Last week I staged a bedtime intervention with my kids. I was feeling frazzled and frustrated that what I pictured as a warm and fuzzy farewell to the day was in fact an hours-long power struggle. In desperation I did what any self-respecting journalist would: I interviewed my mom friends about what their bedtime routine looked like and used my Google-ninja skills to surf the web for tips. Here’s what I learned about how to help my kids get more shut-eye:
1. Adjust expectations.
Your kids may need more sleep than you think they do, but there is a chance they may also need less. In August, a Wisconsin elementary school teacher posted a bedtime cheat sheet on her school’s Facebook page and ended up with more than 400,000 shares and more than 9,000 comments. The chart recommends bedtimes based on a child’s age and the time when they need to wake up. Reviewing the chart I realized that the reason my 9-year-old son wants to read for so long at night is likely because his 8 p.m. bedtime is probably an hour too early for his 7:15 a.m. wakeup time.
2. Spell it out.
Everyone in the world falls asleep at some point, yet my kids — and at least comedian Jim Gaffigan’s children as well — always seem surprised when I say it’s time to get ready for bed. “Bedtime? What’s that?” To combat their inexplicable confusion about the bedtime process, I wrote a list of what our bedtime routine entails and taped it on the wall by the bathroom. I used a Sharpie and a piece of computer paper, so it’s not fancy but it beats the heck out repeatedly saying, “brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth.” Be as specific as possible: list the exact time you want them in bed, the number of stories they get and how many times they can come into your room before you lock the door.
3. Streamline the process.
Bedtime may seem overwhelming simply because you’re cramming too much into a small window. At my friends’ suggestions, we’re moving our nightly family scripture study to the morning while the kids eat breakfast. Instead of trying to get in 20 minutes of reading time with the younger two kids every night, I’m getting in more time during the day so I can keep it to two short stories at night.
4. Keep evenings quiet.
Some kids pass out from exhaustion at the end of the day; others require a longer wind-down time. My kids fall into the latter category, so we have a family rule that they can’t play with friends after dinner. We stay at home on weeknights as often as possible — a move I know isn’t realistic for parents with older kids, tweens and teens — which means we occasionally have to say no to fun activities. I’ve campaigned families around the neighborhood to institute a similar rule at their house; that way my kids aren’t sad when everyone else is running around outside.
5. Set the stage.
When I want the kids to start winding down, I shut the blinds, turn off bright overhead lights in favor of soft lamps and (when I remember) turn on soothing music. Turning on a fan to keep the room cool and provide white noise is another easy-to-implement idea.
6. Limit screen time.
Research shows that bright lights from television, computer and phone screens interfere with the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regular sleep-wake cycles. It’s recommended that parents turn off devices at least two hours before bedtime. I may also be a good idea to collect smartphones and tablets from older kids every night and have the devices “sleep” in a room where they won’t disrupt sleep cycles.
7. Get kids involved.
Ask your kids to help with the bedtime routine. Big kids can buddy up with little ones to help with nighttime prep. An older child may be ready for their own alarm clock so they know when to turn out the lights and can wake up independently. A child may be struggling to sleep because of a sensory issue that is a simple fix, such as scratchy sheets or too-small pajamas.
8. Don’t insist on sleep.
Instead of insisting that kids fall immediately to sleep, stick with a mandate you can enforce, like they need to stay in their room or in their bed after a certain time. They don’t have to be sleeping, but they can’t bother you (or a sibling if they share a room). Set firm rules on what happens if that can’t follow those parameters.