Want Better Sleep for Kids? Start Here

Image via Katie Hurley

Sleep is one the most discussed issues in parenting, and for good reason. Instilling good sleep habits can feel like a full-time job, and obstacles seem to crop up on a regular basis. Teething and growth spurts can wake little ones, while stress, nightmares, and more growth spurts can impact older children. And getting them down for the night? That can feel like an Olympic event!

Sleep isn't always as easy as a story, a song, and a nightlight.

The latest research indicates that having a bedtime routine is associated with better sleep for children up to six years of age. A study of over 10,000 mothers from 14 countries found that having a consistent bedtime routine improved sleep outcomes including earlier bedtimes, less time trying to fall asleep, and fewer night wakings. Children with a consistent bedtime routine slept for an average of one hour longer than children without a routine. The study also associated a consistent bedtime routine with fewer daytime behavioral problems.

Here's the catch: Every child is an individual, and every child has specific needs. While research is useful because it gives us a blueprint, it doesn't account for individuality. When it comes to sleep, we're all different.

I have two kids with very different bedtime routines. They both have routines and they both sleep eleven hours per night, but how they get from wide awake to sleeping peacefully is specific to each child. My son craves space as he drifts off, while my daughter needs time to snuggle and decompress with Mom before bed. Both routines are equally effective, and bedtime isn't much of a struggle around here. But we did take the time to figure out what works for each child, and that helped us avoid bedtime power struggles.

Bedtime power struggles are a common occurrence and can increase stress for the whole family. So how do you find a routine that works for each child and allots time for your own bedtime needs? Start here:

Image via Flickr/ woodleywonderworks

Assess personality:

You don't need a personality test to understand the inner workings of your child; you just need to pay attention to the subtle cues that your child sends. My son has craved quiet time since he was a toddler. Quiet time reenergizes him and gives him the space he needs to process the events of the day.

Some kids need more interaction while others need time to decompress solo. Some crave cuddles and closeness while others appreciate some personal space. Some can't get enough books at night because they crave that special connection while others are good with one story and a few kisses.


Instead of creating a general routine for all, take your cues from your kids and create specific routines for each child.

{ MORE: Do You Let Your Kids Wear What They Want to Wear? }

Image via Flickr/ jeremewong

Investigate obstacles:

Stress, fears, worries, transitions, and physical changes (like growth and teeth) can all prove significant obstacles to sleep. While some infants, toddlers, and big kids sleep their way through growth spurts, others feel uncomfortable and appear cranky. Real-world fears can present themselves as nightmares as children grow and begin to understand the world around them. This can cause worries as kids try to fall asleep and may wake them during the night.

Bedtime can be frustrating because all family members, including parents, are tired. Instead of brushing off fears, worries, or crankiness as no big deal, take the time to investigate the feelings beneath the behavior and then solve the problem.

Continuous calming music, white noise, extra nightlights, pictures of mom and dad taped to the bed, a special lovey (like an old t-shirt) from mom's closet, a lavender eye pillow (a favorite around here), and extra snuggle time can all help kids relax at night.

Image via Flickr/ kourtnynlott

Factor in relaxation strategies:

Many kids simply don't know how to relax on their own. Nighttime can be hard because all of the feelings stuffed down throughout the day come to the surface when the lights go out. This happens to adults, as well. Ever have a night when you just can't seem to turn off your brain? Kids have a similar experience.

  • Talk about it. Normalize the feelings and empathize. Talk about how you relax when you are stressed at night.
  • Teach your child the art of relaxation breathing. I like to teach kids to pretend they are blowing up a balloon (we call this “balloon breathing” in my house). Have them take a deep breath in for a count of four and then slowly release the air into the imaginary balloon for a count of four. Repeat.
  • Use guided imagery. You don't need a book or an app to use guided imagery in your home; you simply need a calming voice, five minutes, and a nice story. Ask your child to choose a happy destination. Cue your child to take those big relaxing breaths. Take your child on a calming journey to the destination using storytelling and a calming voice.

{ MORE: Positional Asphyxia: What You Need to Know }

What is the biggest bedtime struggle at your house? 

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Want Better Sleep for Kids? Start Here

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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