rhythm (the natural process behind their sleep/wake cycle) will change as they grow older.
- During the pubescent stage (from 12 to 16 years old for boys and from 10 to 12 years old for girls), you can expect your child to sleep at a later time. This is because their production of melatonin is pushed back at a later time during the night.
Tip 2: Provide a sleep-inducing environment
For this strategy, I had to take a long, hard look at my daughter’s bedroom and how it was designed, and make a number of changes.
Dark rooms rock
As I have mentioned earlier in this post, our bodies are more awake in brightly-lit places, and more sleepy in dimly-lit ones. I hit two birds with one stone when I installed blackout curtains in my daughter’s bedroom. By preventing any light from the outside to enter through her window, these curtains helped her to sleep faster and minimised her night-time wakings. It bought me a few extra hours of sleep too!
Cool room, comfy bed
Another interesting discovery I made during my research is that children, just like us adults, sleep better in cool rooms. Pediatric Sleep Expert Judith Owens, MPH, said toddlers sleep best if the room temperature ranges from 18 to 22 degrees Celsius. In my daughter’s case, her room temperature is usually set at 20 degrees Celsius. This temperature goes down to 18 degrees during the summer.
To ensure my daughter feels cool during summer nights, I let her wear sleeveless tops and shorts for sleeping. Using a pedestal fan together with the air conditioner also helps keep the cool air circulating around her room.
On top of the AC and fan, I also use these kid-friendly zippered bed sheets that have an opening at the bottom. This opening promotes better air circulation and prevents her legs from sweating while she sleeps.
Night-time is for sleeping only
I had to help my daughter understand that when Mr. Moon is up in the sky, it means she needs to sleep. While there is a TV in her room, it is turned off from dinner time until the next morning. This reduced her blue-light exposure in the evenings and helped her understand that bedtime is not TV time.
To discourage her from playing with her toys at night, I taught her that her toys need to sleep too. If she asks for toys to sleep with, I only give her one. I have learned from experience that allowing her to have more than one toy with her on her bed will encourage her to play, not sleep.
Tip 3: Give the right foods before bedtime
Here’s another mind-blowing realisation: what I was feeding my daughter for dinner is either working for or against my plan to get her to sleep. When I started paying more attention to the type of foods she eats before bedtime, I noticed she became more cooperative about sleeping.
Serve sleep-inducing foods
A wave of relief washed over me when I learned that Mother Nature is on my side. There are actually healthy, nutritious foods that can help me get my child to sleep!
When I intentionally served foods that were nutritious and healthy, I noticed that my sleep goals for my daughter and myself became easier to achieve.
Thankfully, my daughter is not a picky eater, so I didn’t have a difficult time training her to eat these foods:
- Cheese products such as cheddar, cottage cheese and processed cheese
- Fish including cod, mackerel, salmon and tuna
- Fruits such as avocados, bananas, blueberries, peaches, pineapples and strawberries
- Grains including barley, brown rice, oats, quinoa, and red rice
- Nuts such as almonds, cashews, chestnuts, peanuts, pistachios, and walnuts
- Milk (warm milk is recommended), soya milk, and yoghurt
- Poultry meat including chicken and turkey
- Pulses (comprised of beans, lentils and peas) such as chickpeas, kidney beans, lima beans, mung beans, soya beans and tofu
- Seeds including flaxseeds (ground) as well as pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds
- Vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, mushrooms, potatoes, spinach, and tomatoes
- Whole wheat bread
Don’t serve caffeinated foods and drinks
This should go without saying, but some parents (myself included) have made this mistake more than once. In my case, I didn’t fully understand back then how caffeine affects my child’s body. Other parents may not be aware of where caffeine can be found.
As a stimulant and a drug, caffeine has a major effect on our bodies’ central nervous system. I personally don’t drink coffee but my friends who do say that it gives them a boost of energy and improved alertness, which are exactly the things I don’t want my child to experience at bedtime!
Aside from making my hyperactive daughter feel less exhausted and less sleepy, I learned from the American Academy of Family Physicians that caffeine can also alter her moods, increase her blood pressure, worsen her anxiety, and give her headaches upon withdrawal. For these reasons, caffeine is not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for children’s consumption.
Australia has yet to establish a caffeine consumption level that is safe for children. A report prepared by professors in partnership with the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) revealed that children ages 5 to 12 years old suffered sleep disruptions when they ingested 95mg of caffeine. The recommendation of the Healthy Kids Association is to limit the consumption of caffeinated drinks.
I am proud to say that my daughter no longer consumes the following caffeinated foods and drinks, especially during dinner:
- Baked goods made with chocolate
- Chocolate candy
- Chocolate-flavored drinks, including hot cocoa
- Energy drinks
Tip 4: Ease your child’s worries
As a Mum of a highly imaginative child, I know all too well the challenge of keeping a child’s mind in a sleepy state. The following are the most effective ways I found to calm her fears and prepare her mind for a good night’s sleep.
Lessen their exposure to scary stuff
When my daughter saw her Father playing a video game where his character and a Minotaur were in combat, she told him, “I’m scared.” That sent a very clear message to us, her parents, that we need to be more careful about what she sees on the screen. From that day on, my husband and I agreed to never let her play scary and violent apps or games, or watch him doing so.
Of course, what is scary for my daughter may not be scary for your child. I found the best way to discover what my child is scared of is to simply ask her. Then I make a mental note (a handwritten/digital note works well too) and strive to reduce her exposure to these things.
Listen and address their fears
As you can probably tell from the story I shared above, my daughter is very honest about her fears. When she opens up to us about what scares her, we pay close attention and ask probing questions. While I found this helps us better understand her fears, we don’t stop there.
We also do something about it.
In the case of my daughter, who is afraid of insects (i.e., cockroaches, dragonflies, and spiders), we make sure her bedroom is clean and insect-free. We keep her bedroom windows closed to prevent these insects from getting inside as well.
Other parents with kids who are afraid of monsters have created a “monster spray” using ordinary water, a creative label and a spray bottle. One brilliant Mum added a few drops of essential oils that help promote better sleep, such as lavender, jasmine and vanilla.
I also know of many parents with children who are afraid of the dark. Their solution to combat their child’s fear was a night light with the color or design of their kid’s choice. Some use glow-in-the-dark stickers to keep their child’s mind at ease while keeping their bedroom slightly illuminated.
Shift the focus from sleep to self-relaxation
It took me time to learn that forcing my child to sleep when her brain was still in a very active state was very ineffective. More often than not, it resulted in a bedtime battle that increased our cortisol levels and made sleeping more difficult for both of us.
Instead of forcing her to sleep, I learned that I should shift my focus towards relaxation. So I tried massaging her legs and feet one night, and it worked! A leg and foot massage is now part of her bedtime routine. She’s the one who even asks for it before she falls asleep!
Aside from massages, I found there are other ways to relax children before they sleep:
- Breathing exercises
- Sleep mantras. Repeating positive sleep statements like “I can sleep on my own”, “Sleep is good for my body”, “Sleeping early makes me bigger/smarter/stronger/taller“, or “I sleep soundly every night” can help kids look at sleep in a more positive way.
- Sleep podcasts
- Stories on tape
Use kid-friendly sleeping solutions
Parents like you and me have plenty of options to help our children sleep. I realised that the challenge lies in choosing the ones that are safe and suitable for our child’s specific needs.
One of the most effective sleeping solutions I discovered was kids zippered bed sheets. These innovative sheets are perfect for my daughter, who is an active sleeper. She never fell out of her bed since she started using these sheets. She stays covered throughout the night, which didn’t happen with other bed sheets since she always kicked them off. Lastly, when she pulls up the zippers on both sides of these sheets, it makes her feel more secure and safe.
Sleep and kids, solved
These are the four strategies I used to teach my child good sleeping habits.
I know from experience that getting your child to sleep can be very difficult. But take it from me - a first-time Mum who endured years of sleepless nights - that once you have armed yourself with the proper knowledge, you and your kid will be well on your way to dreamland.