While your child is sleeping, a complex cycle of events is taking place. During slumber, the body is alternating between one of two states: no-rapid eye movement (NREM), which is the quieter stage of sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM), which is when dreams typically occur. By the time your child is preschool age, he or she is alternating between these states about every 90 minutes.
Getting enough sleep — and properly cycling through these stages — is critical because it’s the time in which the body gets to do some “housekeeping.” During sleep, your child’s body is recharging energy levels, repairing tissue and releasing hormones that are critical to development. Regularly getting enough sleep results in improved attention, behavior, mood, learning, memory, quality of life, and mental and physical health.
Many sleep problems can be prevented by establishing good sleeping habits (sleep hygiene) early on. To promote a good night’s rest, develop a routine that allows your child to set aside the activities and anxieties of the day and rest undisturbed until the next morning. Here are recommendations from sleep experts:
Stick to a sleep schedule
Help your child get up and go to bed at the same time every day. This includes weekends too. Try to limit the difference in your child’s sleep schedule on weeknights and weekends to no more than one hour. Being consistent reinforces your child’s sleep-wake cycle.
To make bedtime predictable and smooth, use the same routine every night. Generally, try to avoid vigorous exercise in the two to three hours before bedtime. Stop playtime, games, and television, computer, video game or cellphone usage an hour before bedtime. During that hour, have your child wind down by preparing for bed, brushing teeth, and focusing on reading or other quiet activities.
Your child’s bedtime routine might include a variety of soothing rituals, such as bathing, getting into pajamas and reading bedtime stories. It shouldn’t last much more than 20 to 45 minutes.
Pay attention to when and what your child eats and drinks
Serve dinner a few hours before bedtime and offer a small snack in between if necessary. Feeling full or hungry can interfere with falling asleep.
Be aware of the caffeine content in what your child drinks. Caffeine can take hours to wear off. In general, caffeine-containing beverages, including sodas and energy drinks, should be avoided in children. Energy drinks pose potential health risks to children because of the stimulants they contain and are inappropriate beverages for children and adolescents at any time.
Create a comfortable sleep environment
Ideal sleeping environments are cool, quiet and dark. Make sure that the sheets and blankets are comfortable and that your child isn’t too hot or too cold.
Darkness not only helps you fall asleep, it also aids in production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles. If your child isn’t completely comfortable in a dark room, a small nightlight can ease fears and won’t disrupt sleep. Room-darkening shades or curtains can keep out unwanted light from the outside.
Try to minimize noise in the bedroom. If noise is an issue that can’t be controlled, try putting on some relaxing music for your child to fall asleep to or bring in some white noise, such as a fan.
Too many toys, books and gadgets in the bedroom can be mentally activating and interfere with falling asleep. Specifically avoid having electronic devices such as TVs, cellphones and computers in the bedroom. Light from screens contains “blue light” that can interfere with melatonin production.
You can remove the temptation of using electronic devices at bedtime by placing them all in a central spot, such as on the kitchen counter.
This is an excerpt from Mayo Clinic Guide to Raising a Healthy Child.
Angela C. Mattke, M.D.
Dr. Mattke is a general pediatrician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Rochester, Minnesota.