Tips for a good night’s sleep
According to experts, a good night’s sleep is just as important as a healthy diet and exercise in helping children get the best out of their schooling.
‘Sleep is vitally important to support children’s mental, emotional and physical wellbeing,’ says Vicki Dawson, founder of the Children’s Sleep Charity.
‘When children are well rested, they’re able to learn and reach their full potential in school.
‘Concentrating is difficult if they’re feeling tired, and it becomes easy to get distracted.’
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‘It’s more difficult to regulate emotions when you’re tired, and this can lead children to argue with their peers or be less tolerant,’ Vicki explains.
‘There is also a direct link between tiredness and hyperactivity in children.’
Even your child’s physical health can be affected by sleep deprivation: it can lower the immune system, leading to them missing school more frequently, and there are links with growth issues and obesity.
What’s affecting your child’s sleep?
If your child struggles to drop off at night, it may simply be that they’re not tired – or that they’re overtired, and actually need more sleep than they’re getting.
Others might have trouble getting to sleep because they’re worried about something; they may want a parent to stay with them until they’re asleep, or need certain comforts such as leaving a light on.
Some children manage to get off to sleep without issue, but then wake in the night.
‘We sleep in cycles and have a number of partial awakenings during the night,’ Vicki explains.
‘If everything is as it was when your child went to sleep, they’re likely to just turn over and go back to sleep.
‘But if something has changed while they were sleeping – such as the landing light being turned off – they’re more likely to wake up fully.’
Early waking is also a problem for many children. ‘It might be that they’ve had enough sleep, the room becomes too light as the sun rises, or that they’re cold, as body temperature drops in the early hours,’ says Vicki.
14 ways to help your child get a good night’s sleep
1. Establish a bedtime routine
A bedtime routine can help your child to wind down, and should begin an hour before sleep time.
The same things should happen at the same time each night, so they know that the time to sleep is approaching.
2. Switch off screens
Avoid letting your child use a tablet or mobile phone, or watch TV, in the hour before bed.
‘As well as being mentally stimulating, some research suggests that the blue light they emit can suppress the sleep hormone melatonin, making it harder to drop off,’ Vicki explains.
3. Have some quiet time
Instead of using screens or engaging in boisterous play that could make your child overexcited, find quiet, calming activities for them to do in the run-up to bedtime.
‘Put together a bedtime box, full of activities that aid relaxation,’ Vicki suggests.
‘Fine motor skill activities are ideal, such as threading, colouring, jigsaws or model making.’
4. Supper time
Hunger is a common cause of sleep problems, especially early waking. Give your child a supper that will keep them full overnight (a bowl of porridge or wholemeal toast could make a good pudding if they usually start looking for a snack an hour after their dinner!). Dairy products are also great for sleep, so you could give your child cereal with milk or cheese on crackers: it’s a myth that cheese causes nightmares.
5. Run them a bath
If your child enjoys a bath, half an hour before bed is a great time to do this.
‘The bath will raise their body temperature, and as it gradually falls, it’ll help your child feel sleepy,’ Vicki says.
6. Get them active during the day
Although exercise should be avoided in the run-up to bedtime, being physically active during the day, for example by walking to school or going for a bike ride, may improve your child’s sleep quality.
It reduces stress and helps tire them out, and exposure to natural daylight also improves sleep.
7. Share a book at bedtime
As well as having many educational benefits, such as improving vocabulary and comprehension, reading a bedtime story will end the day on a quiet, cosy note where you can snuggle up before saying goodnight.
8. Keep the room dark
Dimming the lights and drawing the curtains can help your child get off to sleep. If their bedroom is light, using a blackout blind or curtain linings could have a positive impact.
‘Darkness can help with the production of melatonin and make your child feel drowsy,’ says Vicki.
If their room is dark all night, it could also reduce the chances of them waking early, especially in summer months when the sun rises earlier.
9. Keep it quiet
Sometimes, children struggle to get to sleep or wake early because of noise from neighbours, such as older kids playing outside or adults getting ready for work in the morning.
Other sounds in the house might also wake them, like flushing the toilet or the central heating clicking on.
White noise machines can help mask background noise.
10. Help them tell the time
If your child wakes in the night or early in the morning, knowing what time it is can provide reassurance and discourage them from getting out of bed until a suitable time.
‘There are a number of sleep training clocks that show children whether it’s time to wake up or go back to sleep, and fairy lights on a timer switch do a great job of this, too,’ says Vicki.
Children who can tell the time might benefit from having an analogue or digital clock near their bed.
11. End the day on a positive
‘If your child is a worrier, try to end the day on a positive, for example by sharing five happy things about the day,’ suggests Vicki.
If your child is very anxious, it’s worth speaking to a medical professional to see if they might need referring to services such as CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).
12. Keep things consistent
Consider how your child falls asleep at the start of the night, and whether their environment is the same when they wake up.
‘There are many sleep products on the market that glow or make a noise and then fade out, but these can actually hinder sleep, as the child develops a sleep association with them,’ Vicki explains. ‘When they come to a partial wakening in the night and their sleep aid has switched off, they’re likely to wake up fully.’
13. Set a fixed getting-up time
‘Consistency around bedtime and waking time is key, and you should stick to the same timings seven days a week,’ says Vicki. ‘This helps keep children’s body clocks regulated.’
14. Keep a sleep diary
A sleep diary, where you note your child’s sleeping and waking times, will help you to see where their body clock is.
‘Sometimes, children’s body clocks need adjusting if they’re falling asleep too early or too late at night,’ Vicki explains.
‘By using a sleep diary, you can work out when on average they fall asleep. You can then work with this and gradually shift bedtime by 15 minutes every few nights until they’re falling asleep at a more appropriate time.’
What to do if you need more help
If you are concerned about your child’s sleep – for example, if it’s affecting their behaviour or concentration, or having a negative impact on family life – seek the advice of a medical practitioner such as a health visitor or GP. They will be able to help you access specialist support in your area.