Helping children to sleep

Every living creature needs to sleep. It is the primary activity of the brain during early development. Circadian rhythms , or the sleep-wake cycle, are regulated by light and dark and these rhythms take time to develop, resulting in the irregular sleep schedules of newborns. The rhythms begin to develop at about six weeks, and by three to six months most infants have a regular sleep-wake cycle. By the age of two, most children have spent more time asleep than awake and overall, a child will spend 40 percent of his or her childhood asleep. Sleep is especially important for children as it directly impacts mental and physical development.

There are two alternating types or states of sleep :

Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) or “quiet” sleep. During the deep states of NREM sleep, blood supply to the muscles is increased, energy is restored, tissue growth and repair occur, and important hormones are released for growth and development.

Rapid Eye Movement(REM) or “active” sleep. During REM sleep, our brains are active and dreaming occurs. Our bodies become immobile, breathing and heart rates are irregular.

Babies spend 50 percent of their time in each of these states and the sleep cycle is about 50 minutes. At about six months of age, REM sleep comprises about 30 percent of sleep. By the time children reach preschool age, the sleep cycle is about every 90 minutes.

Tips to help your children sleep

  1. Avoid feeding your child big meals close to bedtime, and don’t give her anything containing caffeine less than six hours before bedtime.
  2. After dinner, avoid all stimulating activities, says Carol L. Rosen, M.D., medical director of pediatric sleep services at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland.
  3. Warn your child that bedtime is in five minutes, or give him a choice — “Do you want to go to bed now or in five minutes?” — but do this only once.
  4. Establish a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine that lasts between 20 and 30 minutes and ends in your child’s bedroom. Avoid scary stories or TV shows. It’s better to read a favorite book every night than a new one because it’s familiar.
  5. Avoid singing or rocking your child to sleep, because if she wakes in the middle of the night she may need you to sing or rock her back to sleep — a condition known as sleep-onset association disorder. (If you have already been doing this, try to phase this behavior out gradually.) Instead, have her get used to falling asleep with a transitional object, like a favorite blanket or stuffed animal.
  6. Make sure your child is comfortable. Clothes and blankets should not restrict movement, and the bedroom temperature shouldn’t be too warm or too cold.
  7. If your child calls for you after you’ve left his room, wait a few moments before responding. This will remind him that he should be asleep, and it’ll give him the chance to soothe himself and even fall back asleep while he is waiting for you.
  8. If your child comes out of her room after you’ve put her to bed, walk her back and gently but firmly remind her that it’s bedtime.
  9. Give your child tools to overcome his worries. These can include a flashlight, a spray bottle filled with “monster spray,” or a large stuffed animal to “protect” him.
  10. Set up a reward system. Each night your child goes to bed on time and stays there all night, she gets a star. After three stars, give her a prize.