With daylight savings and summer holidays, disrupted and late bedtimes become more of a norm. Our sleep expert, Annette Faamausili, talks us through the importance of a good bedtime routine and how to re-establish it now the holidays are over.
What’s all the fuss about? Believe it or not, a good consistent bedtime routine can make all the difference between a crying, hyped up or overtired child and a calm, sleepy child who looks forward to snuggling up in their own bed.
Children and babies need sleep cues or sleep triggers to prepare their bodies for sleep and, surprisingly, adults need them too. Each night before bed, adults will follow a simple routine without even knowing it; for example, most like to take a shower, watch some TV, read a book or make a hot drink. Without these, we would find it difficult to settle for bed; after all, we are creatures of habit.
This, of course, applies to babies and children too. You wouldn’t expect a toddler who has been running around outside to be expected suddenly to settle for bed. Taking your child through a regular bedtime routine, by giving her a set of sleep cues each night, will help regulate her body clock and enable your child to pick up the cues for sleep. It doesn’t however mean that your whole day has to be routine-focused – not at all – as long as the last half hour of the day remains consistent and calm, you will be fine.
getting the timing right
The timing of the bedtime routine is fundamental to getting it right. It should last no longer than 45 minutes; 30 minutes is ideal. If you start getting your child ready for bed too early, the whole procedure can lose focus. This often happens if your child’s routine does not take place in his bedroom. If a child comes back into the living area during this time, it can often hype them up and break the bedtime spell.
A bath is a very positive way to signal the end of the day and will allow your child the opportunity to wind down. Head straight for the bedroom once bath time is over and for babies (and even older children) a simple massage before bed is often helpful. For younger babies, this may only last a few minutes as the bath will have been a tiring experience and she may not tolerate it for long. Once your child is into her pyjamas, you can enjoy a story and a cuddle; even babies as young as 6-months can enjoy looking at a picture book before the final feed. For older children, be mindful of how many stories you read and stick to the same amount each night, otherwise you may well fall into the trap of succumbing to the plea of “just one more, please”.
Once your child is snuggled down in bed, give a cuddle and a kiss and try to leave the room while they are still awake. Try not to stay until your child is asleep, as this can lead to your child always expecting you to be there and may cause future sleep problems.
setting the scene
Creating the right environment for your child will help her feel settled and secure in a familiar environment. It’s worthwhile making sure the room is well-ventilated at night and the temperature kept around 19 degrees. Avoid overheating your child at bedtime and keep bed clothes and bedding to a minimum.
During the summer months, it may be worthwhile using a blackout blind across the window to prevent early morning waking and this should help to extend their sleep time. It is far healthier for children and babies to sleep in total darkness, as too much light in their room can interfere with their natural sleep rhythm. If you are still night feeding, then a very dim plug-in light should be adequate. Many night lights these days are too stimulating and bright; a good guide, if using one, is to make sure you can’t read a book and you should only be able to just make out the outline of your child’s bed.
For younger babies, playing gentle background music at bedtime can help them to familiarise with their bedtime routine and it will help lock in positive sleep associations. Babies are particularly sensitive to sound and are able to interpret what sounds are connected to. For example, upon hearing the bath water running, even babies as young as 10 weeks old will kick their legs vigorously in anticipation.
tv/video games before bed
Television and computer games right before bedtime can have a huge and negative influence on your child’s ability to fall into a natural sleep rhythm. Researchers from Seattle University found that persistent exposure to TV and computer games just before bed can cause the brain to become amped up, thus preventing the child from being able to wind down. Also, more importantly, children who have computer screens and televisions in their bedrooms are more likely to disrupt their natural production of melatonin (a naturally-occurring hormone involved in the sleep-wake cycle), as the constant flickering screen and bright lights can interfere with this.
exercise before bed
Although exercise is vital for your child’s physical and emotional wellbeing, too close to bedtime can inhibit your child’s ability to fall asleep. (That’s why rough and tumbles with dad just before bedtime is a no-no.)
To use exercise as an antidote for sleep and for it to be beneficial, it’s best undertaken 2-3 hours before bedtime. The best suggested forms of exercise at this time, which raise the body temperature effectively, are: swimming, cycling, trampolining, running or any other activity that causes breathlessness. The body temperature needs to start falling just before bed because this decrease in temperature appears to be the trigger that helps ease your child into sleep. Try it with your child and you will be amazed at the difference!
Whatever type of family you are, big or small, a bedtime routine can be the one thing that can bring peace and harmony to the end of a busy day. It’s the predictable and consistent nature of it that helps to make your child feel safe and secure.
“Taking your child through a regular bedtime routine, by giving her a set of sleep cues each night, will help regulate her body clock and enable your child to pick up the cues for sleep”
Annette Faamausili is a children’s sleep advisor who runs a home consultation service for parents of children with sleep problems. (www.serenesleep.co.nz)