Heads up: to truly demonstrate the "big picture" as the title indicates, this article was destined to be comprehensive (a.k.a. lengthy). But I've got your back in a busy world! I broke down the strategies into divided sections with a short summary in bold so if you aren't able to read the article in it's entirety, you can navigate easily and quickly through this article by skimming through divided sections and reading the type in bold to take what you need in a way that fits with the time you have available.
When my first daughter was born and baffled the entire dozen of consulted healthcare professionals as to why she couldn't suck-swallow from anything other than a tiny drip tube, I slept no more than 3 hours at a time (and very infrequently) for 5 days straight in efforts to nourish her sufficiently.
At the end of those 5 days of almost constant wakefulness, I began having heart palpitations and had difficulty understanding simple conversations and calculating time on the clock. As an occupational therapist, my first thought was worst case neurological scenario: I was having a stroke, of course. I called the nurse hotline in a panic, barely able to figure out how to dial.
I couldn't even problem solve well enough to understand that my issues were likely sleep-deprivation related until my husband calmly took my pulse, talked to the nurse on the line and then kindly suggested I go to sleep.
I managed to sleep 7 hours that 6th night and arose a renewed, stroke suspicion free woman that could thankfully add 2+2 again.
From that moment on, I had a new understanding for Jim Butcher's quote, "Sleep is God. Go worship." I've been a teensy bit of a sleep advocate (okay, a HUGE sleep advocate) ever since. I consider sleep my nightly worship at the temple of good brain function and you bet your bottom dollar I do my best to make sure my kids do the same.
Except I happened to have kids that would rather do anything in the world other than sleep.
Funny how life turns out, isn't it?
Quality and sufficient quantity of sleep is essential for self-regulation and brain development in kids as well as adults. I'd even go so far to say that its THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT behavior that we do.
The old societal way of thinking was to conclude that sleep is a passive, somewhat waste-of-time experience during which we are essentially doing nothing, but that's worlds from the truth. In fact, recent studies with neuro imaging capabilities demonstrate that some regions of the brain are actually more active while we are sleeping than when we are awake!
Other studies have shown that certain genes that are associated with restoration and healing only get turned on during our sleep cycles. Hence, the need for excessive sleep when we are sick, right?
And get this: studies around the benefits of a good, quality night of sleep have been shown to offer as much as a THREE-FOLD enhancement of creativity and sleep also significantly increases the ability to solve complex problems as well as to significantly decrease risk of having mental health disorders.
While we all may know as adults how sleep deprivation or interrupted sleep can make us feel more groggy and irritable, studies show sleep deprivation is even more detrimental to the ability of kids to attend, learn and make decisions. Whatever you feel as an adult, know that the same amount of sleep deprivation in your child exacerbates cognition and self-control difficulties further in them than it does in you.
If your child is irritable, has difficulty with self-control, learning or memory, it would behoove you and your kiddo to rethink the way you facilitate sleep for your child.
Okay, so you know, you know already! Sleep is important! Onward with my point: how to make sleep easier and better for the growth of our kids...
No doubt, you are a perfectly capable parent that is the undisputed expert on your child, but sometimes even experts need support for getting their own kids to sleep (ahem).
I can't tell you how many books I've read, strategies I've tried, and experts I've consulted for evening peace and a break from what felt like a torturous dozen rounds of jack-in-the-box where the jack’s spring was wonky because it wouldn't ever rest into the box.
I gotta be honest, I long hesitated writing an article about sleep because I personally became incredibly jaded by all the how-to-put-your-kids-to-sleep parenting books and advice that maybe worked for a day, but truly only put a band-aid on the symptom and never really seemed to help the root of the cause.
I wondered if there was something, anything that actually worked amidst the modern day hustle and real life scenario.
Well, hold on to your nighties cause I'm going to be a boon to your big dreams about easier bedtimes. Turns out, there is something that works. For everyone. And I don't mean that lightly. I’m going share it today. Right here, right now.
But there's a catch. Betcha you saw that coming, right?
The trick is, it's not just one thing that gets them to bed, and it's not someone else's thing that gets them to sleep.
It's your thing.
And your thing is a big picture understanding and a whole pie of individual pieces that come together to be the perfect approach for you and your child(ren) alone.
The secret to easy sleep for kids that struggle with it is actually a combination of many compassionate and individualized strategies that work just for your energy levels, your parenting style and your child's individual neurological needs.
Sleep strategies that work, tuck kids, to whom sleep doesn't come easy, in to a good night's snooze without the blanket approach (sorry, couldn't help myself with that one).
Successful bedtime strategies for these kids are individualized because our kids are, after all, individuals. And so are we, which is actually the crux of the whole situation because no one has the most individualized answer to your child’s sleep struggles other than you and your child.
It does help to have some external guidance and recent scientific support here and there when we are so deeply in the throes of parenthood and sleep struggle that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Today, I hope to help you see an scientifically supported bigger picture, and I intend for it to be your picture and no one else's.
But first, I want to make sure of two things:
1. When it comes to sleep, make sure you rule out possible medical issues that may be causing difficulty with sleep like (but not limited to) sleep apnea, food sensitivities and digestive discomfort, respiratory difficulties or chronic, asymptomatic ear infections.
And 2. (This is a BIGGIE): Rest assured that underneath all the resistance, your kids are trying just as hard to go to sleep as you are trying to get them there, even if it looks and feels drastically otherwise. Pinky swear.
Struggle with sleep is usually more of a message about neurological changes, self-regulation capabilities of the brain and/or psychological struggles your child may be experiencing more than it is a signal of defiance or refusal.
Pull from these strategies only what works for you and your kids and modify them as fits for your preferences and lifestyle. I hope some of them will add a little more play, movement and mindfulness to your evening routine when we all are so doggone tired, ourselves!
Move, Play & Enrich the Day! Kids need HOURS of PLAYFUL physical activity each day for brain nutrition, better self-regulation and better sleep!
If you've read anything from me thus far, you probably could have guessed movement and play would be on the list. And of course they are, and at the top of it, too.
Frequent movement and playful physical activity during the day can absolutely affect a child's ability to settle at night. Movement and play discharges pent-up emotion as well as builds strong core stength, and integrates and develops the whole sensory system, which aids overall self-regulation.
Lots of full body movement of varied kinds combined with free play without structure are staples in a child's development. You know this already. We all know this already, but we have to keep reminding ourselves because modern day life leads us to be so darn sedentary and schedule-packed unless we make efforts to be otherwise!
Some kids need way more movement than others, but all kids need it at some level and the amount and quality of movement and play kids get during the day can absolutely assist them in better ease to sleep at night.
Get outside and play. Find ways to get sensory rich and playful full body movement indoors when you can't get out like getting a hand-tied yoga hammock from Yogapeutics (shameless plug, I know)!
See how you can add movement into the things you are already doing so it doesn't feel like another pile on your already full modern day parenting plate.
Use Temperature to your advantage: cool it down or heat it up. Research shows optimal room temperature for sleep is around 66 degrees Fahrenheit because the body naturally cools as it is going to sleep. The cooler the room, the faster you'll obtain the physiological drowsy response. In fact, keeping a cool bedroom can also prevent night waking and can be one of the biggest factors in sleep quality.
But 66 degrees is some kind of chilly! I speculate that turning our thermostats to 66 degrees in the summer here in central Texas would possibly put the city into an energy blackout. And ruin my finances.
If you live in a warm climate, you can still manage the temperature tip by cooling the room as much as you can with fans or air conditioning (as close to 70 degrees as financially possible).
Then externally warm the body, which stimulates it to naturally cool from the external heat and essentially has the same effect as a cold room. Offer a warm bath, a warm chamomile tea or a warm snuggle buddy prior to bed for the temperature benefit.
Offer a very quiet environment or pink noise to filter out sound fluctuations. Studies show that a child's heart rate and blood pressure will respond to the noise and interactions around him (even conversations, traffic sounds or TV shows).
These changes in heart rate and blood pressure can negatively affect quality of sleep by preventing a child's brain from going into and out of full sleep cycles and deep sleep waves, leaving your child grumpy and irritable the next day.
Either offer your child a very quiet sleep space or muffle background noises with pink noise (which sounds a lot like white noise but supposedly has a more calming effect), white noise or repetitive sounds (such as nature sounds with looped audio from a sound machine).
Use nightlights with movement sensors or calming repetitive patterns. Presence of light, any light, in the room can negatively affect your child’s quality of sleep.
If your child is afraid of the dark, offer a nightlight that has a motion sensor (so it shuts off unless your child wakes up and moves).
If your child tends to be the kind that won’t close her eyes at bedtime, offer a light or visual show with a calming and repetitive visual pattern like a lava lamp or my fav: the Cloud B Tranquil Turtle. The repetitive and calming visual pattern will help your child be soothed visually until her eyelids finally droop to sleep land.
Practice deep breathing with a yummy smell for a relaxation response! Deep breathing, the kind that activates big diaphragmatic movement, sends a message to the brain to turn on the relaxation response. Breathing is one of the only known ways we can voluntarily shift our nervous system from a stress response to a relaxation response. That's why everyone and their dog are suggesting we "just breathe" for everything.
But for kids, there's not a lot of fun involved in the instruction, "just breathe," so I make deep breathing more playful and sensory rich by adding aroma-therapeutic essential oils to smell, which can add even further to the deep breathing relaxation response.
Just add a few drops of their favorite essential oils on a cotton ball for smelling, and you get the benefit of the calming smell with the soothing effect of deep breathing. You can also use an oil diffuser for a milder more prolonged effect.
Some calming scents are: Lavender, Cinnamon, Ylang Ylang, Rose, and Peppermint.
One study has demonstrated that rose essential oil encourages good dreams! That's a great one for your kiddos with night terrors.
Create a nest for bedtime with visual and physical boundaries! Make a nest as if your child were a new babe in the world. Remember when you first had your baby and the recommendation was to offer your child small spaces for sleeping (like a bassinet) because it is soothing? Ding, ding, ding! That's a winner even now (though, I highly advise against cramming your 5 year old into a bassinet)!
Most kids are intuitively drawn to canopy beds, bunk beds and tent beds. But do you really know why? Sure, they seem fun, and they make getting in bed more their agenda, but they also create visual and physical boundaries of a smaller space, which sends a soothing message to the child’s nervous system.
If you don't have a bunk, canopy or tent bed that naturally creates a small visual space, just move your child's bed into a corner or a room so the wall creates a visual boundary or drape a big piece of fabric or a sheet from the ceiling to create a curtain effect.
Offer deep pressure (like when your baby was swaddled) and physical connection: As far as swaddling goes, don't do it to your kid beyond the baby stages, people. Obviously. But you can still get benefits of deep pressure just like back in the day by covering your child with a heavy quilt, weighted blanket. For all you warm climate friends, just surround your child with a nest of body pillows!
I love to recommend that parents offer their kids a foot, hand or head massage at night for further deep pressure. It doesn't need to be some lengthy, elaborate spa treatment. Just two minutes worth of a hand massage can be enough to give your child the deep pressure that soothes the nervous system.
Research shows that physical touch between loved ones, like that in massage, creates a biochemical response which stimulates the production of feel-good hormones oxytocin and serotonin in both the giver and receiver. This response is both soothing to the nervous system and has been shown to increase emotional connection and bonding.
Increase early morning and late evening exposure to sunlight and decrease exposure to all electronic lighting 60-90 minutes before bed. The kind of light to which your child is exposed can dramatically affect sleep rhythm and quality. I'm always telling my kiddos to let their little lights shine, except for during the 60-90 minutes prior to bed time, at which time, I'll kindly ask them to dim them, especially if their light is BLUE.
Blue light (a particular wavelength on the light spectrum) is everywhere in our modern world: TVs, phones, computer monitors, florescent bulbs, even the overhead light bulbs in our homes! Sunlight also emits blue light, which is the real reason our bodies are programmed to respond to blue light: it helps us set our day & night rhythms, that is, if the blue light exposure is natural. But with so many lights and screens in our modern homes, our brains get a mixed message!
Exposure of blue light to our eyes or skin actually prevents our bodies from making melatonin, which is a natural biochemical sleep inducer that is produced when we are not exposed to high spikes of blue light. Less blue light prior to bed time=more melatonin produced + sleepier kids!
Studies show that if you decrease blue light exposure 60-90 minutes prior to bedtime you’ll see an increase in melatonin levels and natural drowsiness!
If you'd like to try decreasing human-generated blue light and increasing natural levels of blue light to help your child's natural sleep rhythm become more self-regulated, here are three strategies you can try:
Allow your child early morning and late evening sun exposure. Get outside in the early morning hours to set your wake time. In the evening, take a leisurely saunter outside or play on the porch before bed. This helps your child's circadian rhythm set to the natural timing of night and day.
Turn down the lights in the house and close the curtains. This works really well if you can't get outside or if the summer days are really long. Begin to darken your environment about 60-90 minutes prior to bed. Avoid turning on all the lights in the house and use black out curtains in the bedroom.
Let the last 1-2 hours of the evening be screen free. I'm just going to leave it at that. You've probably heard that before, and I know it's not always easy for every family to turn them all off, but it can greatly support our kids’ circadian rhythms and bed time ease if we do.
Add DHA and/or Omega-3s and be sure to time your last meal just right: Sleep is the true miraculous work of the brain. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, we used to think the brain is resting when we sleep, but it's actually hard at work organizing and sorting and solidifying all of the information from the day's events and schooling. While we sleep our brains are at work on a spring cleaning of sorts.
What's that got to do with nutrition? A brain that does its nightly "spring cleaning" well is a brain that is made well. And do you know what makes up the cell growth of our brains? Fats. Particularly the quality and kinds of fats we eat.
Thus, nutrition is essential to better sleep.
A recent study at Oxford has shown preliminary data that demonstrates that higher levels of quality fats such as Omega-3s and DHA is associated with better sleep, behavior and learning.
To increase better sleep (and behavior and learning), offer your kids foods that include quality Omega-3s and DHA (wild-caught salmon, free range eggs, avocados, nuts, flax seed, olive oil and some leafy greens). Supplements of Omega-3s and DHA could be a secondary approach.
Have your last meal 3-4 hours before bedtime and a small snack just before bed to avoid having digestion interfere with the quality of the sleep waves happening during snoozeville.
Let the small snack just before bed be one that supports sleep. Such foods include: honey, chamomile tea, bananas, turkey, oatmeal, almonds sunflower seeds and peanut butter, to name a few.
Be sure to avoid chocolate, caffeine and sugars, which can actually prohibit ease and quality of sleep.
Set your child's bedtime for the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. Don't vary that time by more than 30 minutes on either side, even on the weekends. I hear a lot of resistance to this suggestion, and I get it. It's difficult to always be so darn consistent, but the science behind that suggestion says that:
children who have random or inconsistent bedtimes have more behavior issues and hyperactivity than children who don't.
Try it for two weeks and be wowed by the changes you see.
Create an evening routine sequence that your kids can see and feel. Don’t just tell them “get ready for bed.” You and I know you’ll be telling them that ‘til the cows come home.
Show them the sequence of tasks with a schedule board or picture list that they check off or move to another pile. Let there be verbal, visual and tactile elements to your schedule to support those kids that need more help transitioning from awake to sleep. The more sensory components you add to the process, the easier it is for the child's brain to transition.
Be sure to always end the bedtime routine with the same exact thing, be it a saying, a song or a hug. The same exact cue offered every night will cue the brain to transition to sleep much faster.
Make the bedtime routine Your Child’s agenda:
In other words, make the bedtime routine very, very playful and tailored to your child's individual interests.
Hands down, this just might be the most important tip to implement because it adds motivation to the mix and motivation is always an easy loophole around struggle.
When parents present the bedtime routine as if it’s the parent’s agenda—a grind of chores to check off—often the evening routine will be met with great resistance.
If you can summon the energy to make it playful, tailored to the child’s interests and to fill that time with physical connection, you’ll be amazed at how much better it gets. You might be surprised at how gladly you’ll trade the extra effort of carrying your child piggy back and neighing like a horse from the playroom to the bath for the resistance you’d receive from a child that doesn't want to follow your direction to “get in the bath, now!”
I realize making bedtime your child’s agenda takes more energy, but we can always question just where we’d rather spend our energy because it all takes energy.
If you'd rather spend your precious bit of remaining everyday energy on the front end in a playful way than on the back end with frustration and anger, then this strategy is probably for you.
When your child resists or ignores the evening routine, try (the key word here being "try") to take a step back and shift what you are asking of them to a more playful task. Here are some simple ways to make the bedtime routine more your child’s agenda:
Make sure your child feels safe and secure:
Fear and worry is basically a signal that your child's sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is turned on, but it's the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) that allows us to get to sleep.
We can support the parasympathetic nervous system by activating a diaphragmatic breath, receiving deep pressure to the body and incorporating as many of the above sensory strategies as are preferred by your child.
Additionally, we can talk to our kids and teach them to say positive affirmations such as "Even though I am worried about being in the dark, I am a great kid that is safe and protected." Such an approach can sound silly to affirmation newbies, but it can really work if you just say it first and ask them to repeat after you!
If you'd like to take it a step further, you can also add Tapping or EFT, which uses certain pressure points utilized in acupuncture to activate a relaxation response in the nervous system. However, instead of using needles as in acupuncture, you simply tap your fingers on your skin at specific points on your body while you say positive statements about how you are feeling.
If you'd like to learn more about tapping and how to do it with your kids, you can read this informative article by best selling author, Dr. Laura Markham at AHA Parenting.
Reevaluate your Set-up. Sometimes we focus so intently on issues surrounding the child, that we forget to also consider the obvious: sleep set-up.
Consider how siblings, animals or other members of the household may be affecting the way your child sleeps (or vice versa).
I give you permission to get creative with the sleep set up, and by "creative" I really mean weird. Kid of those I've worked with have found sleep solace in non-traditional spaces like in a large, playfully decorated cardboard box, and on the floor of a closet to allow the child space needed from siblings and physical boundary that was soothing. If that sounds too far out for you, consider shifting bed placement in the room, moving the child into a different room to sleep, or paring/separating siblings for better sleep set-ups that work for your family and yours alone.
Also consider who puts your kids to sleep and if there's any room or feasibility for shifting that at all.
Build your Jack a more fitting box: I can only write this article because my evening game of jack-in-the-box with my girls is no longer one that involves a wonky spring and a lid that won't shut. I'm through the valley.
Our routine is not entirely fast and it's not all that simple, but it is solid and it's no longer a struggle for anyone.
I’ll be perfectly honest about the amount of effort getting here required: a lot! But that's mostly because it took me so long to surrender to the effort. It also took some thorough experimentation, patience, a practice of flexibility (by all) and piecing other expert ideas together and then modifying them accordingly to make the perfect path for us.
I want to encourage you to do the same for your family. Let's build a world that more openly allows your little precious person to find a box that fits them just as they are instead of the other way around.
Every Jack-in-the-box's “wonky” spring is only wonky when it's in a poor fit for a box. Find a more fitting routine that allows for your child's perfect and individual way of being, for which he or she was so beautifully designed.
Surrender to the struggle. When you allow yourself the compassion to surrender and release any internal struggle or frustration you may be feeling around bedtime, you release your happiness from hinging on whether or not bedtime goes well.
When you let go of any self criticism or external judgement regarding bedtime, you'll find that not only bedtime gets easier, but also life gets easier.
The bedtime routine allows your child a learning opportunity about how to self-soothe and transition to sleep, but more importantly, it allows the parent an opportunity to truly learn the ever so important life skill of going with the flow. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Surrendering to the struggle of bedtime is not easy to do, but it sure does make doing easier.
Once again, my deep gratitude for you and your presence here in this space!
I do hope these strategies have supported you or someone you love, and if you can think of anyone it might help, please feel free to forward this along to them because I depend on word of mouth to get this free information to those who may be served by it.
If you'd like to grab your FREE E-book with more movement, mindfulness and practical life strategies or receive updates via email when this blog has new posts (plus extra bonuses I only offer my awesome newsletter community) Please SIGN UP BY CLICKING HERE!
Lindsey Lieneck, MS, OTR, RYT, is owner of Yogapeutics in Austin, TX where she has developed the Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga & Mindfulness curriculum for kids. She teaches classes, consults with parents & schools and educates other professionals on the Yogapeutics curriculum. Read more about Lindsey HERE.
See the Yogapeutics class schedule and offerings: