Michael A. Tompkins, Ph.D.
Co-director of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy
Parents tend to sleep well when their children sleep well. Fortunately, things work out just fine for most kids and parents because sleep is hard wired. That is, your child’s brain will get the sleep necessary to help him or her develop into a vital and healthy human being. However, that is not to say that your child’s environment—particularly parents—doesn’t play an important role in sleep too. Here are a few suggestions for parents who want to help their child develop and master the skills necessary to maintain an adequate amount of sleep throughout his or her life.
What You Can Do
Build a bedtime routine. A bedtime routine signals your child’s brain that sleep time is coming. In addition, children, particularly young children, are comforted by a predictable bedtime routine, which lowers a child’s anxiety at night. However, families don’t all operate on the same timetable. Some parents have long commutes home and dinner may not get on the table until 7 pm or later, which means that in spite of their best efforts, their children don’t get to bed until 9 pm or so. Take heart. It is less important that your child’s bedtime routine begins at the same time each night than it is the hour that it begins. If more often than not, you get your child in bed by 9 pm, set that as the beginning of your child’s bedtime routine. Similarly, strive for a regular awakening time, particularly if your child has trouble settling down at night. A regular awakening time, even when your child was awake later than usual, ensures that sleep will come on time and perhaps a bit earlier the next night.
Build in transition time. Children benefit from a transition period before bed. Sing to your child her favorite songs and then read to her for 15 minutes. Give your child a 5-minute back massage or a quick eyes-closed game, like tracing letters or words on each other’s backs and guessing what was written. Savoring is a wonderful eyes-closed transition exercise too: Lie in bed with your child and review your day with her speaking aloud while you highlight the positive and wonderful—savoring each—then ask your child to do the same. Savor the flutter of leaves as they fell to the sidewalk during the walk to school. Savor the crispness of the green apples she had for a snack or the fun game she played with her best friend. Any soothing or calming activity is great. Sing to your child the song at the end of this book and make it part of your child’s transition time. In addition, insist that your child stop any activity that involves a screen (television, computers, and video games) for at least 60 minutes before bedtime.
Don’t tell your child to “go to sleep.” We all say this from time to time, but the truth is, we cannot get a child to go to sleep just by telling them to do it. Children (and adults for that matter) cannot control sleep. In other words, we don’t “go” to sleep. Sleep comes to us. If your child is anxious or eager to please you, commanding your child to do something she cannot control may make her anxious and more difficult for sleep to come. Instead, encourage your child to do what she can control – to lay quietly in her bed and wait. If your child is tossing and turning, encourage her to cope quietly using a soothing strategy, such as singing to herself or savoring, and reassure her that sleep will come.
Don’t talk about your sleep or ask about your child’s sleep. Children are listening and learning from parents all the time. Parents who don’t sleep well can teach their child to become anxious about sleep or unknowingly set unrealistic and unhelpful expectations about sleep. Children may learn to believe that every night’s sleep should be sound and deep or that terrible things might happen if they don’t sleep well. Don’t ask your child, “How did you sleep last night?” or talk much about your own restless night. If you want to talk about your sleep with your partner, do so when your children are not around. Also, de-focus on sleep within your home. If your child complains that he didn’t sleep well, remind him that sleep has a mind of its own and that tonight sleep likely will come a bit easier because it took a bit longer to come last night.
Go to your child’s bed—don’t bring her to yours. If your child awakens at night and comes to your room for comfort, take her back to her own bed and lay down with her there. Try not to bring a restless child into your bed. You are less likely to awaken your child when you ease out of his bed than when you carry her from your bed to hers and then tuck her in. Even if your child is not feeling well, it is better to lay with your child in her bed. You always want to associate your child’s bed, not your own, with soothing and sleep. If you love snuggle time with your child, welcome your child into your bed in the morning where you can snuggle, read the comics, or just hang out for some one-on-one time.
Also, consider which parent is the best candidate to help a child when he awakens. A well-rested and calm parent is the best parent to help a child who awakens at night. A sleep-deprived parent may be frustrated that the child has awakened him again or too anxious to get back to sleep to give the child sufficient care and attention. Your child may notice this and become over anxious and clingy. When possible, share the duty of attending to a restless kid.
With a parent’s help, most children develop sleep habits that contribute to happy and healthy kids. However, some children may have persistent problems with sleep because they are anxious or depressed; they have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea; or some other physical or psychological condition. If your child continues to have significant difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep through the night, speak first with your child’s pediatrician and then consult with a mental health professional with expertise in treating pediatric sleep problems.
Adapted with permission from Tompkins, M. A. (2011). Note to Parents, Good Night Giants © 2011 Magination Press, American Psychological Association. No further reproduction or distribution is permitted without written permission. http://www.apa.org/pubs/magination.