If you’ve ever seen a toddler overextended and in the middle of a meltdown, you can appreciate the importance of good sleep. Sleep is important for learning, growth, repair, hormone regulation, and immune function. Sleep directly impacts mental and physical development.
Did you know that ongoing sleep deprivation can result in impaired ability to fight infections?
If you’re noticing in your kids daytime sleepiness (other than the needed naps), learning problems and behavioral issues such as hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and aggression, you’ll want to make sure sleep is adequate – kids need a lot of sleep, and many are falling short of the guidelines. The National Sleep Foundation recommends preschool children get 11-13 hours a night, school age children get 10 -11 hours a night and adolescents get 9 ¼ hours a night of good quality sleep.
While no child is immune to sleep problems, dysregulated sleep is very common in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder – reportedly as high as 80%.
Here are some tips to keep sleep a top priority no matter the child:
1. Stick to the same time for waking up and getting to bed (within an hour)
This prevents disrupting the child’s natural circadian rhythms too much, which cue the natural wake and sleep cycles.
2. Keep a consistent bedtime routine
The familiarity signals to the child what is coming next, and can train their body to start to become sleepy at the beginning of the routine. Bath time and books before bed can both be comforting and relaxing, which is the right recipe for a good night’s sleep. Along with routine, keep stress low in the evening with calm activities under dim lights after dinner. This prevents cortisol (stress hormone) from firing. When cortisol is high, your child won’t be able to calm down.
3. Try some relaxing deep breathing together
If you start deep breathing, your child will naturally copy you as its contagious like yawning. Contagious! The effect of deep breathing helps slow both your own heart rate and your child’s heart rate, which allows the body to relax and slow down. You can literally feel your heart rate slow down, your mind get quieter, and your whole body physically relax. You can literally feel your child’s heart rate slow down, as they start to relax and melt right into you. This is why I always do the deep breathing in a hugging position. It washes over you and your child like a calming, relaxing sleepytime medicine.
4. Stop the screens
In addition to using dim lights like lamps in the evening, turning off screens 1-2 hours before bed is key for good sleep. Why? Melatonin production. Melatonin naturally rises and falls throughout the day but is at its highest in the evening. This signals us to get ready for sleep. But when we use bright screens like television, phones, or computers, melatonin production is disrupted. Even 30 minutes of screen time before bed disrupts melatonin enough to keep your child up an additional 2 hours!
5. Set the stage for sleep
Use blackout shades, make sure it’s quiet (or use a sound machine), and consider temperature. Another function of melatonin? Body temperature regulation. Melatonin helps to drop our own body temperature. Take a cue from melatonin and adjust the room temp too. Don’t set the heat too high or bundle your child up too much. Ideal temp for sleeping is 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit.
6. Protect from monsters!
Address your child’s fears rather than dismissing them. Try some “Monster Spray” before bed. Put a few drops of lavender essential oil into a spray bottle with water for your Monster Spray. Lavender is a calming, relaxing scent. Just make sure you don’t spray too much or use directly on skin. A few squirts aimed at the monster in the closet or under the bed should do!
7. Teach your child to fall asleep alone
Self-soothing is so important for a child to learn, and it comes in especially handy for middle of the night wakings. Often, kids default to what helped them fall asleep at bedtime. If you are in the room while your child falls asleep, he might need a you to help him fall back asleep during normal nighttime awakenings too.
8. Let them attempt to self-soothe
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.
9. Reward good sleep behaviors
Kids love the right incentive. Each night your child goes to bed on time and stays there all night, she gets a star. After three stars, for example, give her a prize.
10. And last but not least, a few nutrition tips
Avoid caffeine and sugar, especially in little ones. If your child does have some, make sure it is no later than noon as both can interfere with sleep. (No caffeine is recommended for kids). We have also seen in our practice the effect on sleep of removing reactive foods. For many kids, removing gluten, dairy and sugar result in sleeping much more soundly and with fewer interruptions when nutrition is dialed in.