This month we reviewed our “sleep need” of 7 to 9 hours per night and reflected on the short- and long-term consequences of sleep debt. Previously, I shared natural tips to improve sleep quality. Many of us, however, have young’uns that are the root of our sleep debt. So, how can we improve our sleep when kiddos are sabotaging our slumber?
Even though I tried tirelessly to avoid “negative sleep habits” when my kids were infants, sleep has turned out to be one of my biggest challenges as a parent. Nights often consist of our youngest waking up to potty, feeling scared, or perhaps needing to be tucked in and convincing us he can’t do it himself. These events might be combined with the random pee accident or nightmare that causes a frantic ordeal from one of the older boys. It seems like there is always something!
For the first two years of my middle son’s life he only slept a couple hours at a time. He would wake up screaming in horror and we were unable to rationalize with him or meet his needs. His extreme sleep disturbances were finally resolved when we identified food sensitivities and balanced his intestinal flora. These days we notice that my youngest son wakes up more at night when he eats nuts or nightshade vegetables (foods to which he is sensitive). It is important to explore physical problems that may be contributing to sleep disturbances in kids.
Remember the list of natural ways to improve sleep from last week? Those ideas apply to children too. Here are some additional ideas to help improve sleep when kids are sabotaging your slumber
- Turn off electronics while children sleep: On average, children with electronics on in their bedroom get about an hour less of sleep compared to those who don’t. Light from electronic devices interferes with sleep. Their room should be completely dark as nightlights affect their pineal glands. Be a good role model! Parents with electronic devices in their own bedroom are more likely to have kids who have them.
- Enforce bedtime rules: Children with a set bedtime and set rules about how late they can watch TV, use cell phones, or drink caffeinated drinks, sleep an average of up to an hour more than children whose parents do not have rules. Consistency is critical.
- Reduce evening activities (including homework): Performing better in fewer activities can be a healthy trade for trying to do too many activities while fatigued. Try not to let homework interfere with your established bedtime rules.
- Focus on food: Food sensitivities and allergies can be common causes of sleep disturbances—like with my middle son. Many times removing certain foods will be enough to help a child sleep without interruption. In my son’s case, we also had to eradicate a yeast overgrowth and rebalance his intestinal flora. Diets high in sugar and processed foods can have a negative impact on sleep. Try reducing sugar and manufactured food—while increasing vegetables and minimally processed foods—as a powerful part of your sleep strategy.
- Sleep trades: When we have a particularly challenging trend of sleep debt accumulation, my husband and I take turns getting a good night sleep in the guest bedroom. When I’m in the guest bedroom, I turn on the fan, put earplugs in, and check out until morning. Because my husband travels so regularly, he is able to get consecutive sleep during his work trips (most of the time). When he comes home, he helps with night duty so I can get some sleep.
- Sleeping space on the floor: We have made our bed a place where parents (not kids) sleep—otherwise my husband and I don’t get the sleep we want. We have created a couple of “beds” on the floor of our room, and kids who come into our room quietly and do not wake up the parents can sleep in the bed on the floor. If kids wake up the parents (without a real need of course), they go back to their room to sleep. Sometimes we wake and there are kids on the floor, and we don’t know when or how they came in because they were so quiet.
- Tokens: We have used tokens as a way to reinforce positive sleeping habits. When my kids sleep through the night without waking parents they receive a token. They can turn their tokens in for various prizes; for example, three tokens equals a (healthy) snack when it is not snack time, five tokens equals one-on-one time with mom or dad—activity of their choice, ten tokens equals fifteen minutes of a game on the iPad, etc. My kids are really motivated by tokens and wake up super excited to get tokens on days that they stayed in their bed.
- Talk to kids about the rules and options for sleep: It can be helpful to talk to your children about the importance of sleep and the needs of parents to sleep well too. Some kids will sleep better at night after merely explaining to them the benefits for the kids and the parents. Don’t underestimate your small child’s ability to understand daily practices and habits.
- Sleep training clock: Do you have early risers? We use a clock that tells the kids when it is time to get out of bed in the morning. It is set for seven, and they know it is time to get out of bed in the morning when the clock is yellow. If one of the kids wakes before the training clock indicates that it is time, we simply put him back in his room and remind him that it is time to get up when the clock is yellow. Kids can sit in their bed and read a book if they are not tired but the clock hasn’t turned yellow yet. My kids have thrived off of “Mimi” helping them know when it is time to wake-up.
- Sleep training coaches: There are experts trained in the area of helping families sleep better when kiddos are stuck in night waking patterns. Several friends of mine have used sleep-training coaches and have said it was the best money they ever spent. I really wish that I had invested in a sleep-training expert early on in our sleep struggles. I am convinced that we would have nipped poor sleeping habits in the bud and I would be living with a lot less sleep debt. It is an investment in sanity as well as short- and long-term health.
Think consistency and clear communication when it comes to developing your nighttime sleeping strategy with kids. Whether you use tokens, floor space, training clocks, or another tool floating around the parenting ethers—be consistent and clear!
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.