8 Reasons Your Kid Isn't Sleeping Well, And How To Address Them

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Does this parent’s dilemma sound familiar?

She’s so hard to awaken in the mornings, and so grumpy and out of sorts that I’m sure she’s not getting enough sleep. And yet, I can’t seem to get her to go to sleep at a reasonable hour in the evenings. What can I do to help her?

It didn’t used to be like this, of course, in the days before smartphones and the Internet, before television and indoor lighting. So many factors affect our children’s brains and compete for attention and time; their sleeping habits suffer as a result. Here are some suggestions for how to help your kids turn off, tune out, and fall asleep at a reasonable hour so that they can get the sleep they need.

Turning Off:

1. Reducing exposure to bright light during the two hours before bed helps the brain prepare for sleep. Light sends a powerful signal to the brain that it’s still daytime and too early to be thinking of bed. While it’s OK for a child to read quietly in bed with a low-wattage reading lamp, bathing him in bright light is a surefire way of pushing back fall-asleep time.

2. Eliminating stimulating activities -- such as video games, television, gymnastics, etc. -- during the final couple of waking hours of the day, will also help your child to settle into sleep mode faster.

3. Making sure that there are no screens -- smartphones, computers and televisions -- in the bedroom will prevent exposure to light and excitement. It will also help channel your child’s attention (should he not quite be ready for sleep) toward something much more worthwhile: reading. (More on this below.)

Tuning Out:

4. Have your child do his homework outside of the bedroom -- at the dining room table, for example -- and not in the bedroom (and never in bed). Maintaining a physical distance between stressors and your child’s bed will enable him to detach himself more easily from the pressures of the day and to relax, facilitating the transition to sleep.

5. For a child who tends toward anxiety, 20 minutes of guided imagery or mindfulness exercises right before getting into bed can go a long way toward reducing stress. This makes it easier to fall and to stay asleep, and may also reduce the frequency of night terrors and sleepwalking, if these are present.

6. Once in bed, it’s OK (more than OK, actually!) for your child to read with a low-intensity reading light before turning over and shutting her eyes. Allowing your child to read in bed can achieve many positive goals. It may instill in her a lifelong love of reading; help redirect her attention from any residual stressors of the day to an entirely different plane; and prevent her from getting antsy and riled up if she happens to be put in bed before she’s ready to fall asleep.

7. Although there are many guidelines suggesting how many hours a child should sleep based upon his age, it is important to remember that these are ballpark estimates. The actual amount of sleep your child requires may vary considerably, even compared to what his sister needed when she was his age. While you would certainly want to provide your 7-year-old with a window of at least 10 hours for sleep, he may not need quite that much. Letting him do something quiet and relaxing that doesn’t rile him up may actually make it easier for him to fall asleep sooner than if he becomes bored, antsy, and more awake out of frustration and boredom.

8. Finally, it is very important to keep your child on a regular sleep/wake schedule seven days a week. Although more common in adolescence, some elementary-school–age kids have a natural inclination to delay their sleep time, staying up later at night and sleeping in later in the morning. This tendency is usually kept in check during the school week, but these children’s internal clocks can be thrown entirely out of sync with the external clock if they are allowed to “revert” to their natural rhythms by staying up on Friday and Saturday nights and sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Doing so can create the equivalent of jet lag, making getting up for school on Monday mornings -- and often on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as well -- very challenging. In turn, this can make falling asleep at the appointed bedtime more difficult for them.

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