Sleep is a huge focus for new parents, and many websites, books and social media posts are dedicated to advice on how to get babies to sleep. But after the baby stage, the information quickly dwindles. That’s despite the fact that good sleep is essential for healthy development for children of any age.

Sleep affects many aspects of a child’s wellbeing, but lots of children do not sleep enough – making them much more likely to be non-compliant, have behavioural issues, or experience difficulty regulating their emotions, explains Jodi Mindell, a psychologist who specialises in sleep at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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Following a simple routine can make an enormous difference. Yet even in the many books, websites, and scientific papers about children’s sleep, Mindell noticed that there was often no mention of the importance of a bedtime routine for maintaining good sleep habits. “It’s become my new soapbox”, she explains, because a routine is “like sprinkling fairy dust” on sleep.

Poor sleep even affects physical health; indeed, there is a link between poor sleep and obesity, because sleep deprivation affects metabolism and the hormones that affect hunger. Then of course, if a child is not sleeping, it is likely that the parents aren’t getting much rest either. And a lack of sleep can make parenting even more challenging.

“Sleep affects many aspects of a child’s wellbeing, but lots of children do not sleep enough.”

The benefits of a consistent bedtime routine

When parents are looking for ways to help their children sleep better, Mindell advises them first to consider whether they have a consistent bedtime routine. She started looking at these routines as an intervention to improve sleep, but soon realised that they have other benefits as well. A consistent bedtime routine is the perfect combination of quality family time and activities that benefit children’s development. It can have a positive impact on children’s mood and behaviour, emotional development, and performance at school. Inconsistent bedtime routines, on the other hand, can make children more resistant to going to bed when asked and increase parental stress.

Her three evidence-based recommendations for helping children sleep well:

  • an age-appropriate, regular bedtime,
  • a consistent bedtime routine,
  • teaching them to fall asleep independently.

“Earlier is better”, she says, when it comes to what time your child goes to bed. “Children who go to bed earlier, between 7 and 8pm, fall asleep faster, wake less often at night and, most importantly, get more sleep overall.” This resonates with what I see at home: My children still get up early even if they have the odd late night. And this means that everyone is grumpier the next day. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that 3- to 5-year-olds sleep for 10-13 hours, while 6- to 12-year-olds should sleep for 9-12 hours in a 24-hour period.

“A good bedtime routine includes 3, 4 or 5 activities”, Mindell says. Most routines feature a book or song, which exposes children to language and promotes their socio-emotional development – helping them understand and express emotions, and form connections with others. In one study, toddlers who had a consistent bedtime routine at 12 months of age acted out less at 15 months and 24 months of age, demonstrating better emotion regulation. Socio-emotional development can, in turn, affect academic achievement.

Washing and teeth brushing, which are good for physical health are another important part of the bedtime routine. Lastly, right before being tucked into bed, children enjoy the physical comfort of a hug or kiss, which also helps parents bond with their children. Moreover, a routine can be helpful in encouraging kids to fall asleep independently. To promote independent sleep, parents should put children to bed drowsy but awake, Mindell suggests.

Her work shows that “every additional night a week children have a consistent bedtime routine benefits their sleep”. Sleep also improves more the younger children are when a routine begins – so it helps to start early and to be as consistent as possible throughout the week.

Sleep difficulties can increase parental stress. Parents in one study reported being stressed, fatigued and frustrated by difficulties getting their children to sleep, which in turn contributed to delayed bedtimes and inconsistent routines. “If you’ve had a long day, and are out of gas, and don’t feel like you want to adhere to your usual routine, you’re just not being consistent. That’s definitely a challenge,” one participant noted.

“Sleep difficulties can increase parental stress.”

Parents are busy, and at the end of a tiring day, going through the motions of a routine can feel unmanageable. But every little bit helps. If you are feeling at a loss because you haven’t yet established a bedtime routine with your children, it’s not too late to start. It can be as simple as setting a consistent time to unwind, reading a book or singing a song, tucking them in, and turning out the lights.  

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