Creating A Sleep Routine

Our parenting columnist talks about how to teach your kids to be good sleepers for life

Everyone has that person in their family that can sleep anywhere, anytime.  I have had life-long envy of that quality myself. I cringe when I hear someone say that they are asleep before their head hits the pillow.  

I have always wanted to believe that you could learn to be a good sleeper, but recently I have had second thoughts on this.  There have been times when I have done everything that the sleep experts say to do, and I still can't shut my brain off at the end of the day. And, I think at least one of my children has the same problem.  

When my kids were babies, teaching them to be good sleepers was on the top of my list. With two of my three children I was  actually quite successful. From the time they were newborns we had a very consistent routine at the end of the day to prepare them for slumber.  Now that they are older, it is much harder to encourage them to keep that sort of routine. There are sports, homework and various other things that make each day unique. It is a far cry from the days when there were limited outside influences, before you know it, it's 10 p.m.! With their days filled so much, it is important for them to learn how to decompress. 

The term these days for good habits that lead to a restful night and alert morning is "sleep hygiene."  Most of the factors involve environmental control, adjusting for psychological stressors, and understanding circadian rhythms--the body's 24-hour cycle. Just as we take steps as parents to improve other areas of hygiene, we must also consider the value of a good night's sleep as nourishing for our kids (and us too).

Doesn't sound easy? It's not. But there are a few things you can do to help.

You should help your kids develop some kind of pre-sleep ritual to break the connection between the stress of the day and bedtime. This is perhaps even more important for teens. These rituals can be as short as 10 minutes or as long as an hour. Some find relief in making a to do list for the following day, writing in a journal or packing their backpack for the morning, as it serves to end the day. Combining this with a period of relaxation, perhaps by reading something light, listening to music, or taking a hot shower can also help you get better sleep.

Watching a little TV or catching up on email is not a good plan to end the day. It takes time to "turn off" all the noise from the day.  I recently read a study that said  77 percent of children use television as part of their pre-bedtime routine. Kicking back and relaxing on the couch you might think, theoretically,  would help a child unwind, as long as they’re not watching a show that excites them too much. However, the light from a television or computer can delay both the necessary drop in core body temperature and melatonin production that heralds good sleep and thus potentially delay sleep onset by as much as two hours. If you work right up to the time you turn out the lights, you simply cannot just "flip a switch" and drop off to a blissful night's sleep.

Other tips to help your family sleep more restfully:

  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. Relaxing rituals prior to bedtime many include a warm bath or shower, aroma therapy, reading, or listening to soothing music.
  • Sleep in a room that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
  • Sleep on comfortable mattresses and pillows, without pets.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep. Have work materials, computers, and TVs in another room.
  • Finish eating at least two to three hours prior to your regular bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine within six hours of bedtime.
  • If you are over 5 years old, avoid naps.
  • Exercise can promote good sleep. Vigorous exercise should be taken in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night's sleep.
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for older people (40+) who may not venture outside as frequently as children. Light exposure helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  • Try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations and activities before trying to go to sleep.

For the majority of kids, rather than thinking it’s a choice between sleep and activities, the opposite is true: students who sleep more are involved in more after school activities. They have the energy to be involved. Schools that have delayed start times have seen their students sleep more and increase their participation in sports and extracurricular activities.

Good sleep hygiene can significantly impact getting better quality sleep, not just more sleep. You should wake up feeling refreshed and alert, and you should generally not feel sleepy during the day. If this is not the case, poor sleep hygiene may be the problem, but it is very important to consider that you may have an unrecognized sleep disorder. Many sleep disorders go unrecognized for years, leading to unnecessary accidents, and poor quality of life. Since more and more evidence is becoming available about how critical sound sleep is to your health and well-being, if you are not sleeping well, see your doctor or a sleep specialist.

In our house, weekends are the most difficult time to maintain our regular schedule. I have read that inconsistent bedtimes are, for all practical purposes, homemade jet lag—the desynchronization of the two systems--the circadian rhythm and the homeostatic pressure system-- that regulate sleep..  This study stated  that staying up three hours later on weekends is equivalent to flying across three time zones.  Perhaps we need to work on that!

Lynn March 01, 2011 at 04:05 PM
Great tips on adult sleep however-- Please, please change the baby picture in your article and any "general references" to family sleeping with pillows, etc. Since 1993 the American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated "Back to Sleep" for all babies. This has reduced the SIDS rate by 50%. Our current safe sleep issue is accidental suffocation when babies sleep in adult beds with pillows, comforters, etc and is a major safety issue and cause of infant death in the state of Virginia. Please see: http://www.healthychildcare.org/sids.html and http://sidsma.org/ The AAP advises safe sleep as "share your room, but not your bed with your baby." Sorry for my "sensitivity," but I work with families who have lost babies due to unsafe sleep. We need to get this message out every way we can. Every baby deserves a safe night sleep. Thanks, Lynn, RN


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