Sleep hygiene refers to the set of habits and guidelines that promote consistently restful and sufficient sleep at night and complete alertness during the day. It’s what you can do (and in some cases, not do) to help your child (and you) sleep easy and well.
Like dental hygiene, instilling good sleep hygiene habits early on in life will promote the retention and sustainment of those good habits throughout a child’s lifetime. Sleep hygiene can even help children avoid a whole host of sleep-related disorders.
The clearest sign that a child has poor sleep hygiene—or could at least use some improvements in the area—is if he or she experiences nighttime sleeplessness and/or daytime sluggishness.
But that covers a broad base of issues, that could include any of the following:
- bedtime resistance
- anxiety about sleep
- sleep onset delay
- nighttime wakings
- inadequate sleep duration
- difficulty awakening in the morning
- morning moodiness
- daytime sleepiness
Every one of these issues and more can be traced, at least in part, to a lapse or gap in some aspect of proper sleep hygiene—and by the same token, every one of these problems can be alleviated—again, at least in part—by making the appropriate adjustments in sleep hygiene.
1. Bedtime schedule
Create a bedtime routine that works for you and your child, and then stick to it. Sleep and waking cycles need to act in harmony with all other body cycles, such as body temperature, metabolism, dietary schedule and hormonal activity—our circadian rhythms. Our bodies are designed to naturally seek out homeostasis, or the condition in which all body systems find balance. In order to achieve that homeostasis, all these circadian rhythms must sync smoothly with one another.
For any bedtime schedule to work, it requires two key components:
- It must include both a regular bedtime and a regular waking time. Make sure the times you select are practical and realistic for you and your child’s other life schedules.
- It should stay consistent seven days a week. If you must adjust it for weekends, then don’t adjust it by any more than an hour in either direction or else you defeat the whole purpose. Their physiology simply will not know when it’s time to sleep or be awake. And this goes double for teenagers.
Adults may find this framework an even harder challenge to meet than their children do because adult schedules usually differ from weekdays to weekends, and in many cases from weeknight to weeknight. Unfortunately, this irregularity in your own schedules may make it difficult to enforce a regular bedtime schedule in your children, but it makes it no less necessary.
At the same time, in order to be effective, the sleeping and waking times you set must not merely be consistent and practical for your schedules, but it must also enable your child to get a sufficient amount of sleep. These days, most experts place the right amount at around eight hours, although for younger children and teens, the number may be closer to 10.
Think of a bedtime time schedule like setting your child’s biological clock. Set it right and your child’s bodily rhythms begin to naturally run like clockwork.
2. Bedtime routine
Establish a regular bedtime routine for your child. A regular bedtime routine, about 1/2-hour long leading up to bedtime itself, is how you can best help your child to prepare for a good night’s sleep. A bedtime routine involves engaging in comforting and familiar activities that are also relaxing.
To be avoided during this critical time period are heavy emotional conversations, TV and video games, caffeine, lots of liquids, rough-and-tumble play and cardiovascular/aerobic exercise, and big meals and sugary snacks.
Foods with predominantly carbohydrates and proteins (like milk and cookies), and foods with tryptophan (like milk and turkey) both can actually help a child, once fallen asleep, to stay asleep. Just remember to keep bedtime snacks light.
Good bedtime routine activities include taking a warm bath, reading a story together, stretching, relaxing family time, and listening to tranquil music, nature sounds, or a relaxation CD.
As children grow older, you can be more flexible with bedtime routines, which may grow to include a walk outside, a chat on the back porch about the day’s events or future plans, or perhaps playing a board game or card game or doing a puzzle together. Older children may want to retire to their rooms to read, listen to music or work on a favorite hobby before retiring for the night and possibly listening to a sleep program.
Whatever activities you and your child decide upon, the cornerstone of your child’s bedtime routine is that he or she knows what time to slip into pajamas and brush teeth, what time to be in bed, and how much time can be spent on in-bed activities such as reading.
3. Environmental conditions of the bedroom
Certain qualities of the setting in which you set your child down to sleep can play a significant role in the quality of sleep.
- Set a bedroom temperature that’s comfortable and will remain consistent throughout the night, erring on the cooler side as it’s more supportive of healthful sleep than an excessively warm room (that being anything over 75 degrees); and keeping that temperature consistent throughout the night can help avert nighttime wakings.
- Make the room sufficiently dark. A small nightlight is okay, if needed, but too much brightness interferes with restful sleep.
- Ensure sufficient ventilation/air circulation, such as by cracking the door open or using a ceiling fan set on low; refrain, however, from leaving a window wide open all night for both safety and health reasons.
- Provide your child a quiet sleeping environment, for reasons that should be obvious.
- Shut off the television, and what’s more take the television out of your child’s bedroom.
- Keep the bed for sleeping, in other words refrain from getting your child in the habit of associating his or her bed with anything other than sleeping, such as playing, reading, eating, or watching TV.
- Dress your child in comfortable pajamas, as the more comfortable he or she is the easier a time he or she will have of falling asleep and staying asleep.
- For the same reason, provide your child with a comfortable mattress and pillows, bedsheets and blankets.
4. Daytime behaviors and habits
Many of the factors that influence your child’s sleep the most don’t even occur at night. On the contrary, a variety of habits and behaviors that have a major impact on his or her sleep occurs in broad daylight.
The following are suggestions of daytime behaviors supportive of good sleep hygiene.
- Expose your child to sunlight first thing in the morning, as it helps to set circadian rhythms for the rest of the day. Additionally, ensure your child gets sufficient exposure to natural sunlight on a daily basis.
- Don’t use your child’s bedroom for punishments or time-outs, as a child must feel comfortable, safe and happy to be in his or her bedroom in order to fall asleep and sleep soundly.
- Monitor the content of your child’s television viewing, Internet surfing and video game playing, as exposure to excessively violent, disturbing or confusing images could be responsible for many sleep disturbances, such as nightmares.
- Confront bullying or other prevalent emotional issues in your child’s daily life, as any number of daily stressors could directly impact your child’s sleep.
- Discuss your child’s medicines with his or her pediatrician, as some medications (including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines, and all-natural/herbal remedies) could have side effects that interfere with your child’s restful sleep. If your child turns out to be on such a medication, your doctor can usually help you find adequate alternatives devoid of such side effects.
Improvements in your child’s sleep patterns likely won’t happen overnight, but once you begin implementing good sleep hygiene practices in your child’s life, you’re bound to notice positive results in due course.