The Importance of Sleep and a Bedtime Routine

This week is the week when many children return to school and many parents give a huge sigh of relief that life can resume as normal. Phew! It doesn’t matter what age your children are, the six weeks’ summer holiday can be exhausting and expensive. Routine is very important for children, and although they are filled with mixed emotions about returning to school, quite often after the first few days they slip back into school life really quickly. Before you know it, the summer will be a thing of the past and the children will be looking forward to the next exciting thing that is planned in their life, be it a birthday party, a football match, or going to the cinema.

Now is a good time to start thinking about changes you may wish to implement at home. Starting back at school is a momentous occasion every year and is synonymous with growing up. Everyone slips into bad habits over the year so now it is a great time to think about starting again. I particularly like to use this time of year to think about bedtimes. Over the summer quite often bedtimes go out the window especially with the light evenings, but now with autumn fast approaching and the nights drawing in, you can bring back a bit of order to the evenings. This can often be a difficult time of day for children, with many being convinced they are not tired and do not want to go to bed. My first bit of advice is to remember who is boss. You, the parent. There may need to be a bit of give and take, but ultimately, you call the shots.

Have a look at the age and sleep recommendations below. These are the NHS guidelines to how much sleep a child should need a night. Every child is an individual though and may need more or less than these so remember it is a guide. For a 6 year old who needs to get up at 7am, using these guidelines, he/she needs to be falling asleep at 8.15pm. If, however they need to be waking up at 6am then you should be aiming for around 7.15pm.

2 years

  • daytime: 1 hour, 30 minutes

  • night time: 11 hours, 30 minutes

3 years

  • daytime: 0 to 45 minutes

  • night time: 11 hours, 30 minutes to 12 hours

4 years

  • night time: 11 hours, 30 minutes

5 years

  • night time: 11 hours

6 years

  • night time: 10 hours, 45 minutes

7 years

  • night time: 10 hours, 30 minutes

8 years

  • night time: 10 hours, 15 minutes

9 years

  • night time: 10 hours

10 years

  • night time: 9 hours, 45 minutes

11 years

  • night time: 9 hours, 30 minutes

12 years

  • night time: 9 hours, 15 minutes

So, what do you do if you realise that your child doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ into the above boxes? Firstly, don’t panic or worry. Do you have a regular routine that you follow and does your child seem to be well rested every day? This is where you need to make changes if you feel the answer is no. Otherwise carry on doing what you are doing.

I’m sure many of you are aware of the bath, bottle and bed routine for babies and this is what I model my bedtime routine on. It isn’t anything new that I have designed or thought up, but a good old fashioned regular routine that works. If you decide you do want to implement this into your home you need to remember it will take time to work and that you may find you come up against resistance from your child. Try not to get frustrated by this though and keep on trying. Long term the benefits will pay off.

If your child has been going to bed at about 9pm and you are now wanting to aim towards 8pm, make the change gradually and give you and your child time to make this a success. Every few days move the bedtime earlier by 10 minutes until you reach your desired goal. It is not just down to your child to make this work. You, as the parent have to be part of this process and are key to whether it is a success or not. Eastenders, Coronation Street or whatever else you may do early evening needs to be caught up on later on in the night or on another day so that you can give your child your full attention. If you have more than one child to put to bed and you have a partner get them involved as well.

Step One – Signal a Warning

Whatever time you decide that getting ready for bed is to begin, give your children a warning 10 minutes before that time arrives. They need reminding and a chance to prepare for this. If they are part way through a TV programme or a game, they need to know that it needs to end soon. If you simply stroll up and turn the TV off or pack the game away without any warning, then they are likely to get more upset. Warn them again in 5 minutes. They may be complaining and even beginning to get upset about this, but stay calm. Then again at 1 minute and if needs be count down the final 10 secs. Many children prefer a visual clue that time is running out and you can buy timers in many different shapes and sizes if you think this will help your child’s understanding. Make sure they also know that you are going to be fully available for them when the timer runs out too. Until the routine is established and treated as part of everyday life, try not to become distracted and use this time to carry on with your own chores around the house. Give your children your attention.

Step Two – Have a bath or shower

Not only does this ensure your child is clean after a busy day at school, it also gives you a chance to play and talk with your child. Have some toys your child can play with, and play with them. Sing some songs together, make bubbles with the soap and have a little bit of fun. This is about beginning to calm your child down and centre them in the here and now so you too have to be 'present'. If your mind is thinking about work or mentally distracted, the child too will find it harder to respond to you. If your child is older and likes to bath/shower by themselves, give them that independence and spend your time turning their bedroom into a calming space ready for bed.

Step Three – Quiet Time

How you approach this step can take a variety of forms. With technology and TV channels offering bedtime hour, it can help signal to your child it’s getting ready for bed. After getting dried and into their PJ’s it can be snuggling and calming to sit with a parent, cuddle and have a warm glass of milk. This can often help if there is more than one child to get ready and you are on your own, or even for your partner to step in and help with the process. Rather than having a TV in a child’s room on at this time of the day, sit together in the lounge. Again signal what and how much of the TV your child is going to be able to watch so they are prepared for the transition to go back up to bed.

Another option is, if it can work for you, is using the bath/shower as a signal that it is time to go to bed and now you don’t go back downstairs. Spend time in the bedroom finding quiet activities to do to go to bed. If your child likes to play with dolls, get the dolls ready for bed too.

Once again, it is your time that is most valuable here and ensure that whatever you do during this time is not something that is going to encourage your child to be full of energy. It needs to signal it is time to wind down.

Step Four – Clean teeth and go to the toilet

Now is the time to get them to do their last trip to the bathroom. Accompany your child and assist if needs be. If your child is older and doesn’t need your help, be ready for them in their bedroom. Make sure their bed is clear and inviting for them to get into. Try to ignore the rest of the room if it isn’t very tidy, or while you are waiting but a few things away.

Step Five – Share a book

This is a really crucial step to help get your child calm and ready for a sleep. Together choose a book to read and don’t rush the reading! It doesn’t need to be a full book a night, but it does need to feel that you, the parent, are enjoying this time with your child, even if it isn’t your favourite book. It can be story or a factual book – whatever keeps your child interested. If they have a favourite teddy bear make sure they have already got it or their favourite blanket, pillow, nightlight on etc so they feel safe and looked after. Get into bed with them, let them cuddle up to you and enjoy these precious moments when they want you to put them to bed.

Step Six – Saying Goodnight

After you have finished the book, this can sometimes be the time of day when children will talk about what has been going on at school. Make sure that all lights are now dimmed down or off if that is what your child likes and get back into bed for a last cuddle. With you having given your children your precious time, they are often better equipped to start talking. How many parents ask their children when they pick them up from school, ‘What did you do today?’ to get the response, ‘I can’t remember’. Now the memory kicks in and it can be hard to get them to stop.

Give your child time to share some tales of the day if they so wish, but then put in the warning, that you’ll be saying goodnight in 2 minutes time. Snuggle up to them and begin to not talk and remind them it’s time to go to sleep. Tell them it’s been lovely having time to catch up but anything else they’ll need to tell you in the morning. Tuck them into bed, making sure they are lying comfortably and give them a cuddle. Lie quietly by their side, giving them a kiss before you leave and saying good night.

It sounds easy, writing this down as a set of steps, but don’t expect it to run like clockwork if you are just starting out and your child is now 8 years old and not used to any set bedtime routine. They have a learnt pattern of behaviour that needs changing and it takes time. So what can go wrong?? Many things including:

  • children running around like their jet packs have been re-fuelled after the bath. How do we get our child to slow down?;

  • refusing to go upstairs to bed even though you have given them a warning and the TV has been turned off;

  • doesn’t like falling asleep by him/herself and you spend all evening lying in bed with them waiting for them to be in a deep enough sleep so you can tiptoe out the room;

  • your child is scared of the dark;

  • after you leave your child to settle to sleep they constantly keep getting out of bed and coming down stairs.

These are just some of the problems you may face in trying to get a routine in place. This is where remembering who is boss, but giving and taking, needs to come in. Some children will always push against boundaries and rules and it is our reaction to this that is important. It is a natural part of growing up and so be prepared is what I say.

Being firm but fair is important. If your child keeps on coming downstairs, take them back upstairs. You don’t need to shout at your child. Explain that it is bedtime and they need to go to bed. Sympathise with them that they may not feel sleepy, but they need to get back to bed as they have a busy day tomorrow.

Spend a little bit more time settling them down and leave the room again. Keep on doing this time and time again. They need to learn that you are not going to give in and let them stay downstairs or give in and let them play on the computer. Once you give in they will learn that if they do it long enough you will cave in. Also, try not to use punishment as a means of control. ‘Get back into bed or else you won’t be able to go to Freddy’s house tomorrow.’ This will not help to promote bedtime routine as a positive experience.

To begin with you may not feel the routine is working and possibly that they are getting less sleep than before, but long term if will fall into place. Eventually they will start to feel sleepy, possibly out of sheer exhaustion one night. This is when the next morning you really praise your child for that good night sleep. You want them to focus on the good, not the bad. Share their good experience with their teacher at school and let them feel proud of the achievement.

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