Want to boost your child’s language skills?
Help them keep a more pleasant mood?
Accurately identify emotions in others?
Foster healthy attachment?
Sustain a healthy weight?
Maintain attention, increase memory, and perform well in school?
There are a number of ways you could accomplish these goals, but one simple pathway to address all of them is to make sure your child is getting consistent, healthy sleep.
Behavioral scientist B.J. Fogg explains that the way to create changes that stick is to create small, easy goals. Tiny habits. For example, “lose weight” is a huge goal. But if you start with a prompt that happens frequently, say, turning on your coffee maker in the morning, you can connect a simple action to that prompt. After I turn on my coffee maker, I will put on my walking shoes. You’re much more likely to take a quick walk once your shoes are on.
Think of all the things that make up what it means to “sleep well.” If we can break them down into smaller categories, we can improve each one by just 1%. Small gains in many small areas lead to explosive change. When it comes to sleep, even modest gains improve virtually every aspect of your health. Here are some tiny habits you can create to see powerful long-term gain for your young child.
It feels good to sleep. Start with this one. After you turn out the light in your child’s room, tell them, “It’s going to feel so good to sleep.” Even if you change nothing else, creating the mindset that sleep is an enjoyable activity makes a difference. Your behavior will always follow your thought patterns. A slight shift in perspective realigns your own actions, and your child’s.
Pleasant and Predictable. Use a bedtime routine to build on the previous point. So powerful is this simple strategy that little ones with a nightly routine fall asleep easier and earlier, wake less often and for shorter periods during the night, and obtain about an hour more sleep at night than children of the same age without a bedtime routine. Find something that works for you and your child, and stick with it–every night.
Related: Magic Sleep Dust: Bedtime Routines
Electronics off. As part of your bedtime routine, make sure to eliminate all electronics from the bedroom, and turn them off an hour before bed. Curbing our media addiction is tough. For a healthy night’s sleep though, taking control is worth the effort. Screen time (television, phones, tablets) before bed is connected to later bedtimes, less sleep, difficulty falling asleep, and greater night waking. An effective way to break a habit is to make it difficult to do. So maybe your tiny habit would be, “After dinner, I set my phone to charge.” In our home, we set the Internet router to turn off automatically in the evening.
Wake up at the same time every morning. It’s natural for your child to wake with the sun. A few minutes of bright light at the same time each morning regulates your child’s internal rhythms. Internal rhythms refer not only when your child sleeps and wakes, but also your child’s metabolism, hunger, energy, mood, insulin levels, and more. Sleeping in on the weekend is often a sign that your child isn’t getting enough sleep at night, and may need an earlier bedtime. A well-rested child should be able to wake naturally on their own around the same time every morning.
Go to bed at the same time every night. Most children function best with a bedtime around 7-8pm, every single night, including on the weekends. Aim for 10 under 10: children 10 and under need at least 10 hours of sleep nightly. Roughly half of preschoolers in a large national poll had a bedtime of 9pm or later: these children slept 48 minutes less than their earlier-bedtime peers. Toddlers lose even more sleep when going to bed that late:1.3 hours less sleep each night than those with an earlier bedtime. That’s a difference of 9 hours less sleep in the span of a week!
Exclusivity. You can’t force sleep. It’s a behavior that happens automatically. The way to make any behavior more automatic is to have cues that are exclusive for that behavior. Here in the U.S. we drive on the right side of the road: it makes the behavior of moving forward so automatic that we find ourselves walking on the right side of the sidewalk, or pushing grocery carts on the right side of the store isle. We make sleep automatic by looking for cues that are exclusive to sleep. Use your child’s crib or bed only for sleep–not time outs or quiet play time. Pajamas are fantastically comfy, but if they’re used only for sleep, it helps to increase how sleepy we feel once we put them on. Even something as simple as making your bed sets apart awake time from sleep time, so that people who make their beds are 19% more likely to report sleeping well.
Eliminate noise. It’s a widely popular myth that if you teach your child to be accustomed to sleeping in a noisy environment, they’ll be able to sleep through anything. Not so. The auditory system is permanently alert, including during sleep. We all sleep better in a quiet environment. A steady white noise can protect that quiet environment by masking disturbing noises.
Eliminate light. Darkness is non-negotiable for quality sleep. The absence of light tells the body to produce the hormone melatonin, signaling the timing of sleep. Children’s eyes are significantly more sensitive to the presence of light than adults’. Dimming the lights before bedtime and keeping your child’s bedroom dark gives your child the best chance for sound, healthy sleep. Not only that, but recent research found that just one night of sleeping with an overhead light on increased participants’ insulin resistance, making them more prone to diabetes.
Related: Facing Bedtime Fears
Independence. The conditions your child needs to fall asleep need to remain constant all night long. This is one of the most significant things you can do to improve your child’s sleep. Having a parent present at bedtime who then disappears once the child is asleep is one of the most consistent predictors for interrupted sleep. Often parents want to achieve this goal, but become discouraged when their child resists. If your child can sleep with your help, your child is 100% capable of sleeping without your help. You can guide him or her with gentleness and respect. If this is where you’re finding difficulty, contact me.
Related: Sleep Training: Is it a Control Issue?
No curtain calls. Once it’s time for bed, it’s time for bed. Responding to requests for another story, song, or cup of water allows your child to drag out bedtime. Set clear limits and follow through on them.
Related: How to End Bedtime Battles… For Good!
What’s one small change YOU want to make today?