Encouraging healthy sleep is one of the best ways to support your child’s development, from babyhood through adolescence and beyond. Helping your child build healthy sleep habits early in life benefits their physical health, cognitive development, even their social and emotional wellbeing. If a well-rested, cheerful child sounds good to you, here’s some advice to tackle your biggest sleep challenges.
Rethink bedtime resistance
When your toddler or preschooler can’t seem to settle at night and repeatedly gets out of bed, it’s time to reconsider their sleep routine. Often, children who resist bedtime simply aren’t tired enough to fall asleep at the time that you think they should. This might mean a child is ready to give up or shorten an afternoon nap, or might need a different bedtime altogether. The right bedtime for your child is the time at which they fall asleep without resistance within 10 or 15 minutes most nights. When your child needs bedtime reassurance, commit to returning to their room to check in within 5 to 10 minutes of lights out—this helps prevent the dreaded pop-up after you’ve said good night.
Build better habits
Establishing a consistent bedtime routine is one of the best ways to encourage better sleep. The brain is wired to associate certain events in a specific sequence with sleep (think A + B + C = sleep), so carrying out a consistent routine each night helps kids feel sleepy.
Kids need a transition period to prepare for sleep, writes Dr. Timothy Benik, pediatrician, in a 2022 sleep article from the Cleveland Clinic. Beginning about 30 minutes to an hour before bed, make time for a warm bath or shower, nighttime hygiene like brushing and flossing, and quiet time with books or stuffed animals.
Bright beginnings, better sleep
For kids who resist bedtime and the morning alarm, try light therapy. This natural form of sleep support aligns your child’s circadian rhythm, or body clock, for a healthy sleep-wake cycle, a peaceful bedtime, and a cheerier morning. How does it work? By telling the brain that the day has started, morning light begins an internal clock that keeps kids awake and alert during the day, and primes the body for sleep come bedtime. For a better bedtime, morning sunlight is preferable, but bright indoor bulbs or light therapy lamps, work too. Beginning the day with breakfast in a sunny spot (or outdoors, weather permitting) or even a few moments outdoors will help kids feel naturally sleepy as the day winds down.
Keep Cool and Sleep ON
As spring ushers in warmer temperatures, make sure kids’ bedrooms don’t follow suit. Warmer sleep environments encourage fragmented, lighter-stage sleep, making kids more likely to wake during the night. Because vivid dreams and nightmares occur during these lighter stages of sleep, warm bedrooms can encourage night frights, too. The ideal temperature for sleep falls between 60 and 67 degrees—but even in a cool bedroom, children may become too warm if they’re dressed in thick fleece sleepwear.
Banish blue lights before bed
The bulbs in your child’s bathroom or bedroom could be harming sleep. Newer LED lightbulbs are more energy-efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs, but they also give off more blue light. This is bad news for sleep, because blue light inhibits melatonin, which can trigger bedtime battles. Look for sleep-friendly LED bulbs (GE Relax bulbs are wallet-friendly and widely available) labeled “soft white” or “low blue” for children’s bathrooms, bedrooms, and bedside lamps. After dinner, protect sleep by switching devices like phones and tablets to “nighttime mode,” which emits less blue light.
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and sleep journalist, author, and podcaster.