Bedtime routines are so different as an adult. Parents no longer tuck in the covers or read you a story. And there’s absolutely no fighting about going to sleep—now, you welcome every chance you can get for some much-needed shut eye.
While you might not have really cared about forming great sleep habits when you were younger, becoming a parent or caregiver makes you realize just how important it is to help your own child feel good on a daily basis and also stay healthy.
While adults should try to get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night, a child’s needs vary based on their age: A two-month-old has vastly different sleep needs than a two-year-old. Knowing the guidelines and following best practices will help your child’s development and overall health.
Sleep is actually quite a mysterious thing. The most basic explanation of why we need to sleep is to let our bodies rest, but this only begins to scratch the surface of why it’s so important. While it is indeed a period of physical relaxation, internally our bodies are still hard at work processing, restoring, and strengthening important systems every night.
In fact, sleep plays a vital role in helping humans to solidify and consolidate memories. Throughout the day, the brain takes in a tremendous amount of information, and processing and storing these experiences actually happens while we sleep. During slumber, those bits and pieces get transferred from short-term memory into stronger, long-term memory in a process called “consolidation.” In essence, a good night’s sleep actually helps people to retain information and perform better on tasks that require memory skills.
The body, too, requires longer periods of sleep to restore and rejuvenate itself and grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones. So, ensuring that your children go through this essential process every night is just as vital. Like eating well, a good sleep pattern is essential to optimal health.
When we go to bed at night, we automatically enter into a repeating five-part sleep cycle, which rotates from four stages of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) to the ultimate finale of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
NREM is a more lucid moment of sleep when you can still be easily roused; it’s the period in which blood supply increases to muscles, energy is restored, tissue grows and repairs itself, and hormones get released for growth and development.
REM sleep, though, is the deep sleep when dreams are made. REM happens about 90 minutes after you close your eyes. At this point in the process, your eyes are moving quickly and your brain is also active creating intense story patterns. REM is generally considered the most energizing part of the sleep cycle, both for the brain and the body—the longer you sleep, the more chances your body has to experience this part of the cycle, which is extended throughout the night.
Although it’s not entirely understood, research suggests REM is important for the process of storing memories as well as learning and balancing moods. Without enough REM sleep, people struggle with short-term memory and may suffer from certain health issues, like migraines.
For babies, half of their sleep is spent in REM and half in NREM, each lasting about 50 minutes (which is partially why they need so many naps). By the time children are four or five, the cycle becomes more solidified into what the sleep cycle they will experience for the rest of their lives. One full cycle takes about 90 minutes, and once you’ve completed a full swing, another begins—which is why getting a full eight hours is important for both kids and adults to avoid feeling exhausted, irritable, in a fog, possibly even ill.
It’s important to keep in mind that every child is different, but generally speaking the amount of sleep should fall within the recommended range of hours each night, which are based on age.
Healthy sleeping habits start young, and one of the best things you can do at this age is place your baby in his or her crib when they give the signals of being drowsy—and not when they’ve already fallen asleep. Newborns spend over half the day sleeping, so it will be obvious when they’re feeling tired. Some babies fuss, cry, or rub their eyes to express that they’re cranky and ready for some rest.
Getting ahead of their sleeping pattern helps newborns to understand what bedtime is actually for, and will encourage them to fall asleep quickly and on their own. Additionally, exposing your child to light and noise and playing with them while they are awake will show a different environment than a dark, quiet bedroom with less activity. This will intuitively help them to calm down and prepare their body for rest.
As your baby grows into the infant stage, you’ll want to continue the habits established when they were a newborn—that is putting them down when they’re drowsy and not already asleep.
The biggest challenge at this age is helping your child to become a “self-soother,” which enables them to fall asleep independently when it’s bedtime and also to fall back asleep when they wake up in the middle of the night.
Consistency can also help with separation anxiety. Develop regular daytime nap and bedtime sleep schedules and create a regular routine following the same pattern in the same order every night so their brains develop sleep associations. This could be as simple as changing your baby into pajamas and tucking them in or could also involve a bath and story—as long as it becomes routine, the succession of actions will send a signal to their body that it’s time to rest.
As toddlers begin to develop more cognitive and motor abilities, they can begin to develop a variety of sleep problems, such as nightmares and fears of monsters under the bed. In addition to these disturbances, their growing desire for independence means they will often sneak out of bed, creating even more issues.
At this age, it is imperative to continue maintaining a daily sleep schedule and routine. Follow the same steps every night, and ensure that the bedroom environment is not only the same each time but also conducive to rest with no television, loud noises nearby, or excess light leaking in.
This is the age when many parents also introduce a security object, such as a blanket or stuffed animal, that will make children feel safe. Night lights and calming essential oils like lavender can also creating a soothing environment that will make young children feel safe.
Many of the same patterns you’ve already established are important for your preschool-aged child as well. The “getting ready for bed” process should be relaxing and end up in the same room where the child sleeps, preferably somewhere that’s quiet and dark (and without a television or other tablets and gadgets lying around).
Your child’s bedroom should also only be used for positive experiences such as sleeping, and not a place for time outs or other punishments. This allows a young child to associate good feelings with the space and will lead to less sleep terrors and nightmares.
Because these habits can be hard to instill in children, you might also institute a quiet hour as part of the nightly routine. Use this time for calm activities, such as reading, listening to classical music, or taking a warm bath.
This is the age when it can become more difficult to keep regular routines, since grammar schoolers have such sporadic schedules. They’re not spending all their time at home anymore, but also involved in sports, extracurricular activities, and plenty of social experiences with friends and classmates.
At this age, they are also more interested in computers and cell phones, which heavily disrupts sleep, and also drinking soda and eating candy, which have tons of caffeine and stimulants that can affect young bodies with even more potency and keep them awake for hours.
All of this can result in regular lack of sleep, anxiety about sleeping, mood swings, and even ADHD or other cognitive issues that can impact learning in school.
The best thing to do at this age is to teach children about healthy sleep habits. Unlike newborns who don’t understand or can’t comprehend what you’re doing or why, school-aged children can be talked to and come around to the idea of why sleep is so important.
At this age, you’ll also want to start cutting off naps, which can interfere with sleep quality and duration later on in the evening.
For teenagers, it’s time for you to practice what you preach. It can be difficult to convince your 17-year-old daughter to go to bed and not watch television while you’re sitting on the couch immersed in Netflix. As much as you can, set a good example for your teens by also following these useful bedtime rules:
Most importantly, when it comes to creating healthy sleep habits for your children, watch them and not the clock. Every child is different, so one kid’s ten hours is another kid’s twelve. But, do watch your kids for signs of sleep deprivation, which may include hyperactivity, crankiness, memory issues, or problems concentrating. These are signals that your child isn’t getting enough rest and will need some help setting up a better bedtime routine.
Photo credit: Getty Images
Illustration by Karley Koenig
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