Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep
How Much Sleep Do Children Need?
While children's needs vary, these general guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine will give you a good idea of how many hours a day he should be snoozing (including naps).
Infants (3-11 months): 14-15 hours
Toddlers: 12-14 hours
Preschoolers: 11-13 hours
School-age children: 10-11 hours
Establish Healthy Sleep Habits Early
By 4 months old, your baby is getting most of her sleep at night with three daytime naps, and she's beginning to have a more established day-night cycle. It's the perfect time to get a sleep routine going, says Jyoti Krishna, M.D., pediatric sleep specialist, Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center. "Babies and children crave consistency, so create some kind of schedule with regular nap times and a set bedtime," he says. "It's also important to put a baby to bed when she is drowsy, not when she is fully asleep. Babies need to learn to soothe themselves to sleep so they're not always relying on you to do it."
Work on Sleep Hygiene
"Sleep hygiene includes appropriate bedtime routine to "wind down" the body and mind, avoidance of excess activity prior to sleep, avoidance of electronics in the bedroom or near bedtime, comfortable room temperature and bed, and a dim light while asleep," says Cindy Jon, M.D., a pediatric sleep expert with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and UT Physicians in Houston. "Our bodies do best with stable routines, including sleep–wake cycles, so it's best to set an appropriate and stable bedtime and wake time to allow for the appropriate hours of sleep for the child's age, including on weekends." Dr. Jon adds that decreasing the variation of your child's sleep–wake cycle may improve overall sleep—so set a routine and stick to it!
If you notice your little one's sleep is off, see which part of her hygiene needs correcting. Dr. Jon says that cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) may be an option for more advanced cases of insomnia and with older children. "CBT includes relaxation techniques, stimulus control, sleep imagery, and sleep restriction, which may be best instituted with the assistance of a sleep specialist," she says.
Set a Routine
You want to start activities that signal to your child that sleep is approaching, Dr. Jyoti Krishna says. Many parents rely on the three Bs for babies: bath, books, and bottle. You can also follow the same routine for older children (minus the bottle, of course)—as long as it's something that relaxes them and prepares them for sleep.
If your older child faces significant sleep delays, you can talk to your pediatrician about treatments and interventions. "Occasionally, melatonin can be used to help with sleep onset," says Dr. Jon. "We do not know the appropriate dose for melatonin. Melatonin is naturally secreted from our brains during dim light conditions to activate sleep."
Before considering a sleep supplement like melatonin, speak with your child's pediatrician. For kids 4 and up, we suggest asking the doctor about drug-free, non-habit-forming gummies like Vicks PURE Zzzs Kidz, which contain a blend of melatonin and botanicals like Lavender and Chamomile.
Create a Calming Environment
Just like most adults, children need a calm, quiet space for sleep. Make sure your child has a comfortable mattress in her crib or bed, and that the room is a comfortable temperature. "The room doesn't have to be pitch black at night —if your child is more secure with a night-light on, then make sure she has one," says Shari Mezrah, a sleep specialist and author of The Baby Sleeps Tonight.
Happy Tummy = Happy Sleep
Naturally, when your baby is full, she will sleep longer and better, explains sleep specialist Shari Mezrah. When trying to get a baby to sleep, it's best to breastfeed or give her a bottle before you put her down. For older kids, though, be careful about what you feed them right before bedtime. "No fruit juice or sweets after 3 p.m.," Mezrah says.
Children 2 and over often have a hard time winding down for bedtime, so start switching gears about 30 minutes beforehand, sleep specialist Shari Mezrah says. This means turning off the TV and limiting any kind of physical activity to focus on more relaxing pursuits, such as listening to some calming music. Mezrah sits down with her kids to quietly talk about everyone's day and what's on the agenda for tomorrow. They then say a family prayer and it's off to bed.
Naps Are Necessary
Many parents believe that if their child doesn't nap well during the day, he'll simply make up that sleep at night. Not so, says Dr. Jyoti Krishna. "A bad nap usually means a bad night's sleep. A child who is cranky and overtired will have difficulty getting to sleep and might wake up several times throughout the night." And sleep specialist Shari Mezrah recommends that at least one nap each day in the child's own crib or bed -- not in the car seat or stroller. It's the best way to ensure he gets enough rest.
Don't Make Sleep Time Stressful
Never tell your child to "go to bed," sleep specialist Shari Mezrah says. "Watch your wording—f your child is overstimulated or having sleep issues, this can seem like a command and cause anxiety. At nap time, call it 'rest time.' At bedtime, call it 'night-night time.' Children will respond better when you soften the edges a bit and avoid being too direct."
Offer a Bedtime Pass
It's common for kids to call out or even climb out of bed to get your attention after bedtime. "First, try to understand why the child is doing it, then instead of going to the child every time he or she cries, go in according to a time schedule, with the time between visits getting greater," suggests Greg Hanley, M.D., director of the Children's Sleep Program at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts. "The child has his or her needs met, but they learn that they don't need to act out to get it."
Dr. Hanley also recommends offering your child a "bedtime pass" that she can use once per night to get you or ask you for something. Use a small stuffed animal for the pass. "It replaces the crying and calling out," he says. "Kids eventually come to just sleep with the pass, cuddling it. It's enough just to know they have it and can use it if they need to."
It's simple: If you're constantly moving around your child's sleep times, you'll have a hard time getting him to nap and sleep through the night. Aside from special occasions (holidays, birthdays), be sure your child stays on schedule and you stick with your daily routine. Creating healthy sleep habits now will help you—and your child—in the long run!