Mary Everett was always a woman on the go. Although the West Michigan mother worked at home, her involvement in her church, her daughter's school, and the community kept her schedule full of appointments. With her days often ending late, Everett had difficulties getting her children to bed at a regular time. "If we came home at seven or eight at night, it was a real scramble to eat dinner and get ready for bed," she recalls. "My kids' bedtime kept getting pushed back further every night."
Eventually, the sliding bedtime affected her four year old son, Brian. "He went from being a boy who could sit and color to a boy who could barely sit still," Everett says. "Even when we tried to put him to bed earlier, he would call us or just get out of bed. One time, we even caught him playing with his toys after the lights were out."
For children Brian's age, sleep is essential to their daily life. "When kids are sleep deprived, they are more sensitive to mood swings," says Marsha Dawn Rappley, the Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Human Development at Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine. "It's harder to negotiate changes with them. Most parents can see the effects of little sleep because their preschoolers are more hyperactive and irritable."
While many parents know sleep is important, recent studies indicate that preschoolers simply aren't getting enough. The National Sleep Foundation's (NSF) seventh annual Sleep in America poll revealed that kids ages three to six only average about 10 hours of sleep a night. That's less than the 11-13 hours that the foundation recommends for preschoolers.
That's why many experts are encouraging parents to make sufficient sleep a family priority. Thankfully, this isn't as hard as it sounds, Rappley says. "The best method for parents to get their child in bed and sleeping is to take a few simple steps to establish a bedtime routine."
Establish a bedtime
First, set a time when your child should be in bed and asleep. Since preschoolers need 11-13 hours of sleep, Rappley suggests finding a way to scale evening activities down. "Adults can run on 6-8 hours of sleep, but a preschool child cannot function on that," she says. "When families have schedules where that is not possible, they have to look at ways to change their schedule so a child can get enough sleep."
Pick bedtime rituals
Once you establish a time, Rappley suggests scheduling a variety of nightly rituals that make bedtime enjoyable. "The most effective method is to develop a very specific routine and follow it the same way every night," she says. The rituals can include tasks, such as bathing to enjoyable activities, such as kissing each of your child's stuffed animals good night. "This tells the child, "I'm getting ready for bed." If it is a series of things, it is better for the child since they can learn to expect and predict what happens," Rappley says.
Whatever rituals you choose, she suggests selecting activities that are relaxing and quiet. Pillow fights and jumping on the bed may excite and stimulate your child rather than prepare them for sleep. "You should express that bedtime is a nice time between a parent and child," Rappley says. "Tell your child it's good to have this time. It's going to be quiet time."
Bedtime should also be non-confrontational. If your child fights to get his pajamas on, Rappley advises be firm and don't yell. "Many parents get into this vicious negative cycle where their kids are being punished for not going to bed. You need to reverse this experience to make it positive."
Bedtime is storytime
If you are not sure what your evening ritual should be, Rappley suggests picking up a book. "It seems like such a simple thing, but when parents real aloud, it's enormous to their child's intellectual and emotional development," she says.
Reading aloud helps kids become good readers and develop language skills, Rappley adds. With reading, parents can increase a child's attention span, promote their imagination, and encourage learning. More importantly, reading can strengthen the bond between parent and child. "When reading, many parents are snuggling up to their child. That creates a feeling of security."
With so many things going on in the world, many children have a lot of their mind, which can make it hard to fall asleep. Taking a few moments to listen to their thoughts can help them feel better, Rappley says. "You want to establish that this is a time of intimacy. It's a time of trust. By talking and listening, you tell your child, as a parent, you are a person they can trust. This is the thing that a parent and child share."
"As a child gets older, they learn this is the time when they share difficult decisions with their parents," Rappley says. "You can set the pattern early in life that you respect your child as a thinking person and a person who you want to spend time with. That continues throughout their lifetime."
Making quiet time
Once your child is in bed, help them go to sleep by being quiet. "Parents have to realize if your child can hear you, they will be awake," Rappley says. Watching a movie with the volume turned up or playing loud music may prevent your child from sleeping. "Children won't have a context for what they're hearing. If everyone else is up, they may feel they need to be up, too. It's not fair to expect them to sleep soundly through noise."
The real challenge to establishing a routine is doing it consistently. "Parents might find that it's hard for them to stick to this schedule, but it's quite reassuring to children to have a bedtime routine," Rappley says. "When a bedtime routine is predictable, it builds structure and safety into their day. Parents and caregivers can share the responsibility, but whoever is there putting them to bed, they must establish that it's a routine."
Creating a consistent bedtime routine helped Everett and her son. "I scaled back a lot of things we did in the evening," she says. With a nightly schedule of bathing, singing songs, and reading in addition to a solid 8:30 PM bedtime, Brian was back to being himself again. "In the morning, he began to wake me up," Everett laughs. "It's amazing what enough sleep can do."
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