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Taking the 'Fight' out of Bed and Naptime: Establishing a Routine that Puts Mother Nature on Your Side
A good night’s sleep doesn’t begin with your bedtime routine. It starts in the morning. All day long we make decisions that either help to “set” the body clock, allowing the brain to know when to be awake and when to be asleep, or innocently disrupt it. When the body clock is disrupted your child may appear to “fight sleep,” turning nap and bedtime into a marathon wrestling match that leaves everyone even more exhausted.
Five key steps to make falling asleep easier
1. Establish a regular wake time.
Wake time is the cornerstone of your routine. It’s also something you can control. You can’t make a child fall asleep but you can wake him up. It’s from this waking point that all other things revolve so look at your schedule. Take note of the earliest time your child has to wake during the week and make that your wake time seven days a week. Otherwise that day starts a slide into sleep deprivation. You can allow a 30 minute variation, but once the wake time begins to waver an hour or more, your child gets thrown into jet lag. His brain has no idea what time it’s supposed to wake up.
2. Serve six mini meals a day.
Regular meals set the body clock. Ellyn Satter at the Satter Institute recommends serving children six regularly scheduled mini meals a day. Each meal contains a little protein, carbohydrates, fruit/vegetables and fat. Meals are served about two-and-a-half to three hours apart. Your job is to decide what foods are served, when and where. Your child’s job is to decide which foods to eat and how much. (The limit is set by how much is in the bowl on the table. Once it’s gone, there are other food choices on the table.) Don’t fight over food. Instead sit down and enjoy it together.
3. Get outside for exposure to morning light and exercise.
Morning light sets the body clock. Exercise at the right time, meaning not right before sleep, allows your child to be tired and ready for sleep.
4. Protect naps.
Skipping naps, or eliminating naps altogether can too often lead to over-tired kids whose adrenaline system activates to keep them going. That child who is too wild to sleep is actually an over-tired child. See the blog on sleep cues to catch your child’s window for sleep.
5. Maintain a regular sleep time.
Know how much sleep your child needs, watch for cues (see earlier blogs for this information) and with that knowledge in hand establish a bedtime that you follow seven days a week. If exceptions need to occasionally be made, expect that two nights later you’ll be struggling with your child to fall asleep. It can take several days to recover, depending on your child’s natural body rhythm, so the more consistent you can be the easier it will be for your child to fall asleep.
Five bonus steps to make it even faster
1. Provide cognitive and social stimulation.
Both your child’s body and mind must be tired for sound sleep. Plan activities, join groups, and have fun.
2. Be selective about the use of electronics.
Light sets the body clock. Sitting in front of a screen can actually “trick” the body into thinking this is the middle of the day – not time for sleep. Avoid electronics in the evening and keep all electronics out of the bedroom.
3. Keep the bedtime routine simple.
Frequently bedtime routines can turn into such lengthy endeavors that your child is past her window for sleep before it’s finished. Move bath and reading time to “evening activities.” Doing so allows the actual bedtime routine to be a simple: snack, toileting, pajamas, teeth, snuggle, kiss and good night. Adjust to fit your family but keep it short – not longer than 20 minutes. That makes it easy to hit the window for sleep.
4. Expect your child to require slightly less sleep in the spring and summer.
When days are long our brain likes to stay awake longer. This may require an adjustment of 20-30 minutes later for your child’s bedtime. Expect to move it back 20-30 minutes earlier in the fall and winter.
5. Maintain your routine seven days a week.
The more consistent your routine the stronger your child’s body clock is “set” for sleep times. Even an hour variation can create “jet lag” and as a result play havoc with your child’s body clock. An inconsistent or erratic schedule is actually even more detrimental than sleep deprivation. So maintain that schedule seven days a week. Then enjoy your “adult” time while the kids get the sleep they need.