Promoting Healthy Sleep Habits Within the Family



By Mary Ellen Christy



The three essential components for maintaining good health are proper nutrition, appropriate exercise, and adequate sleep. Sleep is important to both adults and children. The increased pace of contemporary life has left many adults and children sleep deprived. We are all familiar with that slightly fuzzy feeling we have after one night of lost sleep but neuroscience can now verify that two nights of inadequate sleep has an effect that is comparable to being inebriated and after five consecutive nights of sleep loss your brain has difficulty sending the proper signals to your body parts to perform basic motor functions. This is exactly the circumstance that most parents of newborns find themselves in. Some people are so daunted by these first few months of life that they become overwhelmed and fearful of establishing a routine that allows their baby to learn to self soothe and develop appropriate sleep patterns.



Dr. Marc Wisebluth, author of Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child and a pioneer in research on sleep training for children and babies, believes that sleep training should begin the moment you bring your baby home from the hospital. The typical newborn sleeps 16-17 hours a day but seldom for more than 2 or 3 hours at a time during a 24-hour cycle. It is not realistic to expect a baby to sleep through the night under 3 months of age. This means lots of sleep or baby and not much for you. Dr. Wisebluth’s book and help from family members and caregivers will help you get your baby on a reasonable schedule and give you the courage and the hop to accept this as a temporary circumstance and to problem-solve as a couple.



Babies sleep a lot because they are busy with rapid growth and development. This need or sleep continues throughout childhood ensures adequate physical and emotional development. Sleep is especially important to children because it directly impacts mental development. When a child is in the deep Rem sleep blood supplies to the muscles is increased, energy is restored, tissue growth and repair occurs and important hormones are released for growth and development. Toddlers need 12-14 hours of sleep per day, 3 and 4-year-old’s need 10-14 hours of sleep and many still nap. Children ages 5 to 10 need 9.5 hours of sleep but many still require 10-11 hours. Most 5-year-old’s no longer nap.



When school children do not get adequate sleep, you may see the following behaviors: Inflexibility and crankiness, forgetfulness, low motivation for schoolwork, inattentiveness, difficulties with friends, and over time increased anxiety, and inability to stay on task. When these behaviors are observed by well-trained and well-intentioned teachers, they may express concern than your child may be ADD or ADHD. If this happens it is time to consult your pediatrician. This is a diagnosis that can only be made by a physician and your child is only mirroring these behaviors because of inadequate sleep.



Some things that may be preventing your child from getting a good nights sleep are:

1. Unsuitable Temperature – The optimal temperature for a child’s room at night time is 65-70 degrees.
Dress your child in a single layer. Long-sleeved and long-legged, loose-fitting pajamas are best
2. Too much light in their room.
3. Too much activity immediately before going to bed.
4. Night Terrors – Only 6% of children ages 4-12 have them. They are different from nightmares and one of the hallmarks is that the child cries out but has no recollection of the experience. They occur in a different level of sleep than a nightmare and the child may be neither fully awake nor fully asleep.
5. Nighttime Hunger – Encourage them to eat more at dinner and don’t introduce foods that are new or which they may be hesitant to at dinner. Introduce these things at lunchtime. You may want to offer a small and healthy bedtime snack such as apple slices.
6. Wet pajamas – This can often be solved by going up one size in pull-ups or limiting the intake of liquids for several hours before bedtime.
7. Inconsistent routine and bedtime (Probably the most significant.)
8. Snoring – Children who snore should be checked for problems with their tonsils, adenoids or possible sleep apnea. Your pediatrician can refer you for a sleep study or surgery if it is appropriate.



Children thrive on routine. They feel great comfort in the knowledge that they know what is coming next. You and your spouse should agree upon a bedtime routine for your children. A good place to start is to eliminate screen time 2 hours before bedtime. If you have a very active child who needs to “burn off” some energy, you may want to take a quick jog around the block followed by some stretching or relaxation exercises such as yoga or even simple massage. You can even find books of meditations for children at bedtime on Amazon. Whatever you decide upon should fit the activity style of your family. Reading aloud or storytelling is also an excellent calming activity.



Because children are good visual learners a chart or checklist of things to do as we get ready for bed can be created together on posted on a child’s bedroom wall. The chart would include such things as, put on pajamas,  wash hands and face, brush teeth and a child will delight in checking them off each night. Once the child is in bed the expectation should be that unless they are ill or need to use the bathroom, they should stay there until an appropriate wake-up time in the morning.

If you have trouble getting your child to remain in bed I suggest what I call the 1-2-3 trick:

Explain to your child that you have a plan which will help them learn to cooperate at bedtime, sleep through the night and remain in their rooms if they wake up early. Explain to your child You will take them to select a “piggy bank” which can be placed in their room. Each morning you will deposit one coin ( I suggest pennies) in their bank for each expectation they have met going to bed cooperatively, sleeping through the night and remaining in their room in the morning.  When the bank is full, they may decide what to do with the money. Not only does it work like a charm, but it teaches children that there is a direct correlation between effort (work) and money. Additionally, they learn that when you earn money, you can decide what to do with it. “Shall I spend, save, or share.” This is the most elemental lesson in money management. A friend of mine was uncomfortable with using money so she selected some inexpensive matchbox cars and placed them in a clear glass bowl on a high shelf in her son’s bedroom. Following the same theory, her son traded cars for pennies and acquired an enormous collection of matchbox cars.



The last topic I want to touch on is the growing number of parents who have turned to co-sleeping as a solution to achieve a good night’s rest. I’m certain that this increase is a result of parents working harder than ever, thus succumbing to exhaustion and choosing a solution that may have unintended consequences. The first mistake is not realizing that children’s sleep patterns are somewhat different from adults. For example, they tend to move around more than adults and may even rotate 180 degrees or more during the night. As a result, what appeared to be an easy fix may result in more sleep for the child, but at the expense of the parent’s sleep time.

More importantly, this method interrupts the marital relationship. When couples meet and fall in love with each other, some of the most important components of a relationship is the sharing of emotional and physical intimacy. The arrival of a child creates an intrusion on this primary relationship and when couples sacrifice what little time they have for intimacy. Our children are precious to us and we want to protect them and do all we can to give them the best start in life, however, it is our goal and expectation that they will grow up and lead independent lives. The divorce rate among couples practicing co-sleeping is significantly higher than the rate for couples who do not. This may be a time to seek out the advice of experts at a pediatric sleep clinic. Consult your pediatrician for a referral.



If you have no success, feel free to contact and we will be happy to advise you.

As Dr. Benjamin Spock, who revolutionized pediatric medicine during the last half of the 20th Century and who sold more than 50 million copies of his numerous books liked to say: “Parents know a lot more than they think they do.”

Be confident, be courageous and proactively seek out solutions for problems of sleep and other aspects of parenting and your child’s development. They are out there waiting to be found.