Most days, Jen Lamott would describe her daughter, Katie, as cheerful and kind. Lately, though, the 7-year-old has been acting moody and sometimes grunting instead of talking. “It’s like we have a teenager suddenly,” Lamott said. But while teenagers’ attitudes are usually chalked up to puberty, Lamott knows that something else is at play in her house: exhaustion. Katie has been having trouble falling asleep, expressing greater sleep anxiety and starting to take naps to compensate for missed sleep, said Lamott. She also said that her 4-year-old, Riley, comes out of his bedroom more often at night, and both children have become clingier. Situations like these are where Lynelle Schneeburg’s sleep tips can really come in handy.
Schneeberg, a pediatric sleep psychologist and author of “Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach,” said that family stress, disrupted school routines, and decreased physical activity can cause sleep to suffer for people of all ages. While she expected some of those challenges to subside as the school year ends, she worried that for preschoolers and elementary schoolers who have needed extra attention at bedtime, the problems would persist into the summer. Schneeberg compared the situation to a family trip during which the children sleep in the same room as their parents. “Kids love that. And when they come home, they don’t really want to give that up,” she said. To help parents like Lamott, Schneeberg offered some tips and tricks from years of helping families and children get better sleep.
Sleep crutches and bedtime baskets
In sleep medicine, a “sleep crutch” refers to the actions or objects that help someone fall asleep. Adults, for instance, might prefer one side of the bed or only use a certain type of pillow. For some children, having a parent perform a soothing action, such as singing or rubbing their back can be a sleep crutch. Kids who get the best sleep, though, are the ones whose sleep crutches are not another human, according to Schneeberg. That’s not because of a moral judgment about independent sleep. Schneeberg’s reasoning comes from research that shows that most people wake briefly four to six times per night. “Most people aren’t even aware of it. But we wake up and we sort of check that everything’s OK. And a child whose parent was there at sleep onset, they wake up and something’s missing. The crutch, so to speak, that they needed is gone,” she explained.
That’s when children start to creep out of their rooms and into their parents’ beds. Schneeberg said the quality of the adult’s sleep also goes down as a result. To help children learn to self-soothe, Schneeberg suggests creating a “bedtime basket.” That’s a bin or basket that is filled with age-appropriate activities that are relaxing and distracting, such as books, puzzles and drawing pads. Kids can use these items after being tucked in, rather than relying on a parent to stay in the room until they drift off.
Using the 5 B’s as sleep tips
Before kids get to the bedtime basket, though, a consistent routine plays a big role in healthy sleep habits. Schneeberg recommends trying the 5 B’s:
- Bite (bedtime snack)
- Bath/washing up
- Brushing teeth
- Bathroom (a last trip to the toilet)
- Books with mom or dad
For the last one, Schneeberg said that parents should set parameters, such as a set number of picture books per night, a certain number of chapters or a specific amount of time. At the end of the allotted reading time, a child may say they are not sleepy yet but that’s what the parent can direct them to their bedtime basket. Then parents can move onto whatever work or downtime they need to do for themselves before sleeping.
This is another of Schneeberg’s best sleep tips. Kids get really creative when trying to delay bedtime, she said, and they might reel parents back in by saying their feet are itchy, something is under the bed, they want the door open, they want the light on, or — the most popular — they’re hungry. When a parent responds to those pleas, it teaches the child that the tactic works and encourages them to continue. “Sometimes, as parents, you do a little bit of the wrong thing with the right intentions,” said Schneeberg. “So we always have to find that little middle ground of a cozy routine, but one that ends when it should and a child who knows how to put themselves to sleep on their own.”
To help parents limit stalling while still showing care, Schneeberg recommends the strategy of “bedtime tickets,” in which parents decorate index cards or sticky notes and give a certain amount to their child per night. When bedtime arrives and the child says something like “my foot itches,” the parent asks for a ticket in order to scratch it. “That lets your child know that you’ll do a couple more things for them. Of course you’ll close their closet door, you’ll look under their bed or you’ll fix their blanket. But you won’t do 17 things. You’ll do two things,” Schneeberg explained. Once both tickets are used, the parent can remind the child to make use of the items in their basket until they are sleepy. This reinforces the message that “you don’t have to fall asleep but it is bedtime” as part of her sleep tips.
This article originally appeared here.